Is Stoicism Relevant to Teaching?
When Ryan contacted me about publishing his book, The Stoic Teacher, I was intrigued. I had heard of Stoicism, but I didn’t know much about it. I always associated it with keeping a stiff upper lip, a kind of emotional fatalism. So, I was interested in reading Ryan’s book but at the same time, a bit skeptical. After all, teaching is usually seen as a caring profession, one where we think about the attitudes and motivations of our students all the time. I wondered, “Is Stoicism really relevant to teaching?”
As I read, I found myself won over very quickly. I realized I had a lot of misconceptions about Stoicism. Ryan’s warm tone and relatable anecdotes showed me that Stoics are not emotionless robots. Nor do Stoic values such as accepting what is beyond your control mean being fatalistic or accepting injustice. I was also surprised how much Stoicism has in common with other schools of thought. And while some readers may jump in and embrace Stoicism as a new philosophy (Chapter 8 has resources for you to do just that!), it’s just as easy to take tips and advice in little doses.
So here are some of my biggest takeaways from Ryan’s very accessible book. I hope you’ll find it as helpful as I did.
A why for teaching
In the introduction, Ryan addresses the very question I asked myself and you may ask too, “Is Stoicism relevant to teaching?” His answer is that Stoicism can help inform our reason for being teachers. I don’t think anyone is in teaching for the money, prestige, or power. More likely, teachers believe in helping others or spreading knowledge or love connecting with other people. Being clear about your virtues and how they lead you to be a teacher is a really great exercise, one that can make you a better teacher, and certainly a more motivated one! There’s a nice little activity in the book to help you identify your values and how they connect to teaching (Or write a teacher manifesto, if you prefer).
What does that have to do with Stoicism? Well, Stoics believed above all we should try to be our best lives.
What does that mean? In part, it means following a set of strong values! If we know what we are getting out of our job, we can be better teachers. And we’ll also feel more motivated and fulfilled by our job.
The dichotomy of control
This key Stoic concept seems to say that it is important to focus on what is in your control, and try not to worry about that which you cannot control. In fact, reading the first chapter of The Stoic Teacher, you may find yourself remembering The Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
Ryan suggests preparing for your day by, among other things, figuring out what you will be able to control and what you won’t.
You can prepare your lessons, get your materials ready, present everything perfectly, design engaging and educational activities and run them beautifully. But at the end of the day, you cannot control whether your students learn or not. There are simply too many factors outside of your control.
That also means you shouldn’t beat yourself up if they don’t learn the lesson. That’s a huge weight off your shoulders, isn’t it? Maybe there’s even room to be grateful for what went well in your lesson, rather than focusing entirely on the outcome, which never goes exactly as planned! We are teachers, after all!
Of course, no one is saying you should rest on your laurels, or ignore it when students don’t learn. You need to adapt and adjust and try again the next day. You can’t stop students from getting distracted, but you can see they are distracted and try to mitigate those distractions. Remember, Stoicism doesn’t mean not caring! Or taking on a fatalistic attitude of thinking you can’t do anything to help your students! Realizing you can’t control everything doesn’t mean giving up! It means being realistic in your expectations for yourself!
The subtitle of this book mentions optimism. Yet, the popular conception of Stoics is that they are pessimists. What I’ve come to realize through reading this book (and this is my casual read, not to be confused with any official interpretation of Stoic philosophy or even necessarily what Ryan himself says), is that Stoics are realists. And realism can be a kind of optimism!
As in the example I gave above, if you are realistic about setting goals that you can actually control (and Chapter 3 has some good advice plus an activity to do just that), then you can achieve those goals and celebrate that. That sounds more optimistic than beating yourself up because something you didn’t have full control over didn’t happen.
Another example of realism in Stoicism is the view of emotions. Far from thinking people should be emotionless and objectively rational all day, Stoics recognize that emotions are powerful and very real things in our lives!
However, that also means admitting that our emotions can get the best of us. We can make decisions without thinking clearly or misjudge a situation because we rely too much on our feelings or our own egos. So because we are only human, it’s good to make time to be calm and objective before we make too many decisions! Ryan has some great advice on adding stillness to our days, even something as simple as taking a brief pause in the car before driving home. (Reminds me a bit of Patrice’s advice about finding a third space, a transition between work and home).
And if we try to make time to think things through, we can give ourselves the best chance to make a good decision. Which warrants some optimism. Sometimes in a tense situation, the best reaction is no reaction. Wait till the moment has passed and you can calm down and look at the situation rationally before acting. In fact, one of my favorite activities in the book is about taking a situation and reflecting on your assumptions, which may well be wrong (See Chapter 3 on reframing a bad day, so that you come out of it with an attitude of gratitude and hope for the next day). What is more relevant to a teacher’s life than a way of staying calm and keeping in control? Thank you, Stoics!
Lest you think Ryan is being unrealistic, it’s worth noting that he works in an alternative-path school. His students are often in difficult personal or home situations and have a variety of special needs. they have been unable to succeed in the traditional education system. It’s not the easiest of teaching situations.
Another principle that might cause people to think Stoics are pessimists is that of premeditatio malorum or ‘premeditation on evils’. You can see why that might sound depressing. But what it really means is that we know bad things will happen. Plans fail. Things go wrong. (In part because we can’t control everything, it seems to me). These things can be big or small, and of course small things can feel big in the moment.
Instead of pretending we live in an ideal world, we can steel ourselves for problems. In the business world, anticipating problems and figuring out how to overcome them is encouraged. I don’t think that kind of planning is incompatible with Stoicism, but even if you don’t make a plan B, the simple psychological exercise of realizing things might not go perfectly is beneficial. It helps you be, dare I say it, realistic.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you dwell on everything that could go wrong or assume nothing good will ever happen again! Ryan quotes philosopher William Irvine who suggests giving problems a “flickering thought”, no more.
There’s a lot to take from this book. I’ve really just highlighted the ideas that struck me or that I found personally useful in my life. And of course, these musings may or may not reflect the author’s intent or actual Stoicism. I think one of the pluses of the book is that you don’t feel compelled to convert to Stoicism. You can take a “mind hack” or two or ten. But there are resources for taking a deeper dive. I’m actually typing this at a used bookstore and considering seeing if they have Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on the shelf. I also particularly enjoy the discussion questions at the end of the book and the short simple activities throughout that help you apply Stoicism to your life. And the short essays by other educators on how they use Stoicism in their life!
At the least, I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity and proven that Stoicism is relevant to teaching and teachers!