Develop a Thick Skin
Teaching is known for being a stressful job, but the advice given to most teachers on emotional resilience is limited to the cliche “develop a thick skin”. Though a fine sentiment, there is little advice on how to develop this elusive thick skin. Teacher training courses have a lot to cover in the basic running of lessons, so the more airy topics like resiliency get moved out the way. Repeated exposure and progressive desensitisation the the harshness of school life works for some, but can break others. The talk about the importance of “Grit” for learning has many of the same problems as talking about IQ. We have some idea of its importance, and some idea how to measure it, but we have no idea how to teach it or enhance it.
Complaining or Positivity
Teachers tend to deal with stress through either complaining or positivity. The range of topics discussed and complained about during your average lunch break covers everything from terrible pupils to terrible politicians. The Gove years were a boon period for complainers, acting as a staffroom stress ball. Complaining is nothing new, innovative or unique to teaching.
Then we have positivity, because education cribs a lot of its notes from self-help and soft psychology. Positive psychology is a diverse and quickly evolving field, but this is the Norman Vincent Peale via Tony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey positivity. Think happy thoughts and believe in yourself positivity. This is more prevalent amongst primary teachers, but is gaining ground in secondary schools.
Happy thoughts are great if you always have something to be happy about, and believing in yourself is great if you have the knowledge, skills and opportunities to prove it. However, this is not always the case. When things aren’t going well, or when your situation is beyond your competence or control, then positive thinking can be more of a hindrance.
The first thing that is important to say is that positive psychologists (i.e. actual scientists as opposed to self help gurus) see positive emotions as only one part of a much larger picture. Flow, for example, is characterised by the lack of emotions that we feel during total engagement. Then you have the problem that unquestioning positivity completely lacks in emotional intelligence. Intelligence involves using the correct tool for the job, but positive thinking gives a one size fits all emotional response to a wide range of situations. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman opens with a quote by Aristotle.
Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
There is nothing wrong with feeling sadness, anger or regret, because they are appropriate for certain situations. To demand that every situation calls for positivity is to ignore the benefit that other emotions can bring. It also puts pressure on us to feel these positive emotions all the time. It may be unpleasant to feel angry, but that unpleasantness is compounded when we believe that it is fundamentally wrong to feel that way.
Perhaps rather than a strict regime of positivity, perhaps a dose of intelligent pessimism could aid us.
Stoicism is a philosophy of suffering and endurance, which makes it well suited for teachers and pupils. The three great Stoics are Marcus Aurelius, a great leader, Epictetus, a slave, and Seneca, tutor to a brutal madman. Likewise, to teach in a local comprehensive, you must be at different times a great leader, a slave and a tutor to up to thirty madmen.
The prevailing wisdom of the time was that the Gods had a large role to play in our lives, but they could be persuaded by prayers or offerings. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that we have little control over fortune (or the goddess Fortuna) and suffering comes from when we do not acknowledge this fact. Fortune may give us wealth, power and popularity, but she can just as easily take them away from us. What may have taken months or years to accumulate can be destroyed in a single instant. Seneca uses the example of an earthquake, that can strike unexpectedly and level a whole city. Teachers are well acquainted with the feeling of a lesson that took hours to plan crumbling around you; the sinking feeling you get as the class starts to kick off as you fumble for your pen trying to shout them down.
The Stoic knows that fortune can act this way and so must learn to expect and accept this. We suffer when we want or believe fortune to act in a certain way and she doesn’t. We know that people lose money and die all the time, but we always seem so shocked when it happens to us or people we are close to.
This is the basis for Stoicism, but I feel it would be better shown through example.
Seneca in the classroom
To illustrate, let us imagine Seneca teaching in a modern school and how he would deal with a worst case scenario.
Seneca is a drama teacher. He is part way through a module on Oedipus with Year 9 and they seem to be understanding an enjoying it. However, one day a message arrives at the school. Ofsted is coming.
Now, Seneca is well prepared for this. In fact, every day he has considered on the possibility of Ofsted coming. Stoics recommend the practice of premeditation, considering what the worst case scenarios might be. Schools have the potential to be very chaotic places. “Classroom control” can be a fleeting notion at the best of times. In a school of over a thousand people, some of whom have severe personal problems, worst case scenarios are almost a daily occurrence. A Stoic never suffers the unexpected because he has trained himself to expect everything. To be angry at an Ofsted inspection would show that you didn’t believe that they would come at some point. To a Stoic, this would be like getting angry that the sun is setting at the end of the day. Furthermore, up until the message, Seneca had breathed a sigh of relief each morning, that the expected inspectors had not arrived that day. He had learned to be grateful for every day that Ofsted were not sat in his lessons. An optimist, enamoured with positive thinking, tends to be disappointed. A pessimist will tend to be pleasantly surprised.
Seneca had been well prepared for the visit but the lesson did not go well. His best laid lesson plans had gone awry. In an ill judged attempt to impress the inspectors, the pupil playing Oedipus actually gouges out his eyes. There is blood everywhere. His mother has to be called. In the ensuing chaos, Seneca is unable to get onto the plenary activity. Insufficient progress is made by the pupils and the lesson is graded as “Requires improvement”. This damning report results, eventually, in Seneca losing his job. Seneca accepted this was inevitable from the moment the student started giving his hammy soliloquy, allowing him to accept the decision with calm and grace.
It may strike you so far insufficient to merely expect bad things to happen. Inevitable suffering tends to fill us with a feeling of dread. We may dread an operation that we have had scheduled for months. We dread exam season, even though it rolls around every year. Expecting the worst, therefore, is only one of Stoicism’s central teachings. The other is that the worst is actually not that bad. Seneca taught that we should not only spend some time each day thinking of scenarios in our head, but that we should actively seek them out and live them. One of his teachings was that we should try to practice poverty.
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’
There is an interesting, very similar quote by George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London:
And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it.
If you have lived through the experience of having nothing, then there is very little that you can fear. Ofsted are the bogeymen of teachers. Say it three times in the mirror and they will appear behind you. Seneca would say that the worst (the very worst) that could happen when they visit is you losing your job. It sounds bad, but once you adjust to it you will find yourself quite unaffected as a whole. If you were to go through all the beliefs that cause you stress or anxiety in this manner, you would find yourself worried about far less in your teaching practice.
Seneca taught himself to not fear not only poverty, but also loss of family and friends, exile and even death. Historical Seneca experienced poverty, exile and loss in his lifetime. Death, he believed, could not be experienced, and so should not be feared. All we know of death is that it is very similar to the infinite void of experience before our births. We do not fear or regret the void that precedes us, why fear the one that proceeds us?
Our modern day Seneca has put himself in the worst scenarios that he could, and found himself relatively unaffected. Whether it was his unruly bottom set, the meagre teacher’s salary or the unfortunate loss of his job, he has learned to accept and even enjoy his fate. To fight against it, or wish that it had turned out differently, would be to cause himself more suffering. Stoicism is the best philosophy for dealing with issues like this. Alternatively, you could just quit your job, move into a house in the country with all your friends and become an Epicurean.
The irony of the title is that Seneca did not survive teaching. His pupil was the emperor Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned and ordered the death of his own mother. Not surprisingly, Seneca also fell foul of Nero. He was accused of conspiring against him and was ordered to commit suicide. Teachers tend to prefer a lame card to a razor blade as their leaving gift, but Seneca gladly accepted his fate. I like to imagine that as he took the blade to his own body, he considered it to be a teachable moment.