Some two thousand years ago, a teacher, a playwright and an emperor asked:
What is the best way to live?
How can we deal with the difficult situations we face?
What does it take to improve our minds?
Their answers are the heart of Stoic philosophy. We in schools can use their insights on the mind, on adversity and on practice to help our pupils shape their thought patterns.
Here is a rough overview of what we teach our pupils about staying stoical at Michaela:
“Some things are under our control, some are not. We are responsible for what is in our power to control: our mind and its perceptions. The chief task in life is simply this: to identify which externals are not under our control, and which are the choices we actually control. We control our opinion, choice, attachment, aversion. It is learning to separate the things that lie within our power from those that don’t.
“Whoever can be irritated – that person is a slave. No one can frustrate you without your cooperation; you are only hurt the moment you believe yourself to be. So when we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves responsible. We forever compound our problems because we make them out to be worse than they actually are.”
“Life itself is only what you deem it. Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought. Such as are your habitual thoughts, such will also be the character of your mind. Your anxieties are creatures of your own imagination, and you can rid yourself of them. Observe how disquiet is all of our own making. Troubles never come from another’s hand, but are creatures of our own creation.”
“Difficulties show a person’s character. So when trouble comes, think of it as training, strengthening, toughening. When a challenge confronts you, remember you are being matched with a stronger sparring partner, as would a physical trainer. A boxer derives the greatest advantage from his sparring partner, training his patience and even temper. In adversity, be happy that what you have learned is being tested by real events. Philosophy is preparing ourselves for what may come. So, what should we say to every trial we face? This is what I’ve trained for, for this is my discipline!”
“Like a boxer with a sparring partner – no protest or suspicion – act this way with all things in life. Instead of: “How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!” Say rather: “how lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness, undismayed: to endure this is not misfortune but good fortune.” The obstacle on the path becomes the way.”
“Seize your adversities head on. To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden. Complain little: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it. Think your way through difficulties: harsh conditions weigh less on those who know how to bear them.”
“Study, practice and train if you want to be free: for as time passes we forget what we learned. The secret of happiness of the human mind is gratitude. Discipline yourself with thinking, exercises and reading: that’s the path to human freedom. If you’re succeeding, you see any moment as an opportunity to practise.”
“Train your mind through regular practice. Persevere in your efforts to acquire a sound understanding. One needs constant, daily practice … the pursuit of wisdom sets us free.” Seneca
“Make a habit of studying the maxims. Practise even when success looks hopeless. Discipline brings peace of mind.”
Stoicism in school
Children at school are learning how to deal with difficult emotions: frustration, worry, fear, cravings, temper, arguments, gossip, jealousy, squabbles, hurt, bitterness and more. Stoicism offers fortifying ways to think about these difficulties.
Teachers can …
- show pupils what is always within their control: their thoughts, responses and reactions.
- preemptively teach pupils how to anticipate and cope with adversity.
- guide pupils to change their perceptions so that they complain, blame and resent less, and instead keep perspective, stay grateful, and are happy.
Pupils can learn how to…
- let go of frustration: by realising that it is in the mind, so within our control, and by remembering that irritation is counter-productive and should be released and not dwelt on.
- let go of worry: by remembering that the more we worry about things we can’t control, the worse we feel; the less we worry, the calmer and happier we feel.
- cope with arguments: by avoiding criticising, complaining, blaming or resenting others, and instead feeling cheerful and grateful for what we have.
School leaders can convey the lives of the thinkers, and their thinking …
Epictetus was a Greco-Roman slave who earned his freedom and became a teacher.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor taught by philosophers who wrote personal diaries.
Lucius Seneca was a tutor and advisor to the emperor of Rome, who wrote letters and plays.
All three thinkers used analogies, mantras and writing: notebooks, diaries, letters or plays.
Slavery: irritation enslaves us; wisdom frees us.
Illusions: anxieties are creatures of our own creation; we can get rid of them.
Boxing: we must train hard so we don’t get beaten!
At Michaela, we continually return to stoicism in our interactions with pupils. From their first week at Michaela, we teach them about its approach to life: that everyone experiences difficulties, but that we can overcome them. We have assemblies on it, we spend an hour lesson on it, we discuss it over family lunch, and we revisit it in form time. We teach them to anticipate the frustrations of life, and the mantra: ‘stay stoical!’
Here are six ways we see it come in handy: in detentions, in exams, in arguments, in pain, in sport and with their families.
- In detention … stay stoical!
Sometimes, pupils feel upset or resentful about being given a detention. In conversations with them, we remind them to stay calm, stay stoical, keep perspective, let go of anger, work out what they control, think about how they can build trust in future, and decide what they can do differently next time.
- Before, in and after exams … stay stoical!
Tests can be seen as stressful by children. We help them see that preparation, revision and overcoming procrastination is within their control. If they fail an exam, or get a poor result, staying stoical and not agitating about it, but instead focusing on what they can do differently, helps them for the next assessment ahead.
- In arguments … stay stoical!
When children get into arguments with their friends or fellow pupils, stoicism can help remind them to practise keeping a calm mind, ignoring gossip, vicious rumours, or insults, and staying positive rather than exacerbating mistrust and anger.
- When ill or struggling… stay stoical!
It is sometimes a struggle to come in to school if children have a cold or feel a little ill; persisting rather than giving up makes them feel proud and strong. One Year 7 pupil we teach lost a tooth in assembly, put it in his pocket and carried on listening. One was stung by a wasp at sport, and overcame the pain by keeping stoicism in mind. Another gets regular nosebleeds but proudly endures. After she broke her wrist just before exams, another taught herself to write with her left hand, and is now ambidextrous. The stoic mindset reduces our fragility: the volatility of the world can’t destabilise us. With stoicism, problems become opportunities to train our resilience.
5. At sport … stay stoical!
Sport, by its competitive nature, is a time when tempers can run high. Stoicism reminds pupils not to overcelebrate and jeer at others when scoring a goal or winning a match; and not to despair or blame team-mates (or the ref!) having conceded a goal or losing a match. It prevents yellow cards turning into red cards and prevents fights breaking out. At Michaela, we call our football team The Stoics as a symbol of this mindset. If it’s cold and raining, we say: ‘great! character-building stuff: a chance to train our willpower!’
6. With your families … stay stoical!
Children experience difficult times growing up with parents, siblings and cousins. If they are taught how to stay stoical at school, it helps them to overcome arguments, illness and adversity in their family. It can help them keep perspective, stay grateful and not take their brothers, sisters, mums and dads for granted, but appreciate them.
Teaching children to stay stoical when times are tough gives them a powerful perspective that helps them improve their resilience, their relationships, and ultimately, their lives. It even improves teachers’ lives, too!