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!
Sometimes the best classroom activities come out of the simplest things. Case in point, these Social-Emotional Learning prompts for ESL students created by Teresa X. Nguyen and illustrated by Tyler Hoang and Nathaniel Cayanan. Each worksheet has a written prompt and an original hand-drawn illustration. It’s simple enough but designed to work for students at any level. It’s a particularly powerful tool, as there are plenty of social-emotional learning activities and prompts for the mainstream classroom.
But what’s unique about these worksheets is that they’re the only social-emotional learning prompts for ESL students and the ESL classroom! Because they’re so simple and there’s so much space on the page, students can respond by drawing, writing, jotting down words and notes, or discussing. You can even scaffold, moving from sketches and single words all the way to a longer piece of writing.
Because these positive activity prompts are so much fun, I couldn’t sharing some of my own ideas for filling them out. I’ve also included some ways to implement them in the classroom! Links to the worksheets on Teachers Pay Teachers are in the captions or check out all our printable, downloadable, or shareable Positive Activities.
I’ll start with my favorite!
New Emotions or Emojis
Students draw expressions to represent new feelings or attitudes and then share their creations with the class. They can get other students to guess their emotions from the drawings or share one emoji they want, or even an emotion they think needs a name! Like that feeling when you’re physically tired but emotionally not ready for bed!
Here’s a list of a few ways students can respond to the Social Emotional Learning prompts, depending on their language level and the logistics of the class. I’ve put the activities in roughly order of complexity. However, what works for your classroom and what is easier or harder for your students may also vary! You can even scaffold the activities and have students start anywhere on the list, then work their way up. Go from a sketch to a short writing in a few simple moves!
- Sketch an response.
- Label the drawing with key words.
- Discuss your response with a partner.
- Write short phrases or sentences as a response.
- Brainstorm ideas with a partner or in a group.
- Outline a longer response, using a graphic organizer or writing frame.
- Discuss the prompt in detail with a partner.
- Write a paragraph or series of paragraphs.
- Share written answers and provide peer feedback
I love this thankful prompt because it really tells you what your students value in others. What do they love about the people in their lives? They may want to name these people, but they don’t have to. This is a great discussion prompt as students can share about one particular person in their lives.
This is a fun getting-to-know-you activity that can be done in a lot of different ways. Students can draw themselves realistically or how they want to appear. They can label the drawing with facts about themselves, the clothes they like to wear, how they feel about their appearance (like their favorite part of themselves). They can draw themselves doing something they love or wearing their favorite clothes or sitting in their favorite place. What do they want to share about themselves? Extend this activity by making a gallery of classmates for everyone to get to know everyone else. Have them do one at the beginning of the term and at the end so they can compare their portraits.
My Robot Social-Emotional ESL Prompt
This prompt is a lot of fun for young learners. They’re probably making their own robots anyway and the activity can give them a lot of vocabulary. Students can learn words for describing machines and electronics including button, gear, switch, click, and more! They can also learn words for the functions their robot performs.
They could focus on a problem and have their robot be a solution to that problem, which helps build vocabulary in a particular area. Or just have them go crazy designing the coolest robot they can think of and labelling all the features. Then they can share with a partner or with the whole class.
You may ask how to use this as a social-emotional learning prompt specifically. Students can design robots to help with social or emotional life issues-a companion robot, a therapist bot, a tool to help with special needs. Your students’ imagination is the limit.
My Rhyming Poem: Writing Prompt for SEL
There are a lot of ways to get students writing short rhyming poems. They can read and copy rhyming poems, including formulaic ones such as limericks or “Roses are red, violets are blue” poems. They can sing rhyming songs and copy the structure. You can even have them imitate a picture book. Let them enjoy flipping through a rhyming dictionary for ideas.
Looking for a whole book of these? Check out the paperback of 60 Positive Activities for Kids, for sale wherever books are sold! We also have them in slide format to make them easy to share in-person or online!
And feel free to share your ideas for using these wonderful creations in the classroom!