Spotlight: Leah Guenther, MS Teacher
Leah wrote a recent article in Harvard Educational Review. She has taught for 9 years and says: “I adore this job. There is nothing else I would rather do. It is challenging, however, so I am always looking for practical ways to ensure my longevity in this fulfilling but increasingly chaotic profession.”
She is discovering at least part of the answer for herself (and maybe for you!) in the writings of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), who reflected on Stoicism in his diary, The Meditations. The Stoics have four claims, she explains:
- Control – Much of our unhappiness is caused by an inability to distinguish between things that we can and cannot control.
- Emotions – Negative emotions are a result of mistaken value judgments.
- Value – The main goal of a virtuous life is a calm mental state.
- Nature – We ought to embrace our role in the universe.
First she learnt it herself and then she taught it to her middle school students. Here is her timetable:
- September: The dichotomy of control She compiled three lists:
- Not under her control: Federal education policies, district policies, testing, her class roster, students’ homes;
- Partially under her control: Students’ behavior, students’ abilities, students’ reactions, homework, attendance;
- Under her control: Setting high standards; classroom rules; her reactions; student seating; curriculum selection; her enthusiasm; being fair and impartial.
She resolved to focus on the things she could control, work on the areas of partial control, and bring her passion, enthusiasm, and knowledge every day. She was inspired by Aurelius’s words: “Whatever any one does or says, I must be emerald and keep my color.”
- October: Objective noticing: She tracked her negative emotions for each Monday of the month during two back-to-back 2-hour classes. On the very first Monday, she fell victim to anger 17 times, judgment 12 times, fear 8 times, and desire for revenge 3 times. That’s a total of 40 passionate moments in four hours, or one every six minutes. “If we accept the Stoic’s view that passions are a suspension of rational thinking,” she says, “this is an unacceptable amount of time for anyone, let alone a teacher, to be out of her right mind.”
She had to ask What were the triggers? What was in front of me? What was forcing itself upon my notice?
In the five Mondays of October, her anger incidents went from 17 to 5 to 7 to 5 to 2; her judgment incidents from 12 to 7 to 9 to 5 to 2; her fear incidents from 8 to 2 to 4 to 2 to 2; and her revenge incidents from 3 to 2 to 2 to 0 to 0.
- November: Morning meditations Leah discovered that it was quite easy to name positive traits and predict the annoyances of each day. She identified the virtue she would need to cultivate in herself to address each student’s positive and negative traits. “As November came to a close, I realized that even though my fellow human being might be having a bad day, I did not have to join her.”
- December: End-of-day reflections answering two questions: Which of your ills did you heal today? Which vice did you resist? In what aspect are you better? As the month wore on, Guenther noticed herself focusing more on instruction and her moral character and spending less time controlling her irritation.
- January: Introducing Stoicism to students
- March: Practicing morning premeditations and self-monitoring
- Embedding it in classroom culture
Leah says that the process was about examining the causes of harmful emotions before they took root, and learning a whole new language of expression, calmness, and collaboration. She says: “Most of the things that get in the way of learning in the classroom are behavior issues – and with the Stoicism focus, our behavior issues (theirs and mine) were all out in the open. Moreover, we had a language that we had all learned together and bought into.” When a student was misbehaving, Guenther would ask what Aurelius would think of it, and when students saw their teacher getting irritated, they would call out, “Be the emerald!” or “Stay green!”
May we all have the courage to examine and re-examine until we and our students are better!
LEAH GUENTHER (2018) “I Must Be Emerald and Keep My Color”: Ancient Roman Stoicism in the Middle School Classroom. Harvard Educational Review: Summer 2018, Vol. 88, No. 2, pp. 209-226.