Your students need More Stress

James B. Stockdale

I’ve never been one for sensationalising or acts of hyperbole, but I couldn’t resist that headline!

The fact is, I’ve been growing more concerned as the years go by the falling standards in our education systems.

A number of factors are at play, but one that is a given, is the way society takes a schizophrenic attitude towards education. 

On the one hand society berates teachers for for falling educational outcomes. On the other, they expect teachers to take progressive liberal attitudes to their students like wrapping them in cotton wool and not to place too many demands on the fragile little cherubs!

You can tell I’m a teacher can’t you? 😉

Anyway, what made me talk about this today?

I’m making my way through this fantastic book called Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot and I have to say that this book should be a required text for every student teacher.

The author, James B. Stockdale, fighter pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam for over 7 years,  muses upon the state of society and education and it is compelling reading. But I was struck more so about his thoughts on the role of stress in the classroom.

Now there is an element in education that I consider of crucial importance. There are learned names for the many varieties of this element, and some of these we might talk about as we go on. But for the moment I’ll use the word “stress.” Another name for it is “pressure.” Stress or pressure in education and in life has had bad reviews. I want to give it a good one

The author takes the view that unless a certain level of stress is placed upon learners, their educational outcomes fall short.

This makes sense to me. When we push and challenge our students, when we place positive demands upon them, when we have high expectations, we get better educational outcomes and we get better students.

In other words, we build character.

Today some educators talk about the evil effects of competition on our children, of the need to avoid developing a competitive spirit in our youth. But the Greeks, whose humanism these same experts profess to admire, were the most competitive people that ever lived. They wanted to excel in everything.

Their motto was Aἰὲν ἀριστεύειν ai en aristeuein, “always to be the best.” Their public games included competition not only in racing, jumping, javelin throwing, boxing, and wrestling but also in musical, poetic, literary, and drama contests. In one of the best-known and most fun-filled dialogues of Plato, The Symposium, the scene is a party celebrating the prize the host Agathon has just won for writing the best tragedy. To the Greeks the heart of the game was agon-competition, stress, pressure, struggle to win.

I think it’s safe to say that when we adopt practices in our classroom that let students off the hook, we are encouraging mediocre results and mediocre characters.

I wrote previously on the two leading factors that drive success in the classroom: The 2 Most Important Factors that Great Teachers Demonstrate to Improve Results.

The only way to combat mediocrity is to consistently send the message to your school community at large that your classroom is…

#1. A place of high demands

#2. A place of high expectations

#3. A place of high moral fibre

And there is really no way around this is we want our students to get a real education.

Be warned, you will get pressure to conform to society’s expectations however. You will be labelled as ‘strict’, ‘old fashioned’, ‘conservative’ or perhaps my favourite, a ‘dinosaur.’

You see society is in turmoil. Instead of education that promotes the common good of the community over the individual, we are driven by ideologies that promote the ‘rights’ of the individual over society. The ‘me’ rather than the ‘us.

So we need to reclaim the classroom as the place where students are placed under good stress, that challenges them and has high expectations of them.

Quite simply, the bean bags and the iPods have to go: they don’t cut the mustard. And whilst you are there, fill the skip with the trashy modern novels and biographies that have crept into our schools: the ones that are all about ‘me’ and ‘the victim’. Fill your classroom with texts that teach virtue and right living.

I am not claiming that we should base education on training people to be in prison, but I am saying that in stress situations, the fundamentals, the hard-core classical subjects, are what serve best. I’m not the only prisoner who discovered that so-called practical academic exercises in “how to do things” were useless in that fix. The classics have a way of saving you the trouble of prolonged experiences. You don’t have to go out and buy pop psychology self-help books. When you read the classics in the humanities, you become aware that the big ideas have been around a long time, despite the fact that they are often served up today in modern psychological “explanations” of human action as novel and “scientific.”

How long Western Society will continue on its suicidal trajectory is unknown to us, but we can begin to reclaim some ground in our own classrooms and expect the very best from our students.

If that means placing some stress on them and demanding excellence, then so be it. Protection Status

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