It may seem all Greek to you, but the great philosophical thinkers of their time were very wise in their outlook on life, with many of their stories relevant to teachers (and society as a whole) who can still learn valuable lessons from these early pioneers in philosophy. In this article from the October 2014 edition of UKEdMagazine, Chris Eyre draws out the lessons shared from three main philosophical thinkers, and how this relates to the lives of teachers…
As a wise person once said, ‘those that fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it’. Those of us who have been in teaching a while may feel a sense of this as we see various initiatives and ideas that we thought were long gone reappearing. As a Philosophy teacher and someone passionate about teacher well-being, here are three short lessons from the Greeks that the modern teacher can learn.
Socrates – Your questions will be the death of you or the making of you
The philosopher Socrates challenged assumptions, raised issues and asked questions of the accepted wisdom of the day. Hailed as wise by the common people, he was a bit of an inconvenience to the authorities with his maverick ways. Eventually, he was arrested on highly dubious charges and was put to death by being forced to drink hemlock.
Fast forward to the modern classroom; a range of accepted wisdom shifts alarmingly with the changing mood of the school inspectorate. However, before we sip the aforementioned hemlock, it is worth reflecting that we are also in a period of tremendous innovation and creativity. Resource sharing, TeachMeets, and UKEdChat discussion allow for bright ideas to be shared rapidly and widely. Our ability to question and reflect as professionals can equally be the making of us.
Diogenes – Get out of my light
Diogenes was regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in ancient Greece. He was wise, but a little eccentric. He even spent part of his life living in a barrel. According to legend, this wise man was visited by a King who asked what he could do to help Diogenes. Whilst most people may have asked for riches, food, or even a larger barrel, Diogenes made one straightforward request: ‘Get out of my light.’
Most of us do a good job most days bringing light to others, yet many things would get in the way and prevent our light from shining. The current education system creaks under the weight of bureaucracy, and we spend an inordinate amount of time demonstrating what we have done to those who want to weigh and measure it. Equally, this is a massive challenge to any of us who are in a position of leadership. Our role should be to enable staff to shine and bring light to those they teach. If anything we do hinders that, we need to ask ourselves how we can get out of the light.
Sisyphus – The heroism of teaching
Poor Sisyphus was punished by the gods and condemned to an eternal fate of pushing a boulder up a hill and when it had rolled back down repeating the process over and over again. In his essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, philosopher Albert Camus compares this to the human condition and admires the heroism of Sisyphus as he grits his teeth, lifts up his head and walks back down the hill to start again. There is something inspirational in that kind of human determination.
There is much in the cyclical nature of teaching that resembles Sisyphus. Every year we roll the boulder up the hill, every week, every day. There is much to admire in witnessing colleagues heroically face the challenges of their day. The boulder may get bigger and the hill steeper at times, yet still people keep going, often through illness and personal adversity. We all work with extraordinarily committed people. However, there is a note of caution. Unlike Sisyphus we are not chained to an eternal fate; (despite the raising of the retirement age) we can put the boulder down, and there is evidence that an increasing number of people are doing this – and not always those colleagues we would wish to lose! No matter how busy we are, we must keep an eye out for each other and encourage those who are about to put the boulder down. Small acts of kindness can be far more significant than we realise and may make the difference in ensuring that someone else gets through the day.
Of course, as another Greek thinker, Heraclitus, says ‘everything changes’ and we have more power to change things than we realise. Let’s continue to champion and encourage those around us. The vast majority of them are doing a fantastic job.
Chris Eyre @chris_eyre is curriculum manager for Religious Studies and Philosophy at Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College. He has also worked as an examiner for a leading exam board. He is passionate about teacher well-being and regularly blogs on this and other issues. Read his blog at chriseyreteaching.wordpress.com