Stoical serenity: behaviour management from Ancient Rome.

09 Dec 2016



“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.” Seneca

I realise to post about behaviour management at this stage in the year is gloriously lacking in festive cheer. Let me for a brief moment fully embrace, in fact exalt the philosophy of the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” Scrooge. This time of year is rather difficult, inordinately challenging to remain calm and sometimes utterly infuriating. We are tired, fed up and sick of long evenings of marking. Dare I whisper it, even ever so slightly fed up with the sight of young people. The only Christmas gift so far has been a comically large bag of Year 11 mock exams and the work related to do list for the festive period is gargantuan. My mind certainly does not feel unconquerable: it feels like a ship wreck.

In all honesty I am writing this post partly out of guilt. I have had a few of my Willie from the Simpsons breakouts over the past week:




While I might have stopped short at the shirt tearing, I have been sharper, more irritable, less forgiving and certainly less warm. Some of the rants have been internal, some at students, some with colleagues, some at long suffering wife. While demonstrating the Scottish roar to students every so often does no harm at all (I prefer the quick lion roar then return to passivity, very unsettling!) at this time of year it is not the best idea. And there is no good time of year to demonstrate it to wife. Lose, lose. In reality the young people in front of us feel exactly the same as we do. They are as irascible, as tired, as emotional: as ready to respond with anger as we are.

So, the natural paragraph link is in the ruminations of Ancient Rome. Solace comes in the 52 novels in a year challenge.  As this readamarathon  rapidly reaches its exhausting last few miles, I spent the penultimate week immersed in the Seneca’s ‘Letters from a Stoic’.   Poor Seneca, beset with very ill health from a young age, had a bit of a tricky time of it from the Roman emperors. Caligula was particularly cruel – sending him off to the island of Corsica for allegedly having an affair with his sister. Cheeky. Then, having being recalled after eight years of sequestered exile he had the delightful challenge of being tutor and mentor to the lovely chap Nero.  Nero became increasingly violent and erratic, eventually forcing Seneca into committing suicide. Certainly puts mock related marking misery in context!

Before this abrupt end, in the last three years of his life he had a bit of peace and quiet to reflect, using this to write one hundred and twenty four letters to the young Lucile’s.  Ingrained in these mini masterpieces are the principals of Stoicism. Stoicism in short is the goal of attaining inner peace by overcoming adversity and practising self-control. It involves being more conscious and aware of impulses and of our transient nature. Not something I regularly share at dinner parties (not that I frequent dinner parties often), but I am a bit of a stoical advocate – with a growing chunk of the bookshelf devoted to it!

So, being rather teaching neurotic at this time of the year and lacking the capacity to think of anything else, these letters have now formed my new Stoical behaviour management policy (soon to be ubiquitous in senior management teams across the land). Seneca’s letters are combined with Epictetus and Marcus Arelias who have the career defining moment of making the Stoical behaviour management list. Clearly when they sought posterity this accolade is what they were fighting for. The nine principals:

“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model.” Seneca

Effective behaviour management is an art, one that like any aspect of teaching is always developing, maturing and improving. Finding behaviour role models, watching and studying how they make it appear utterly seamless has had the most impact in developing my confidence in the classroom. Then it is about mirroring some of those behaviours in a way that is natural – discovering your own classroom presence. Continuing to learn, to share dialogue with others, to watch others is so important. Trying to fight the battle in isolation is utterly depressing, open up your door and seek assistance! At the close of this blog are some of the very best posts out there to support this endevour.

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
― Seneca

That outrageously difficult class who seem to be specifically designed to test you to the very limit will make you a better teacher. They will foster in you a warrior like attitude that refuses to be beaten, they will make you more assertive, they will make you sharper. One of the first groups I taught as an NQT in central London was an all male Year 11 bottom set of around fifteen students. My word did they have me for breakfast! That was the quickest and most destructive learning curve I have been on. It was never perfect but by the end of the year I had survived, and some of the best moments of the year were when things clicked with that group. Year two with a similar group I was armed and ready not to repeat the same mistakes.

“Be not too hasty either with praise or blame; speak always as though you were giving evidence before the judgement-seat of the Gods.” Seneca

Chose your words and battles carefully, reflect before escalating and before over praising (a previous post on the importance of using praise carefully here) Young people watch us like hawks in the classroom – using words carefully, quietly, individually rather than publicly berating will help to contain the atmosphere of calm. I also read assertiveness from this quotation – being clear and direct in our communication with young people will help to generate respect.

 “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” Epictetus

There is so much about working with young people that will be beyond our control. Focussing instead on what we do have ownership over is part of the principal of effective behaviour management. What do we have power over: to make sure the content of the lesson is interesting and engaging; to make sure that we are clear on a seating plan; to make sure that the way we communicate is clear and assertive; to make sure that we are consistent in our application of rules in our classroom; to make sure we are working hard to build positive and meaningful relationships. Most important of all is our responsibility to use the structures and mechanisms put in place by the school that facilitate consistency and messaging. This is not about passing the buck to someone else, it is about transparency and consistency within the whole school.

Epictetus: “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”

Sage guidance from a man who was born a slave. Our response in the classroom is everything: clarity, consistency, fairness. At all times. The students may respond with behaviour that doesn’t confirm with our expectations (of course they will, they are adolescents) but our character should be constant, clear and calm. We should practise routines obsessively to influence those external circumstances and embody the purposeful clarity we want in the classroom.

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
― Epictetus

The classroom is an arena that requires Oscar winning acting at all times. We may dread the sight of those pesky Year 9’s final lesson on a Friday but we can’t let them have a sniff of it! Neither can we let it be clear that we are genuinely irritated or worse significantly angered. It all requires careful control and management. We are role models in the classroom and need to demonstrate visibly the behaviour we want from students. Of course there will be slips, we are only human! But recognising when we have and learning from it is the means to develop in the classroom.

“People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.” Marcus Aurelius

Marcus may be slightly over egging it here but there is a grain of truth in this. Being passionate, being hugely enthusiastic, endlessly harping on about how utterly transformative our subjects are will reap wonders in the behaviour of a class. It is infectious, it is the best means to secure interest. Real passion for our subjects trumps gimmicks every day. Lets be honest: its also one of the driving factors as to why we entered teaching! Burn with passion for young people and your subject and they will come with you.

“Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds”. Marcus Aurelius

We build positive, meaningful relationships with young people in a range of ways but one of the most obvious is to teach with empathy. Listening to young people, understanding their context, understanding what will best help them learn will make a huge difference in securing a positive atmosphere. They know when we care and they know when we listen.

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars and you will see yourself running.” Marcus Aurelius

One of my favourites, and a delightful way to end the list.  Dwell on the beauty of the classroom. Recognise what is going well and celebrate it. Recognise those who try hard, every single time. Dwell on the moments of joy, the moments of laughter.  Share a smile, share laughter with students – we have to be humane and warm. The clinical dispassionate approach will only work to a degree. Share the joy and soon they will all want to pull up to that level: they will come running.

I have come full Scrooge transition, glowing with tranquility, ready to embrace the final week of term. Calmness, clarity and assertiveness will now radiate from my pores.  The Stoical behaviour management policy, now officially patented. Mr Aurelius can have the final say:


Thanks for reading.  A Christmas Stoical reading list and all the much better behaviour management blogs out there:

Anything by Tom Bennet: This article has lots of his best posts:

This post by Tom Sherrington:

This post by David Didua:

Great post on the importance of cultivating pride from Xris:

This post by Teacher Toolkit:

Seneca: ‘Letters from a Stoic’ 
Epictetus: ‘Discourses and selected writings’ 

Alain de Botton: ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’

Marcus Aurelius: ‘Meditations’

An interesting introduction is Darren Brown’s (I know!) guide to stoical thought


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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