This is the second in a series of posts adapting Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life to the context of eduction. You can find my thoughts on Rule 1 here. Please note, Peterson talks about a lot of other stuff – much of it religious – which I’m largely ignoring. This is just my partial take.

According to this study, one third of every prescription a doctor writes goes unfilled, and, over half of those people who do collect their medication won’t take it correctly. Why would this be? Why would some one who felt ill enough to visit their doctor not then take the medicine prescribed as directed? Interestingly, we’re much more likely to fulfil a prescription for our pet. What does that say about us?

Peterson suggests the reason we take better care of our pets than ourselves is shame. We’re ashamed of our fallibility, our nakedness, our lack of grace. We compare ourselves to the brilliance and beauty we perceive around us and we come up short. We know that if anyone else knew our deepest, darkest secrets we would be reviled.

Now, of course, if everyone experiences this, then we can’t be all that bad. Everyone is just as flawed as we are. The trouble is, we only ever get to see inside our own black hearts. We judge our insides by the standard of everyone else’s outsides. And we come up short.

A dog or cat, by comparison, is blameless. Cats and dogs are predators. By human standards, some of their behaviour is appalling. But we know and accept that they do what they do because it is natural; an expression of what they are. How could you blame a cat for hunting and then torturing its prey?

We find it much harder to forgive people for being who they are. People have choice, agency, free will. What we do is deliberate, and, when we transgress, we are to blame. Or are we? Clearly we are responsible for how we choose to act, but what about who we are? Are we responsible for having the brains and bodies nature has endowed us with? And if we’re not, why should we be ashamed?

Peterson points out that despite our capacity for evil, human being are capable our great compassion and, especially in times of crisis, act selflessly and with heroism. We should credit ourselves for the good we do. Of course we’re flawed, but if we can’t see past that then we will make our lives that much harder than they would otherwise be.  The business of life is hard enough. We will all experience heartbreak, grief, illness and pain at some point and when we do we should be kind to ourselves.

The students we teach are no different to us, but – perhaps because they’re children – we find it easier to forgive them for their flaws and treat them with compassion. We know that looking after the interests of our students lies not in making them happy and doing what they want, but in doing what’s best for them. Students are not yet adults, and as such, they’re not yet as able as we are to think about the future. They tend to struggle with delaying short-term gratification in order to achieve distant seeming goals. So we help them. When they fail to meet the mark we tell them so. We apply consequences to help them learn form their mistakes. We give them second chances because everyone deserves a second chance. We do what we can to prevent them failing.

We need to learn to treat ourselves at least as well as treat our students. After all, what kind of role models can we be if we don’t look after ourselves?

There’s a lot of talk about teacher well-being at the moment. The last few years has seen the first beginnings of an attempt to take the effects of teachers’ workload seriously and, while we surely have a long way to go, this is an entirely positive and (at least for me) unexpected development. But we can’t simply rely on the government, or our union, or our head of department to take care of us: we need to think about what we’re doing to take care of ourselves.

Here’s what Peterson suggests:

You need to consider the future and think, “What might my life be like if I were caring for myself properly?” What career would challenge me and render me productive and helpful, so that I could shoulder my share of the load, and enjoy the consequences? What should I be doing , when I have some freedom, to improve my health, expand my knowledge, and strengthen my body?”  (p. 63)

This sounds an awful lot like some of the conversations I’ve had with wayward students, as I’ve urged them to take control of their chaotic lives and do what it’s in their own best interests. A lot of the time these conversations have been an exercise in futility, but now and then, they’ve made a real difference. I can think of maybe three students who I know (or at least, I’m pretty sure) are living much better lives, partly as a result of the care and support I offered them. All three were, for different reasons, in chaos and I found myself able to look past their anger and resentment to see their better selves. But I haven’t always been able to do the same for myself.

All this reminded me of this post from Joe Kirby on gratitude. He notes that, “One way that schools can help their pupils to be happy in their lives is by teaching them the habit of gratitude.” He writes about they ways we can teach students to express gratitude, and suggests that it works both ways and that if teachers, in return, recognise, acknowledge and take the time to be grateful for their students’ gratitude then everyone feels happier. Gratitude breeds further gratitude.

If we want to be happy we probably need to look for purpose and meaning. We need to want the best for ourselves, just as we do for our students. If we can imagine taking care of ourselves, we might just do it. And if we take better care of ourselves, we might be a lot better at our jobs, and a lot more content in our lives.