From the Teacher’s Desk: Building an Inner Citadel

By Leonard Quilty

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

That’s how I see my job as an educator. To somehow spark in my students that inner drive to reach for their potential. To, first of all, master the content of the course material; but then to grab hold to the joy of learning and in the process long for their goals and dreams.

On the last Friday of October, I had the pleasure of teaching the CPR course to a group of grade ten PE students in Calgary. Typically, at the beginning of the course, I ask the students to introduce themselves. As part of that introduction, I also ask them to either say something interesting about themselves or tell us what their dream for the future is. With this particular group of students, their future ambitions ranged from wanting to be a cardiologist, to a history professor, to a mechanic.

As I got into the course content I attempted to infuse some humor into an otherwise serious topic – learning the skills to one day maybe save someone’s life. At one point in our discussion, we were talking about various risk factors that might predispose someone to having a heart attack or stroke. One of those risk factors is stress. On that topic, we brainstormed ways we can deal with excessive amounts of stress.

Recently, I was doing a little research on the effects of stress. One source made the claim that 43% of all adults suffer adverse effects from stress. The same source also asserted that 75-90% of all doctor’s office visits are from stress related ailments and complaints. Wow! That’s a staggering figure. Of course, a certain degree of stress is healthy and is just our body’s normal reaction to events occurring around us.

One strategy for stress mitigation that I proposed to my students would come under the umbrella of life perspective, or attitude. In that regard, I mentioned a book I had just finished reading. It’s called The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday. The book’s subtitle is “The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs.” In this very interesting book, the author uses case studies of famous people throughout history (as well as the teachings of the philosophy of Stoicism) to make a point. That is, the potentially stress causing challenges of life can be better managed by leaning into the trial or obstacle in our way.

By dealing proactively with our challenges, the author suggests that we can build up our armor, or “Inner Citadel,” as the Stoics called it. Mr. Holiday defines this Inner Citadel as “that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down.” In this regard, the book also contains a quote by the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius: “Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.”

To make the point more salient for my students, I referenced the rigor of a grade ten Math or English course. My suggestion there was for the students (if they’re feeling challenged in that subject area) to lean into the course content. In other words, make a decision to become really interested in the course; spend more time on skill development; and ask the teacher as many questions as needed to master the content.

Our discussion also segued into the philosophy of Stoicism. All but one of the students were unfamiliar with this ancient school of thought. After I had provided some background information, one of the students was keen to ask if I could tell her the essence of Stoic thought. What a great question.

I was glad to respond by saying that the Stoics were all about achieving a balance in life – to not be buffeted by the inevitable ups and downs of our existence. Their modus operandi was to remain calm and use life’s obstacles as fodder for the forge, if you will, to lead them to a higher level of character refinement.

Leonard Quilty is a guidance counsellor with the Centre for Learning@Home in Okotoks, Alberta. He can be reached by e-mail at