Arguing Your Way Through Adversity with Seligman’s ABCs

How Martin Seligman’s ABCs of growing through adversity might help students and educators.

Teaching is hard… 

I’ve heard newbies and veteran educators express this many times in the past year. For me, teaching high school in February and March looks a lot like Bill Murray’s characterization of Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. As a snarky and cynical weather reporter, Connors finds himself stuck on location and reliving the same Groundhog Day over and over. Through these seemingly endless do-overs, he comes to appreciate the struggles of his fellow human beings, and he develops strategies for helping them flourish in the face of adversity. Eventually, Connors is freed from his time loop once he has learned to become a loving and helpful person. At the heart of the transformation, one may consider that Connors’ mindset shifts from “having to” deal with others to “getting to” deal with them.  

High school students and teachers can get stuck in Groundhog Day mode throughout the school year. I often playfully argue with my senior students about the unhealthy consequences of believing in the popular construct of senioritis. As they ask me if they have to write another essay or read another text, I assert that they don’t “have to,” they “get to.” Likewise, I also share that I “get to” try to coach them beyond these unhelpful arguments that they let into their inner lives. I’m not sure that they realize how much I’m trying to coach my own attitude when I say this. 

In a sense, I’m going on my 27th senior year: One year as a student and 26 years as a teacher working with seniors and other levels of high school. I have much experience in arguing my own way out of variations on senioritis. I sometimes wonder if the greater challenge is arguing with my students or with myself about better attitudes and behaviors for continuing and finishing the year well. Indeed, I don’t “have to” do this work; I “get to.” I often need this little two-word intervention for my own experience as much as my students do. I’d love to say that I always have a great attitude, but it takes daily work to stay positive, productive, and personable. As I’ve been thinking for a while about, I aim to explore many different dimensions about argument, and the most important dimension of argument to start with is the inner-world lives of students and educators. 

In my setting, many students often miss as much as half of the school week due to athletics and activities. The cold and flu season further afflicts them (and me) relentlessly. Meanwhile, our school faces many ongoing initiatives that tend to unhelpfully reinvent or re-describe educational ideas and practices that don’t seem very effective. Since many stakeholders have different versions of what they think schools should do, attempts at vision and mission look much more like a kaleidoscope. The recent Coronavirus-related school closures are giving me plenty of time to reflect on the helpfulness of a “get to” mindset. I especially “get to” hone my focus on using distance learning strategies to promote thoughtful, focused learning. (I do miss working face-to-face with students, especially by this time of year when our sense of community is often the strongest.)

For me, one great source of “get to” attitude coaching comes from reading the earlier works of thoughtful researchers in psychology like Martin Seligman. He and other psychological thinkers have helped me improve my inner-world of argument concerning adversities related to teaching, learning, and working. Selgman’s 1990 book Learned Optimism continues to prove insightful for my personal, professional, and public concerns.

In the 1960s, Seligman and a few of his colleagues in the field of psychology began to argue against the two dominant psychological theories that were driving the practices of their time: behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Basically, behavioral psychologists focused on causes and solutions to psychological problems as coming from external stimuli. Psychoanalytic psychologists tended to think that key events in one’s past were the cause of psychological problems and that these events need to be dug up and processed. Albert Ellis, Martin Seligman, and other cognitive-focused psychologists argued against these dominant paradigms with the help of empirical studies and humanistic thinking: They basically showed that many everyday psychological problems can be better dealt with by practicing healthier cognitive skills. The cognitive skills can be practiced with increasing mastery in most cases (anticipating more recent discoveries concerning neuroplasticity). These cognitive skills focus on self-awareness and self-engagement. Similar to Ellis, Seligman gave these skills an ABCs format:  

  • A=for Adversity 
  • B=for Belief
  • C=for Consequences of beliefs
  • D=for Disputation of false and unhealthy beliefs
  • E=for Energization

I plan on spending several future postings sharing more thoughts about Seligman’s ABCs while also connecting them to various sources. Seligman’s ABCs fit well with my own intervention of “getting to” work with adversity as opposed to merely “having to,” and I’m sure he has influenced me significantly over the years so that I can say I’m happy to be still teaching, not to mention still living, through all sorts of adverse experiences. Additionally, Seligman’s ABCs may help adjust some recent educational trends that sometimes look like variations on psychoanalysis and behaviorism. (More on this application in a future post.)

Seligman’s ABCs start with adversity, and many of the adversities of teaching and learning are fairly predictable. But even the unique weirdness of recent school closures fits well. Like Phil Connors we “get to” have opportunities to work through these challenges, grow, and flourish. As human beings, we can learn to be more empathetic about the struggles of others and ourselves while also helping others and ourselves become more resilient in the face of adversity. When we’re stressed, anxious, and distracted we need simple patterns to help us, and Seligman’s ABCs serve as good go-to approach refocusing ourselves.

Invitation to Reflect: 

Reflect on your ABCs of teaching, learning, and working.

  1. What adversities do you tend to face?
  2. What beliefs do you tend to act on in the face of different adversities? Do your stated beliefs tend to contrast to your in-the-moment or functional beliefs? How so?
  3. What consequences, good or bad, tend to ensue from the beliefs that you act upon in the face of adversity?
  4. What other factors tend to influence your ABCs?

For Further Reading and Reflection: 

  • Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman
  • The Optimistic Child, by Martin Seligman
  • “The Coddling of the American Mind” article in The Atlantic, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
  • The Coddling of the American book, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

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