Life Compass

Stress Tests of Character

Introduction to Stress Tests of Character by Karen E. Bohlin

I write this introduction within the backdrop of the global pandemic and unprecedented political division in the United States. The year 2020 will no doubt go down in history for its fair share of stress tests affecting human life, mental health, the economy, political discourse, and more.
Why Focus on “Stress Tests” of Character?

Independent of this current context, students inevitably confront stress in their efforts to achieve, fit in, and manage the academic, social, and emotional ups and downs at school and home. Most young people are already well acquainted with small and large stress tests. They have experienced trepidation before auditioning for a play, trying out for a sport, or standing on the foul line knowing theirs would be the game-deciding shot. Some have lost family members. Some have suffered serious injuries. Some live in unstable economic situations. And every day they come to school and face new fears and challenges, from learning complex math to writing an essay. 

The question for those of us who are educators (parents, teachers, school leaders) is what do we do — and who do we become — in the face of stress tests? When confronted with challenges, how do we reframe stress as an opportunity for growth? And how do we harness their power for our students, to help them develop the motivation and good habits of character they need to emerge stronger from them? 

Why Does Practical Wisdom Matter?
At the heart of navigating stress tests is practical wisdom. Practical wisdom gives us the agility and internal compass to  “know what to do when we don’t know what to do.” As our colleagues at the Jubilee Centre write, “Practical Wisdom forms part of all the other virtues; indeed it constitutes the overarching meta-virtue necessary for good character.” This is especially important when our emotions are hot, when pressure is high, or when we find ourselves out of our depth. Practical wisdom is what helps us to press pause, so we can create space between our first reaction — which is often both understandable and raw — and a considered, thoughtful response.

Confronted with a stress test, sometimes we need time, study, and wise mentoring before we can respond well. Sometimes we need rest, exercise, and meditation. Depending on the circumstances, often we need some combination of the above. Once we calm the amygdala, we can jumpstart our prefrontal cortex and start thinking through next steps. We can ask ourselves: What am I aiming at? Who do I want to be? What kind of response aligns with my true aim? When we step away from our initial reaction, we give ourselves permission to reflect, recalibrate, and choose a more thoughtful response.  

Why Story?
Stories offer accessible and memorable examples of practical wisdom in action. While it may seem like reason ought to be our guide in moments of stress and temptation, research shows that the heart and the imagination are powerful motivators (Bohlin, 2005). Who and what we love affects what we aim at and the choices we make. Who and what we desire gives shape to our vision, our why. Where does this motivation come from? Family, mentors, friends, teachers, experiences — and from stories , fiction, nonfiction and family stories.

How are stories helpful in navigating stress tests? In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre explains,  “We can only answer the question ‘what am I to do [with my life]?’ if we can answer the question ‘of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” (MacIntyre, 1981, p. 216). Or, put another way, whose story inspires me? And, who do I aspire to be? The stories we live and share are powerful teachers. The students in our care all have resilience stories of their own — moments they faced challenges and grew stronger as a result. We can encourage them to reflect on, write, and tell these stories. And in our classrooms, we can offer them stories of mathematicians, scientists, artists, historical figures, literary characters, and others to give them powerful insight into how individuals surmount ordinary and extraordinary stress tests and learn to flourish. 

Moreover, we retain stories better than we retain factual information. Why? Because we are hardwired to remember stories, and these stories can be both instructive and motivating. Emily Dickinson, for example, greatly admired English writers George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856) was one of Dickinson’s favorite fictitious works; the story of Aurora’s life as a poet captivated Dickinson and influenced the images she used in her own poetry. Dickinson also kept several of Eliot’s novels and poems in her collection.

My colleagues (Gregory, 2009; Harrison and Carr, 2015) and I (Bohlin, 2005) have written extensively about the power of story — purposefully engaged — to shape the moral imagination and aspirations of readers. Abraham Lincoln carried Shakespeare’s Macbeth with him as a faithful traveling companion. He read and reread the Scottish play to remind himself of the dangers of unbridled ambition in a leader. Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani activist who stood up for her right to education against the Taliban, is another leader who keeps stories close for guidance. She names The Alchemist as one of her favorites, calling it “hopeful and inspiring” and adding that the “story tells you that you should believe in yourself and continue your journey.”
How Can This Resource Help Educators?

Stress Tests of Character
is a resource that is designed to expand your toolbox and complement the academic curriculum. Stress Tests of Character helps teachers and students develop the habits they need to regain their bearings in the face of stress, so they can reframe challenges as opportunities for growth and navigate them with agility and courage.

All of these materials are grounded in Aristotelian virtue ethics and offer practical wisdom for helping students develop the character strengths they need to flourish in the face of adversity.

The Stress Tests of Character eResource offers:
1: Practical resources and ideas for weaving stress test stories into your curriculum including:

2. An expository Q&A and a robust bibliography that educators can use for their own professional development, addressing: What do we mean by “stress tests of character”? What is practical wisdom, and how can it help us navigate stress tests? How can we learn to respond, instead of react, to stressors — and make choices that strengthen our character and reflect who we want to be? Why is story a powerful tool for strengthening student motivation, tenacity and resilience?

3. Sample lesson plans that teachers can use in the middle or high school classroom. This resource is not a stand-alone curriculum; however, it does offer lessons that teachers can draw on and use as models to develop their own.
These lessons include:
            The online version of this toolkit is replete with live links. If you are accessing the PDF version, the underlined phrases will indicate where there is more material to access online. Whichever version you use, we hope you find it helpful. We also invite you to tell us how these resources are working for you and to share your own Stress Tests lessons and resources for our consideration. This will allow us to include additional lessons highlighting stress tests and resilience stories in math, science, English, history, language study and the arts. 

            On behalf of my colleagues at the Life Compass Institute and Montrose School, I want to thank James Arthur and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues for the invitation to partner in the development of this instructional e-Resource and Beth Purvis at the Kern Family Foundation whose intellectual energy and generous support made this project possible. I also want to thank our friend and mentor, Steve Tigner, who introduced us to the power of stress tests of character; Deborah Framer Kris, whose leadership on this project has been inspiring; our faculty colleagues at Montrose School whose contributions and comments made this resource more robust; Gabriellle Landry for her excellent editorial support; and Erin O’Brien and Jane Gianino, whose design expertise have made both the print and online versions beautiful and accessible.   

            The Stress Tests of Character curriculum was made possible with the generous support of a grant from the Kern Family Foundation and our partnership with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

            Copyright © 2020 LifeCompass Institute for Character & Leadership. All rights reserved.

            For more information on this and other resources, visit The LifeCompass Institute.