Monday, August 15, 2016

"Be a teacher"

An article I wrote in 2009, four years after I retired from teaching:

In the film of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, a young friend asks Thomas More for a place at Court. More tells Richard Rich that he won’t give him what he wants but that he may have another position for him:
Rich: What post?
More: At the new school.
Rich: A teacher! [….]
More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher. Perhaps a great one.
Rich: lf I was, who would know it?
More: You! Your pupils. Your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.
One of the great affirmations of the Protestant Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers” and along with that the realization that the idea of vocation applied to all believers, not just those ordained to holy orders. Our lives can’t be compartmentalized. Our work — how we earn our living — is in service to God, just as every other aspect of life. Whether we gain wide acclaim is irrelevant. What matters is whether we are faithful. Who will know? “God. Not a bad public, that.”

I didn’t come to that realization right away. For as long as I can remember I had planned to be a teacher, but because it was something I thought I could do well that would provide me with a living, not as a calling. In fact I became a public school teacher rather by default because I feared the kind of debt I would incur by continuing in graduate school. In 1970 I put out my credentials (teachers were in short supply then) and was contacted by a principal in Madison, Wisconsin. I taught in that school district — secondary history and political science — for thirty-five years.

I was a mediocre teacher when I started, making serious mistakes — especially in disciplining students — but I learned from my mistakes and eventually achieved a certain competence. I learned very little of value in the education courses I was required to take. Teaching is as much an art as a skill and perfecting the art is largely a matter of trial and error. Each teacher needs to discover the style that works for him or her. I always told my student teachers to commit to at least four or five years before deciding they couldn’t do it.

What makes a good public school teacher? You need to like kids and love your subject matter. Most students will do just about anything a teacher asks if they believe the teacher cares about them, knows what he is talking about, and teaches it well. That means knowing your subject thoroughly, and that means reading a lot. The easiest way to earn the contempt of adolescents is to pretend to know more than you do. The best teachers are those who can convey what is most important clearly and interestingly — and that is almost impossible if you are always operating at or close to the limit of your knowledge. Otherwise what makes a good teacher is what makes any good person: integrity, the willingness to admit error, intolerance of cruelty, a sense of proportion and good humor, meeting your commitments and obligations punctually, “doing unto others…,” etc.

These days, in the public schools, there is much less opportunity for Christian teachers to talk freely about our faith than was true even a few decades ago. Nevertheless, I found, at least in high school, that if the subject came up naturally as part of the curriculum or in student initiated discussion, it was possible if the subject was approached descriptively, if disagreement could be freely expressed, and nobody felt pressured. The most important witness a Christian teacher can make in a classroom, though, is behavior consistent with belief. For high school students there is no greater sin an adult can commit than seeming to be hypocritical.

“Be a teacher.” It is an honorable profession. And your Sabbaths will almost always be free.

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