On the Assumption That I Am a Perfect Teacher

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” Philo of Alexandria


When I was dating the wonderful woman who is now my wife I came to what was a fairly profound (at least for me at the time) realization. I realized that my response to the times she was upset with me should not be to say incredulously, “what’s going on?” or to be expasperated. I realized it does very little good to be defensive and annnoyed and instead that I should say, “okay, she is upset, what can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen again and what can I do to make sure we understand each other.” Thinking this way has often helped me avoid the bitterness that can sometimes attend the raw emotions that make up any marriage. And I think this is a lesson that can be effectively applied to the classroom, even as the challanges of a classroom are much different than those of a marriage. Every teacher knows those moments when his students become ornery, when they are upset and confused and when they let him know it. Every teacher knows those days when it seems like his whole class is on one singularly efficient wavelength of corporate angst. It’s frustrating, even infuriating at times. They seem to complain about everything. They aren’t grateful for all the work you put in. And they certainly don’t have any understanding of how valuable your instruction is. What’s with kids these days anyway!? [I should quickly note here for the sake of my wife that what I describe in the previous paragraph does NOT describe her. She is neither full of angst nor ungrateful. Far from it, in fact. That, I suppose, is where the comparison breaks down...] But what those kids do have is a soul. And a heart that beats and lungs that help them breath and emotions that can be raw and uncompromising at times. Even in their worst moments, even when it doesn’t seem possible, they are human. As my dad has said on occassion, kids are “individual souls with a lot going on in them”. So I believe that it is the job of the teacher to step lightly, even when discipline is most necessary. Indeed, I don’t mean to say that teachers shouldn’t discipline or that they shouldn’t require much of their students. What I mean is that teachers should avoiding simply saying, “that student is upset and he is wrong to be upset and therefore he should be punished or ignored.” Just as my wife was upset for a reason, so each student who is upset is upset for a reason. Some of those reasons are wrong and probably should be ignored. But, as their teacher, my duty is to avoid the assumption that they are wrong and that I am right. After all, as much as I hate to admit it, there is a strong chance that my students are upset because of something I did, some miscommunication or error on my part. A good teacher, like a good husband, is willing to admit when he is wrong and when he has failed to communicate effectively with his students. At times, it’s easy to think so highly of our own authority that we become tyrants of our classrooms. And should we really be surprised if our students seek freedom and independence from a classroom ruled by a tyrant? My goal in the coming months, as the school year draws to a close, is to teach humbly, to be mindful of the truth that I am not a perfect teacher.
David Kern

David Kern

David is our Goodwill officer, meaning he's involved in many things, from marketing to customer service to content and program development. He also directs our annual conference and plans LTW workshops. If it has our logo on it, he's involved. David also teaches English to 11th and 12th graders and has written for various publications, both web and print. 

Thanks for the post here, Andrew. Am forwarding to all my teachers.

Good meeting you this week at Hillsdale. Sorry things didn't work out for us to make good on our threats to get together. Next time.

A good teach is one who acknowledges his own ignorance. Once at a certain school for "gifted and talented" students, a residential high school, I had a young lady, a senior, probably seventeen or eighteen, make an appointment to see me. She seated herself across from me at my desk and said with passion and pointed delivery, "Dr. Peters, you are ignorant!" I acknowledged the truth of her statement and added that her assertion about my person is exactly what the process of earning my various degrees had taught me: I was indeed ignorant. I must say, however, that I did not resist the temptation to quip, "But at seventeen, I did not know how ignorant I really was."

Part of maturing and becoming thereby a civilized person is to realize the vastness of one's ignorance. Its seems that the human animal deals with his ignorance with one of two superstitions: irrational superstition which is that of the rabbits foot, the horseshoe, the palm reader, or the voodoo queen, thinking themselves to know and to dispel their ignorance through their divination and the power thereof ; or rational superstition which is that of positive science, reducing the observable world to data by men in white coats, thinking themselves capable of knowing in a comprehensive way if just enough data can be input and analyzed. Both ways of dealing with ignorance are form of gnosticism, the quest for knowledge for power by a priestly cast, be they voodoo queens or bio-chemists.

The beginning of humility is the apprehension of and acknowledgement of one's profound ignorance. The next step is to recognize that one is in that condition because one is a mere creature in a complex created order, one which we must learn to navigate as creatures. This ignorance by virtue of our subordinate status in the created order is even more profound because we are fallen creatures, doubly blinded. We were not created to be gnostic masters of the created order, i.e. power by self-gained knowledge. We were as men created to have dominion, i.e. responsible stewardship, over a creation which is not ours, but that of our Creator - the Mysterium Tremendum - of whom we learn by walking with Him not by learning about Him. It is also how we learn about creation itself.

I am reminded of Robert Frost's poem which goes something like this: "We sit in a circle and suppose (our classroom), and the secret (mysterious subject like math) sits in the middle and knows." All lesser mysteries, the subjects and the disciplines, point to the Great Mystery who is by His Spirit, through His Word and in His Created Order, revealing Himself to us.

This is where we must be as teachers and where we must bring our students to be, those who can, before real learning - learning with meaning and purpose - can begin.

Wise advice, David. Thank you for the reminder. Much needed at this point in the school year, as every teacher knows!