On Being A Master Teacher (and Other Impossible Dreams)

Sep 29, 2016

Every August, as I compile lists and books for another year of homeschooling, I reflect on educational philosophies and regroup for a fresh attack on the field of academe. As I create my children’s class lists and create course syllabi, I am struck by the sheer volume of reading that I will oversee and wonder how in the world I will ever find the time to stay ahead of them, let alone master the material.

I love the subjects—each its own world of ideas and contributions to the Great Conversation.  I think that if I had to teach only one, maybe I could approach it. I might at least master grade level content. But how am I to master all of them? Every subject? Every grade level in increasing order of complexity?  

This year I find myself responsible for Advanced Math, Geometry, British and American Literature, Composition, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, Worldview, French II and IV, Art History, Medieval History, Analytical Grammar, and Economics. Thank goodness for my homeschool co-op friend who will cover Biology, and for our faithful Latin tutor!  

What chance do we home educators really have of mastering our children’s curricula, especially once they reach high school? Similarly, if we can’t, what are our kids’ chances?

I’m not the first to ask these questions; the educational establishment lobs them like hand grenades at homeschoolers regularly. What makes you think, they ask, that you are capable of doing alone what it historically takes an entire school of teachers to do? The weight of this accusation and the gravity of the pride it implies demand a serious response, and I have one.


A teacher is not the master of knowledge, but one who has been mastered by it and gained the humility necessary to model the posture of a lifetime learner. 

 

If mastery learning is our object, then we cannot. We should think that we are capable of mastering every subject, at every grade level, and leading our students into similar mastery. 

By that same token, I wonder that any educator believes himself capable of such mastery, even of a single subject. For the disciplines themselves stand in opposition to our attempts to master them, each pronouncing with their own proverbial tongues the infinite nature of knowledge and the finite nature of the human mind. The more we learn, the more we discover that we will never know it all.  

Perhaps, however, the notion of mastery learning is not the end goal of education, but only a means to it. Perhaps the experience of seeing our finitude in the face of boundless knowledge is a process which leads us to the greater goal of wisdom.  

If this be so, then I find myself amply equipped, completely qualified to lead my kids in their educational journey. If education is simply an opportunity to discover the vast universe of ideas and to see ourselves in light of it, small but beloved shadows of the Creator, then I am the perfect guide. For I have seen my own shadow, examined myself and discovered my creaturehood. To lead another into this knowledge is simply to resume the posture of a child, to delight in discoveries and the humility they bring.  

By this definition, a teacher is not the master of knowledge, but one who has, in a sense, been mastered by it and gained in the process the humility necessary to model the posture of a lifetime learner. This I can do.   

What’s more, the process of education is necessarily humiliating. How many tears did I cry in my youth over math problems I could not penetrate? Why the tears? Because they testified to my limitations.

In the same way, science probed the smallness of my imagination by presenting abstract measures like moles to my material mind, forcing me in my finitude to contemplate the foreign infinite even while inspiring me with the genius of others. 

Grammar presented man’s best attempts to organize and quantify retrospectively the living and changing phenomena of human communication.  

Composition required that I organize my thoughts and impart them with compelling sense and style to another. 

And Literature presented the eternal questions and varying answers of a daunting body of history’s great thinkers. Would I ever read it all?  

Where better to learn of human limitations than in the bosom of your nurturing mother?

The collegiates had it right when they donned their school their alma mater. How is it possible that the metaphor be considered valid if its origin is not? In the heart of the family, in the lap of his mother, a child is safe to discover his own nature and the nature of the world he inhabits. With his mother’s help, he will wrestle with the burgeoning knowledge that he is a man, and not a god. In this way, he will learn to consider other men, their thoughts, their needs, their contributions, developing in the process not only tolerance and humility, but gratitude and piety.  

Lord, help us, homeschool mothers all, to model this process graciously, bearing the wonder and the humiliation, the wisdom and the gratitude of education for our children’s sakes.  

Rather than pretentious pretenders, make us resident witnesses to the mystery of man’s simultaneous nobility and poverty, and to the wisdom of the One who created him so.

Missy  Andrews

Missy Andrews

Missy Andrews is the author of Teaching the Classics: A Socratic Method for Literary Education.  She is co-director at Center For Lit and a homeschooling mother of six. Missy earned her B.A. from Hillsdale College and is currently finishing her M.A. in imaginative literature from Harrison Middleton University. ​

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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