Not Safe, but Good

Jul 19, 2017

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I have been a Safe Teacher.

I have loved my students’ comfort more than I have loved their souls. I have desired their affection more than their holiness. I have allowed them to be lazy, inattentive, and dishonoring in my presence without my rebuke, and I have remained silent when they have neglected hard work and dismissed complex ideas. Even with ample opportunities to challenge their faulty logic and bolster their frail characters, I have failed to engage. In arrogance and self-indulgence, I have given them myself to love, not the thing itself. Not only that, but I have called this passivity benevolence and this selfishness charity.

Lord have mercy upon me.

In a famous passage in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children learn about Aslan from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver.

“If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

The teacher’s vocation is not to be safe, but to do good. This is a bold claim, so it behooves me to define my terms. I am not talking about belittling students. It is wrong to wield power to wound or distort the image of God in them. In all things, we should honor their humanity. Rather, I posit that Safe Teachers, for the purposes of this article, are teachers who give active or tacit consent to their students to remain as they are rather than inviting them to go “further up and further in” in pursuit of wisdom and virtue. These are the teachers who do as I have done, who love the ease and affection of students more than they love their souls. These teachers cannot stomach that students feel vulnerable or insecure, particularly if their teaching is the cause, because they are afraid of losing affection or increasing anxiety. However, this does students a disservice, since it is precisely that discomfort that can catalyze repentance and subsequent growth.

Teachers who are not safe, but good, are teachers who allow the full scope of the redemption of the world to inform their teaching. Like Aslan with the Pevensie children and Christ with his disciples, the telos, or ultimate goal, of the Good Teacher is to invite students to participate in redemption. To that end, Good Teachers orient their teaching to the gospel: creation, fallenness, incarnation, sacrifice, resurrection. Lest this sound too lofty, I simply mean that we teach the truth about God and his world with excellence, while acknowledging the fallenness of our students by correcting them within the confines of our authority and trusting the redemptive potential of the resurrection within them. This mandates that we allow them to feel uncomfortable, because repentance begins with discomfort. We risk their affection. We watch their anxiety mount without assuaging it as they encounter the challenges we purposefully commission - perhaps with questions they cannot yet answer, assignments that are beyond their ease, corrections of their character and performance - for the advancement of their wisdom and virtue.

One of the goals of the Good Teacher is to create a learning environment in which is it is impossible to feel complacent. Again, this is not to advocate harsh teaching methods. Isaiah 30 tells us that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. Good Teachers are kind. They help their students by equipping them with the vision and skills to rise to the occasion, but the occasion itself will often feel beyond their ability. Most students will tell you that they “can’t” read Book 1 of the Iliad by next week, compose a proper Shakespearean sonnet in fourth grade, or pay attention to a Latin lesson without a fidget spinner. Good Teachers know that they can. For most students, this creates dissonance, and this sense of disequilibrium generates an act of the will one way or another. This act of the will is where virtue takes root, and it cannot grow without it.

In this sense, Aslan, as a representation of Christ, was not a Safe Teacher, but a Good Teacher. He never sheltered the Pevensie children from their fallenness and its devastation. Instead, he laid it bare. At the same time he loved them fiercely and honored them wholly. Like Christ, he was their Good Teacher. He invited them to repentance. He acknowledged their free will. He required their holiness.

In the gospel of Mark, we encounter a rich young man who approached Jesus with a question.

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and mother.’”

And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

I am convinced that everything we need to know about teaching is contained in this story. Safe Teachers, like me, stop teaching after the young man's first answer, leaving the first two sentences of Jesus’ stunning response completely out. Safe Teachers cease teaching after instilling commandments, and they never dig deeper than their students successes. But Jesus looked at him, loved him, and pushed past Safe into Good. Some may look at this interaction as a failure, since the young man “went away sorrowful,” but that is a shallow reading. Instead, Jesus was the quintessential Good Teacher. He presented the full scope of the gospel in his lesson, communicated the knowledge and action necessary to repent and pursue holiness, and honored the young man’s free will, allowing grace to do its mighty work in its own time. This is masterful teaching.

As we look forward into the school year approaching, let us repent of safe teaching, and beseech Christ, our Good Teacher, for wisdom and mercy to advance goodness in the lives of our students as we imitate Him.

Heidi White

Heidi White

Heidi White is a homeschooling mother and the co-director of The Journey School, a hybrid classical school in Colorado Springs, where she teaches literature and Latin. She is the founder and director of Journey Together, a local program that curates cultural enrichment events for adults. She writes fiction, poetry and essays. She lives on 5.5 acres in the Colorado woods where her children climb trees while she drinks coffee and reads books on the porch.