Teacher, Teach Thyself

Mar 21, 2017

Like most classical educators, I often find myself discussing How To Teach. This is a topic that bewilders me because of its great weight, and I used to panic and answer any queries directed to me in the same manner: “Ask somebody else. I, too, want to teach better. I only teach literature because I love books.” Over the years I have absorbed to my surprise that an insatiable love of learning in community has made me a teacher, so my advice now is, “To be a master teacher, show your students that you love what you teach.” 

Sometimes the person with whom I am conversing asks for “more practical” advice. At this I blink, because I am convinced that there is nothing more practical than love. Plato wrote, “the goal of an education is to love what is worth loving.” Love defines and informs classical education. Classical educators cry for practical help, and rightly so, for it is a great task to distill a vast tradition of wisdom and virtue into pedagogy, lesson plans, curriculum choices, book lists, and assessment criteria. Teachers must and should develop the skill of teaching. 

But the proper place to begin a mighty endeavor is at the beginning, which is a question of love. Love is the beginning and the end of classical education. Do we, the teachers, love what is worth loving? Do we delight in worthy knowledge and translate it to redemptive action? It is not enough that we ask our students to love these things; we must love them ourselves. If we want to become excellent teachers in the classical tradition, we must orient our personal habits to our own lifetime pursuit of wisdom and virtue.

Classical educators already know that it is students’ hearts we are after, and we desire to create an environment of learning in which students revel in goodness, truth and beauty. To this end we expend a massive amount of energy on the particulars of teaching, from pondering the rage of Achilles to purchasing pre-sharpened pencils that receive the best online reviews. We pray for our students, mentor them through their struggles, stay awake till the wee hours grading and lesson planning, read and underline countless books and articles regarding effective teaching techniques, adapt our pedagogy when we fear that we have failed to connect with our students. This is all wisdom. Whether at home or in a formal classroom, this creative outpouring will result in a wonderful school. Yet the telos, or created purpose, of a classical education is not that students love school, but that they love wisdom and virtue. A wonderful school is a means to the telos, not the telos itself. When educators make a wonderful school their goal, they miss the beating heart of a classical education, which is that educators lead the way for students to love what is worth loving. 

If our desire and our duty is to inspire students to love what is worth loving, we classical educators must do for ourselves what we ask of our students. After all, the only reason that it is important that students gain and apply knowledge is because it is important that human beings gain and apply knowledge. Therefore, our students need to see us gaining and applying knowledge. If the adage is true, that “we become what we behold,” then our vocation becomes clear: to behold wisdom and virtue with our students, who will then behold wisdom and virtue for themselves, and the community of learning becomes wise and virtuous. 

Certainly this is not a formula or a guarantee: love never is. Love is elusive. Love does not obligate or manipulate, but love does imitate. Our students will imitate their teachers. We offer them the scope and boundaries of a world worth loving, so the question is will that world be contained within the walls of a conscientiously curated classroom and curriculum, or does the world we love extend beyond it? When our students see that we love goodness, truth and beauty beyond the classroom, they will imitate us. With this in mind, classical educators must pursue well-ordered souls as well as well-ordered classrooms so that we may invite our students to love beyond themselves. 

If classical educators must do for ourselves what we ask of our students, we must develop liturgies of lifelong learning in our lives. Does this mean that we have to do math worksheets before breakfast every day? Perhaps not, but it may mean that we spend Sunday afternoon reading Jane Eyre on the porch instead of researching pencils on Amazon. Perhaps we put down the lesson plans and sketch that chickadee outside of the kitchen window. Whether it is reading great books, mastering a new skill, identifying constellations or attending the symphony, educators must cultivate the habits of a nourished soul for the sheer love of the Thing Itself. For some time every day, as often as possible, we should set aside the worthy but utilitarian goal of becoming great teachers and devote ourselves to becoming happy humans. Being a great classical educator requires that we invest time, energy, and creativity in the flourishing of our inner lives as well as the excellence of our schools. 

As wise teachers, we know that our students will imitate us. If you are at all like me, this feels like a great weight on frail shoulders. I am merely a woman who loves books after all. Developing skill as an educator is absolutely essential to the telos of classical education. We must lesson plan and buy pencils. But skill is not enough. If our students see only our skill, they see a small world. Skill will offer students the life of a classroom; love will offer them the life of the world. 

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. 

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

Subscribe to the CiRCE Institute Podcast Network

Stitcher iTunes RSS