TeacherCounselorParentCoachFriend Part II

Continuing from Part I–What does it really mean to be a teacher? What is our role in the lives of our students?

St. Thomas Aquinas actually has this beautiful image of the teacher as a doctor, and the act of teaching as an act of healing. (I highly recommend this great talk by Fr. Vivian Boland, O.P. on “The Healing Work of Teaching: Thomas Aquinas and Education” if you want to learn about it in depth.)

I mean, just think about that for a second.

As I mentioned before, there is a certain appropriate professional distance between the student and the teacher, as there is between the counselor or doctor and the patient.

Yet Aquinas draws this comparison for other reasons–namely, because of the actions of teaching and learning.

He says, “Learning is produced in the pupil by the teacher, not like heat in wood by the fire, but like health in the invalid by the doctor” (Treatise Of Spiritual Creatures. Art IX. in conjunction with a polemic against Averroës, as quoted here).

He also says, “We do not say that a teacher communicates knowledge to the pupil, as though the knowledge which is in the teacher is numerically the same as that which arises in the pupil. It is rather that the knowledge which arises in the pupil through teaching is similar to that which is in the teacher, and this was raised from potency into act, as has been said.  As the doctor is said to cause healing, although he works exteriorly, while nature alone works interiorly, so man is said to teach the truth, although he declares it exteriorly, while God teaches interiorly” (Aquinas, Questiones Disputatate de Veritate Q 11, a 1).

What is so lovely about Aquinas’ view is that the teacher, like the doctor, works in harmony with nature– that is, the teacher appeals to the capacity of reason that already belongs to the student. The teacher is not so much giving what the student does not have, but is rather cultivating, nourishing, and drawing out capacities that are already in him by virtue of his human nature. The teacher helps to actualize potentialities that already exist in the student.

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Phil helps Hercules hone his “god-given” strength.

Moreover Aquinas seems to imply that the teacher is a kind of “coworker” with God– a favorite term of Pope Benedict as well, whose episcopal motto was “cooperatores veritatis” : coworkers of the truth. God does the interior work, according to Aquinas, but we have a part in the “exterior declaration” that God uses to bring about the inner transformation.

But the key is to remember that this image is an analogy–and so although there are elements in being a doctor that are like those in being a teacher, there are also elements that are unlike, even according to Aquinas.

I cannot heal my students of their physical, emotional, or mental infirmities in the same way a medical doctor or therapist can, because I am not trained to do so. I can, like any other human being, listen with attentiveness and sensitivity and care to whatever problems or sufferings they express, but in that sense I find myself more like a caring (but untrained) friend than like a counselor.

And yet, are teachers friends?

Yes, and no. Like friends, we are on a journey with our students toward the truth of whatever we are trying to teach. And like friends there is a certain level of equality through shared experience in the classroom and in the school community of certain events. And like Aristotle’s “friendship of virtue,” we are hopefully engaging in a relationship in which we encourage our students on to greater goodness, and likewise ourselves receive the ways in which they encourage us to greater virtue and love.

But as Aristotle also points out, equality is necessary for friendship. And there is a marked inequality in the student-teacher relationship. Even the most egalitarian among us would admit that there is, at least, an imbalance of power; the teacher has (some) authority over her students, and even evaluates their “performance” and evidence of learning. So friendship, in the traditional sense, is not even possible (nor, I would argue, advisable).

I’m still thinking about all this. More to come.

 

TeacherParentCounselorCoachFriend? Part I

What are we really?

As teachers, I mean.

I need some help with definitions.

Are we coaches? Do we teach our players how to “play the game” as it were– an important game, mind you– the game of school or college or life? Do we invest our energy in teaching kids skills and forcing them to practice them over and over again, day in and day out, until these skills become real habits? Are we called to be great coaches? Like Mr. Miagi?

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Yes… but we are not drill sergeants in quite the same way. There is a qualitative element to the teacher-student relationship– or, should I say, content element that is markedly different from a coach’s role. The coach seeks to train the player to excel, usually in body but occasionally in mind (think Searching for Bobby Fischer) in terms of some specific skill–and the coach trains the student in such a way as to promote winning, to some degree. Any coach that does not care about the player or the team winning at all is, I would argue, a bad coach.

The competitive “winning” element is present also, to be sure, in teaching too– especially when you think of standardized tests and college acceptances and other “performance” elements. But teachers and students existed long before any of these competitive elements did, and so the heart of teaching itself must lie elsewhere. Even the fact that “teaching to the test” has become such a despised cliche in education suggests already that most teachers reject the notion that their role is primarily a coaching one, in which they must encourage the practice of skills conducing to a kind of winning or success. This practice and skills element is present and important, but cannot be all, if only because one can imagine a scenario in which a teacher has taught well and students have learned well even if the students have not performed well by external measures.

So, to account for this unquantifiable element of teaching, is it better to say that we are more like parents? The Church says in Gravissimum Educationis (which sounds pretty grave, right?) that parents are the “primary educators” of their children. And they are. For better or for worse. For richer or poorer. In sickness and in health, parents are the primary educators: in presence, in absence, in love, in dysfunction, in reading, in illiteracy (of many kinds), they certainly provide the most impactful pedagogy on their children whether they realize it or not. Although I firmly believe we teachers can have a big impact, we cannot, by ourselves, undo or reshape what has already been done.

So, are teachers supposed to be a kind of parent? Some schools (esp. Catholic colleges of a certain kind) seem to think so– these institutions use the phrase in loco parentis— “in place of parents”– to describe the role of their teachers. And you can sort of see why.

I just came back from a two day senior retreat with my kids, and I think sometimes they themselves want teachers, very desperately, to take on such a role. In the absence of a fully present parent, sometimes a caring teacher is the closest thing to a parent that child has ever experienced. And this vision of the role of a teacher can be a beautiful thing; we are, in many ways, like parents. When I talk to my friends who already have children, and they talk to me about the ways they are seeking to teach their children and respond to them with “love and logic,” I immediately relate because I am doing the same thing with my students. I am setting boundaries to help them feel safe but also to teach them about appropriate behaviors. I am giving them routines and expectations and ways to voice their feelings and concerns, just like good parents do. I’m listening and learning and feeling frustrated and administering consequences and making mistakes and hoping that I’m not messing [them] up too much by my imperfect gestures of love and discipline.

And, especially in the absence of parents who know how to do these things to even a marginal degree, sometimes what students need is a caring man or woman to show them what being becoming adult means and entails.

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John Keating (Robin Williams) shows his beloved young men how to… be men? Hm.
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Miss Honey actually adopts Matilda and becomes her mom, saving her from her horrible parents. I think sometimes as teachers we wish we could do this on occasion with certain students.

And yet, we teachers aren’t actually parents to our students, and we cannot be. We spend many hours with them– sometimes more hours than their actual parents do– but we do not go home with them. We do not live life with them in the same way. Teachers are tasked with teaching their students specific content– English and Math and Science and Theology and History, or one of these, or all of these– yet parents are tasked with something much greater and deeper and more intimate:

Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.(11) This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking. Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man, in which the well-rounded personal and social education of children is fostered. Hence the family is the first school of the social virtues that every society needs. It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and office of the sacrament of matrimony, that children should be taught from their early years to have a knowledge of God according to the faith received in Baptism, to worship Him, and to love their neighbor. Here, too, they find their first experience of a wholesome human society and of the Church. Finally, it is through the family that they are gradually led to a companionship with their fellowmen and with the people of God. Let parents, then, recognize the inestimable importance a truly Christian family has for the life and progress of God’s own people. (12) (Gravissimum Educationis  emphasis added)

So, as teachers, and especially Catholic school teachers, we work with parents and support them in education, but we do not replace or take on the privilege and cross of parenthood.

Okay, then.

So, are we more like counselors, then?

There’s this level of professional distance that parents do not have with their children that we, as teachers, clearly ought to have. As much as we idealize the Professor Keatings and Ms. Honeys of our imagination, there is a level of boundary and distance that is, actually, very loving. It is the kind of distance that allows for the unique and beautiful kind of relationship that is possible between students and teachers and yet is not possible in the same way between parents and their children. This kind of professional distance is similar to that between the counselor or doctor and the patient.

(To be continued.)

What are your thoughts on what a teacher really is, or ought to be?

Part II