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?


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.

John Keating (Robin Williams) shows his beloved young men how to… be men? Hm.
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


“Who is Christianity?”

First week of school: check.

I was so tired today that I gave in to exhaustion and went to bed at 7:30.


And then, three hours later, I woke up and started thinking about my week. It’s keeping me awake and I thought I’d write it out, because sometimes that helps.

So this was the bell work I posted for all my kids today:


We were finishing up our lesson on Growth and Fixed Mindsets, which I use at the beginning of the year to set the tone of the class and help the kids think about themselves and their learning in new ways. We then reference it and reflect on it throughout the rest of the year.

Our new (and awesome) principal has been encouraging us to incorporate a “Faith Connection” into our lessons more explicitly and purposefully, and so this bell work was my attempt this week as a way to wrap things up right before they took their quiz on Mindsets.

I guess I knew ahead of time that the phrase “human dignity” might cause some issues for some of the kids. And, indeed, throughout the day different students raised their hands to ask me what the phrase meant. So I was already kind of breaking the cardinal rule of bell work: that it should be straight-forward enough that all students can do it without extra direction from the teacher. (This does not mean bell work cannot be rigorous, but that it’s not usually the best place to introduce new words or phrases.) So I anticipated the issue by encouraging students to raise their hands if they were confused or had any questions.

But during my first class of the day, one of my new foreign exchange students from Korea came bustling into the room a solid minute after the tardy bell rang.

The rest of the class looked up, but having been pretty well trained by now to understand that bell work was silent work time,  they got on with their writing without commenting. She excused herself and asked me anxiously if this meant she was going to receive a detention (since she had been tardy earlier this week as well), and I said yes. She accepted that consequence with grace, sat down, and began to work.

A moment later her hand went up and she called my name again: “Excuse me, Mrs. Ms. Shea?” (I have not corrected her yet on how to say my name, but I need to next week.)

I went over to her desk and knelt beside her, encouraging her to lower her voice by whispering her name.

She looked up at the projector screen, her eyes wide. “Mrs. Ms. Shea,” she whispered, loudly. “Who is ‘Christianity’?”

I felt many eyes look up from papers around the room and fix themselves on me.

Who is Christianity?

I looked up at the projector screen briefly, confused by her confusion. I swallowed and whispered, “Christianity is a religion.”

“Oh!” she nodded, but not comprehending.

“Do you have a religion at your home? A faith you believe in?” I was still whispering, and relieved that the other students seem to have reluctantly returned to their writing.

“No,” she said, smiling. “No religion!”

I looked up at the projector screen again, the incomprehensible word looking more incomprehensible by the second.

“That’s okay,” I said, grasping for words and speaking slowly–as much as for my sake as for hers. “Christianity is a religion… a belief, we have here at this school.  A big part of it is being loving to others… being good to others.” I searched her face for comprehension, and saw some of my words made sense. “For now, I want you to answer the question this way: How does ‘Growth Mindset’ relate to being a good person?”

“Oh, yes! Yes! Thank you, Mrs. Ms. Shea.”

I stood up and stretched bell work time by an extra minute so she could jot something down. I glanced at two of the other foreign exchange students in the class and wondered if they had had the same question, but had been too nervous to ask me.

Who is Christianity?

“Christianity” is a proper noun. She saw the capital letter. She thought it was a person’s name.

Who is Christianity?

She was right. It is a person. Jesus is Christianity.

And John the Baptist, too, whose memorial of martyrdom is today. And Edith Stein and Saint Kateri and Saint Paul, the apostles, and John Paul II, and the old gentleman at the Senior Support Center, and the Gentiles, and the Jews, and the Iraqis being brutally persecuted right now, and the religious sisters, my students, my family… a thousand faces flashed through my mind.

Who is Christianity?

But how could I explain all of that in a matter of seconds? I had not even mentioned His name to her. I had said, “It is a religion.” And suddenly it seemed small wonder to me that either she had not heard the word “religion” before or that she had, but only in some remote context like, “Some people on the other side of the world have ‘religions'”… along with political parties and horoscopes and economies and special holidays and other vague things that people in other countries “have.”

Who is Christianity?

I had only a few seconds to contemplate my clumsy answer before the timer went off and it was time to start class.

“Pens and pencils down please,” I said automatically. “It’s okay if you are not 100% finished with your bell work… Please stand for prayer.”

We stood up, faced the Crucifix on the wall, and made the sign of the Cross.