I didn’t mean to become a humanities teacher. I blame the stories.
Having fallen in love with classical languages in college, I seized the opportunity to teach Latin at a classical school. My only obstacle was that I didn’t actually know Latin. I knew Greek, had even taught it, but Latin was a foreign language to me. Enter Wes Callihan. Daring to teach those ignorant of the “mother tongue” via fire hose, he offered a week-long intensive to a room full of teachers and, somehow, in the span of one week, taught more than how to learn Latin thoroughly. He fed my love of stories.
My years as a Latin teacher were spent enthusiastically translating, discussing, and expanding upon stories of Greeks and Romans. Our days were spent in the marvelous company of Cicero, Caesar, Livy, and Vergil. Conjugations and declensions were learned, of course, but only as a means to an end – to get to the stories.
A few years passed and one of the school’s humanities teachers moved to another state. Sure, we would miss her, but this was my chance. I longed to tell stories of monsters, dragons, Vikings, knights, and kings; of Celts, Englishmen, navigators, patriots, and revolutionaries.
But my love of story and of story-telling was not exclusively selfish. The effects of them upon my students, and myself as a learner, are so profound that I simply cannot imagine a more pleasing way of teaching and learning. My courses focus more upon history than literature, but history is best told through stories. History is stories, after all, not the task of memorizing dates and dead people.
Stories shape our souls and character, teaching us in ways that nothing else can. They echo within us far longer than any facts hurriedly copied from a chalkboard. The wonderful story-teller Flannery O’Conner once wrote that “a story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way…You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”
My students, no different than any others, are targets of a culture which tirelessly attacks the attention span and the moral imagination. They do not need more “facts” that can be regurgitated onto a sheet of Scantron bubbles. They need stories that awaken and nourish their minds and souls to reach for virtue, modeled and painted before them in well-told tales of great men and women, real or imagined. As C.S. Lewis argued, in The Abolition of Man,
“For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”
“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
I became a humanities teacher because I wanted to be a story-teller, not merely due to my own love of stories, but to become one who awakens the pursuit of virtue in myself and my students; one who pushes back against the creation of “men without chests.”
I often fall short of these grand aspirations, but I have found that many of my trials arise due to bad memory and worse priorities, when I forget the significant in favor of the inconsequential; when I begin acting as a bureaucrat rather than as a teacher. A scope and sequence has its place, but it should not drive me to forget what I ought to be doing. Staying “on schedule” accomplishes little if my students have malnourished souls.
I tell myself, “I teach students; I do not manufacture products. I am nurturing souls, not prepping them for shipment.” Then the factory whistle/school bell sounds and I, like Pavlov’s dog, jump, off to teach “material” rather than students. I am philosophically opposed to industrialized education, but sometimes I forget to show it.
Mid-semester rolls around and I find myself so tired. In my experience, exhaustion in a classroom, and a school at large, arises from forgotten priorities, from attempting to do too much rather than a few things well, and from forgetting that our students are living souls, not just brains.
But, there are external battles as well. The stories I so love create their own trials. The books, heroes, and ideas get the best of me, blinding me to the reality that my students cannot read every great book and that they are far less likely to enjoy the ones I assign. After all, there is no better way to ruin a book than to make someone read it. Simply put, there are too many books and too little time.
Yet, perhaps this is an oversimplification.We are granted the same number of hours in each day that all previous generations have been given, so why do we (students and teachers alike) suffer from the much maligned problem of being “rushed”? Aren’t there enough hours in the day? Not when we settle for wasting them. Much like the culture portrayed in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, ours prefers easy entertainment to the joyous discipline of reading. So here I stand, armed with ancient tomes, clad for battle against…the cast of Jersey Shore.
The New Testament term for “temptation” (Matthew 4:1; 1st Corinthians 10:13) is akin to the word “trial” (James 1:2). The same circumstances that can make us patient, “perfect and complete,” can lead us to fall. Trials and tribulations can discourage and destroy, but they are opportunities for obedience and growth as well. “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials…”
The trials of a teacher are the joys of a teacher. Irrigating deserts, struggling against cultural tides, and equipping men with chests are difficult callings – difficult, rewarding, noble callings. Perspective determines which adjectives we most employ. Are our trials only trials, only temptations? Or are they occasions that reveal the worthiness of what we are doing? Do collisions with our culture show the futility of our work or the glorious necessity of it? Are the difficult days an indication of shortcoming or growing pains? Is the exhaustion a symptom of insufficiency or a sign that we are laboring where most needed?
Joy in teaching rarely stems from the paycheck, the thank you cards, or the nebulous sense of a job well done that other professions may provide. More frequently, joy arises from understanding what, precisely, we are doing. Teaching material or simply “finishing the book” can drain, but feeding souls brings joy.
Students with full souls are my joy. them make connections, catch their own fallacies, enthusiastically read their parts, zealously debate, skillfully craft arguments, and join the Great Conversation, inspires me in ways that no card, gift, or kind word can do (precious as these may be). Yes, my students remind me that the trials of teaching often cultivate the joys of teaching.
Dr. Brian Phillips is the Head of Upper School at Covenant Classical School (Concord, NC), where he also serves as a humanities teacher. Brian and his wife, Shannon, are the blessed parents of three children.