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On Being a Weak Teacher

All educators (who aren’t chatbots) know weakness. Disorganization, stage fright, incompetence in a subject matter, pedagogical clumsiness. These things inhibit our effectiveness and confidence. One day we discover—surprise!—we are not the John Keatings and William Forresters we hope to be.

I am a weak teacher myself (with my own cocktail of fits and foibles), but lately I’ve been helped by John Milton’s “Sonnet 19,” truly one of my all-time favorite sonnets. The opening octave presents what’s indeed a very weak poet, Milton in his 40s, already fully blind from a life of reading by candlelight:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask.
(Lines 1-8)

Milton’s poem is about a physical ailment, but the emotional timbre of the sonnet and the theme of weakness are familiar to all. Here the first eight lines of the sonnet invoke both Christ’s parable of the talents (Mat. 25:14-30) and the parable of the vineyard keeper (Mat. 20:1-16)—two stories about what it means to serve in the kingdom of God. Punning on currency and skill, Milton complains that, without his sight, he can’t multiply his “talent” of poetry. “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” The weak teacher hears in these familiar lines his own protestation: “Why do you allow me to struggle, Lord? Why am I like this? Why do I fail in this regard? I’m not a wicked servant. I’m not a bad teacher.”

But while blindness seems at first to be the speaker’s big issue, aural clues intimate a deeper problem: pride. The chime of the I-sound (“When I consider how my light is spent”) permeates the first eight lines of the sonnet in end-rhymes like “wide,” “hide,” “chide,” and “denied.” And with that ringing “I,” the reader catches the persistent toll of the first-person: ego, ego, ego. Already, we suspect what the final six lines confirm—that though he “fondly” seeks to serve the Lord, still a part of the speaker’s predicament is an obsession with his own spiritual performance.

Typically, the logical turn or “volta” of a Petrarchan sonnet comes in the ninth line, but here the shift takes place in the middle of the eighth, startling our expectations with the preemptive retort of “Patience”:

But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
(Lines 8-14)

By the end of the poem, the reader has gained perspective: what we originally thought was pure devotion was in part disguised narcissism. The second half of the sonnet names the first half a “murmur,” a fit of discontented grumbling about what God will or won’t do with his career. Was the speaker’s stress really about serving God all along? Even if it had been, that stress was needless: the panoramic picture of Patience reveals the kingdom of God as just that—a kingdom, “thousands at his bidding speed.” Notice how often these final lines are interrupted by “caesuras” or dramatic pauses, punctuated moments: the semicolon in line 10, the periods in lines 11 and 12. These verses, like the speaker, are cut short by the practical words of Patience: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Strangely enough, it is by ceasing to be busy that the speaker starts to be helpful. Like Martha, Milton learns the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42).

When I feel my own feebleness as a teacher, I need this Miltonic medicine. I cannot deny my weaknesses and world-wounds, and some of those ailments may, like Milton’s blindness (or Paul’s thorn in 2 Cor. 12), never be healed in this life. The answer to my problem of weakness, though, isn’t transcending weakness; it is the king and his kingdom. “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts.” Milton catches a cosmic picture, a freeing vision that lifts him beyond his private drama, and as an educator, I can catch that vision, too. Why do I feel so frenzied by a bad lesson? Why am I fitfully concerned with that answer I didn’t know, that exercise that tanked? The Christian educator serves the king of love, and “his kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:33).

What would Milton tell weak educators? “Bear his mild yoke.” Oddly enough, the first step towards freedom as teachers seems to be the realization that God does not need us as teachers. While I sweat over proving my mettle, I am useless to his kingdom-cause. Once I am extraneous, I am finally useful.

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