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On Lighting the Lamp for Young Teachers

How Schools Can Strengthen and Not Extinguish Their Fire

“You are very young and inexperienced in life, education, and business and to leave so abruptly . . .”

These were the words an irate colleague penned to me upon receipt of the letter I sent out in early July to inform my fellow faculty members and parents as to why I was resigning my teaching position midsummer.

Permit me to offer some context:

Currently I am a single woman in my mid-twenties, but I discerned in my teenage years that I would become a teacher, though I had little idea at the time as to where this call would lead . . . until my second year of college. I discovered and fell in love with the philosophy of classical education at my public university in South Mississippi, which on a cursory glance seems rather infecund soil for germinating such affections. These affections were watered in public speaking. In this general education course, I was asked to give three speeches relating to a central topic; so I, being the budding educator that I was, decided of all things to research classical education, a concept I was aware of from a decade of previous homeschooling but did not fully comprehend. Preparing and delivering those speeches became a turning point, prompting an abandonment of an advantageous education degree at the end of my junior year, to the shock of my academic advisor, in favor of a lackluster liberal studies degree. I can still hear her voice, “You are our star student!” But it was too late—I was convicted that classical education was the ideal, so I could not betray that belief any longer with coursework that reeked of “college and career readiness” and the latest progressive gender ideologies. The teacher training had no Logos, no central ordering principle, no Celestial Rose. So, I embarked on a journey to pursue a career as a young classical teacher.

That was me about two years ago. The flame of faith in classical education is still flickering, but my sanctuary lamp has been dimmed by reality. Over the past two years, I have labored in two different classical Catholic schools in the Northeast. I moved from my immediate family in southern Mississippi in order to do so, to locales where I knew virtually no one, because I believed that classical education was invaluable and I wanted to contribute to its crusade. Unfortunately, though, I found myself unemployed and moving back home.

In my first year of teaching, I taught a combined fifth/sixth grade class. It was challenging yet memorable because I possessed copious freedom to teach as I best saw fit. Juggling several subjects, I led my students through Latin recitations, literature discussions, and Roman history narrations. Inspired by Cindy Rollins’ model of “morning time,” I instituted an abbreviated version of it at the beginning of the day, reading scenes of Shakespeare aloud, learning hymns by heart, and looking at pieces of classical and contemporary art. Our “morning time” culminated in a spring field trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library and the National Gallery of Art, since we were located in Northern Virginia. I still smile when I remember our spontaneous singing of the Regina Caeli at noontide as we walked under the shadow of the capitol rotunda.

But the school announced in the spring that there was a financial crisis, so, facing the prospect that I would find myself without employment, I accepted a new teaching post as the sole high school English instructor for a school in Pennsylvania. Transitioning from elementary to high school was a learning curve, but I was captivated by the books I was required to teach, many of which I had never read before: the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Julius Caesar, On Obligations, A Tale of Two Cities . . . And teaching teenagers, who were not that far removed in age from me, evoked compassion—I desired that they might be nourished by the truth, goodness, and beauty of what we read together. My own teenage years were tumultuous, and I wanted my students to taste something real in a world of fleeting text messages and ephemeral snapchats. But I was not a free magistra, though I peddled liberal education. Working under leadership rife with the spirit of fear, I allowed the environment to infiltrate my own psyche, and in light of my recent graduate work, I can attest that my teaching craft suffered because of it.

Ultimately, the school announced in the last week of June that it, too, had a severe financial crisis. I waited for news of whether the school would open in the fall or not, but when the decision was postponed, I made one for myself. I resigned.

One compassionate colleague asked what could have been done to keep me. It is a question I have been pondering, so I proffer a few reflections especially for administrators to consider regarding how to take a pastoral approach toward young, single teachers.

1. Young teachers are in a vulnerable position. If they do not have family nearby, they have nowhere to turn to for protection in financial crisis. Remember that recent graduates do not yet have the proverbial “rainy day” fund. So be open and honest about the financial state of your school. Pay them a salary that will enable them to live modestly while affirming their worth as stemming from who they are rather than from what they do.

2. Young teachers can suffer loneliness. If you hire single folk from out of state, endeavor to incorporate them into a “faculty of friends.” Invite them to dinner with your families, take them to see local attractions, read and discuss books with them. Don’t assume that they only want to associate with other young adults!

3. Young teachers are eager learners. Give them opportunities for professional development. Maybe you cannot fund graduate school, but can you provide them gift cards to bookstores? Can you designate some faculty meetings for seminar-style discussion instead of merely reviewing the calendar? Could you schedule regular faculty–field trips? Perhaps you could organize a Shakespeare reading group?

As classical education continues to develop, let us ensure that we have conversations about all aspects of it, including how to stoke the fire already burning in the young teacher.

“So may the lamp that leads to what you seek
find oil enough,” he said, “in your own will
to light your way to the enameled peak . . .”
—Purgatorio, Canto VII

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