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Teachers, Aspire to Be Loved and Feared

There are three kinds of teachers: the tough, the nice, and the charitable.

The Tough Teacher delights in his status as such and imagines his class to be an intellectual obstacle course, like a Ninja Warrior contest of the mind. Hurrying his students up an impossible ramp of reading, staging reading quizzes like a series of fly-wheel trapezes, the Tough Teacher taps his pencil and waits with gradebook in hand. Standards loom abstracted from mentorship; lessons boom and clang like gongs and cymbals. If you want to spot a Tough Teacher, look out for the Patton-esque speeches on syllabus day, the Heraclean term papers, and the carefully mapped bell-curves.

The Nice Teacher, on the other hand, lives for the tepid approval of his students. Consequently, he is either easy and chummy or challenging and apologetic. On the outside, the Nice Teacher is sanguine and affirming: He wears a skinny tie and (when school permits) Birkenstocks; he quotes Westworld. But on the inside, his soul is a wave-pool of insecurity: he frets over evaluations and judges every lesson by the excitement in the classroom. Accordingly, the fun and fragile personality of the Nice Teacher colors every subject, every class, every concept learned. Eventually, mentorship crumbles without standards, and learning dies without moral verve. Nice Teachers don’t typically talk about their niceness in the same way Tough Teachers talk about their toughness, but there are some standard marks of niceness you’d recognize: high-fives in the hallway, classes primed with obscure and nebulously spiritual Bob Dylan tracks, and semi-successful outdoor lessons.

The Tough Teacher is dreaded, the Nice Teacher liked—but the Charitable Teacher is loved and feared. Like the Tough Teacher, the Charitable Teacher greets the adolescent tastes and teenage predilections of his students with a certain amount of indifference, but unlike the Tough Teacher he does this precisely because he loves his students and heeds, as St. Paul would have it, their “upward call.” Like the Nice Teacher, the Charitable Teacher attends to his students’ affections, but unlike the Nice Teacher he generally does this to thwart and counter them—to present his students to God “as those who have been brought from death to life.” In short, the Charitable Teacher represents an alien fusion of congeniality and conviction. He possesses an impossible merger of virtues: the effusive cheer of a St. Francis and the moral grit of a John Wayne. What accounts for such a blend of opposites? What allows for such strange goodness?

In 3.10 of De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine defines charity as “the impulse of one’s mind to enjoy God on his own account and to enjoy oneself and one’s neighbor on account of God.” He also tells us that cupidity (the opposite of charity) is the tendency “to enjoy oneself and one’s neighbor and any corporeal thing not on account of God.” Can we fail to see the implications for education? Tough and Nice Teachers are alike trainers in “cupidity” (or to borrow another Pauline term, educators of the “flesh”). They teach “not on account of God,” harnessing the energy of command or charisma rather than the truth, goodness, or beauty of the material at hand. For both the Tough and the Nice Teacher, the dangling carrot is power—power from student approval or power over student approval. Only the Charitable Teacher can love God through his study and his students.

As teachers, we want to be loved and feared. Does this lofty standard make us sad? Clearly, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a teacher to be truly charitable. Some of us are too callused by years of cheerless work to care for tenth-grade slackers and clowns. Others are too afraid of students, parents, and administrators to teach with genuine joy and inviolable bravery, and all of us waffle between the vices of unfeeling managerialism and puerile ingratiation. “Who then can teach?” the befuddled disciple asks. “What educator can find a self so selfless, an intellect so indifferent to the whims of the zeitgeist, a love of God and goodness so free from the ego?”

Charity himself replies, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

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