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Don’t Be Yourself and Other Tips for New Teachers

My sister-in-law and a good friend of mine are both getting ready to begin teaching for the first time, and in talking with them recently I was reminded of the first few weeks of my own teaching career. I was terrified.

One the one hand, it is right and proper to be aware of the magnitude of your responsibility as a teacher. It’s much like the story I have heard of William Blake, who insisted on approaching his artistic creations “with fear and trembling.” Teaching is like that—if you don’t approach teaching with a sense of “fear and trembling,” then you absolutely should not be a teacher.

On the other hand, we need not fear and tremble over the wrong things. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a few ideas here that would have been helpful to have someone tell me when I was beginning my first school year.

Don’t Be Yourself

I had no idea, before I actually began teaching, that teaching is primarily a performance art. I remember the moment I first realized, while standing in front of my class, that I was having the same experience I had had before when participating in theater productions. In a sense, good teaching is always a kind of role-play. I am not by nature a very effusive, outgoing sort of person, but when I am teaching that is the kind of person I need to be, and so I must take that role onto myself in order to best engage with my students.

When you take the terrifying, humbling, and difficult step of taking your students seriously, you put yourself in a position to really speak the truth​

This applies at the most basic levels: everyone has bad days where they don’t feel well and don’t feel like expending the energy necessary for teaching, but they must ‘put on a brave face,’ suck it up, and radiate that persona nonetheless. If I decided to always “be myself” when teaching, my students would have a pretty miserable experience in my class, because sometimes I’m a real bummer to be around. Especially in the mornings.

The paradoxical side of this, however, is that when I am ‘performing’ for my students in class, I often feel most complete, most fully myself—what some philosophers have understood as essential to the experience of Joy: the sensation that accompanies those moments when we feel that we are in the presence of something that helps us become more fully ourselves. When I am not myself, I am more fully myself.

You Don’t Have to Know Everything

I have four children ages five and under, and much to my dismay, they seem to think that I know everything. I think most young children just sort of assume that their parents possess every piece of knowledge they might desire. How very far from the truth that is.

This assumption is often present in a subtle way in schools and classrooms. There can be an enormous amount of pressure to feel that you as a teacher must produce brilliant ideas and meaningful discussions, and anyone with an accurate understanding of their own limitations will immediately feel the anxiety and dread that comes with such an unrealistic expectation.

The good news is liberating, however: the men and women who have produced the art, history, science, math, etc. that you are exploring together are far more brilliant than you will ever be, so just let them do all the hard work!

It took me several years to realize that the classes where I tried to generate profound discussions generally were terrible, whereas those where we just sat down with a good book and read together, stopping to explore ideas along the way, were consistently productive and profitable. Joshua Gibbs says it well in this excellent piece:

“The teacher’s thoughts should be more interesting than the student’s thoughts, but even the teacher’s thoughts will, if dispensed for a solid hour, become quite dull. Lean on your books more heavily. Think how many lousy sermons you’ve heard wherein you’d thought the whole time, ‘I would have gladly taken a man simply reading the Sermon on the Mount with a little verve and expression for half an hour over this joker’s limp deductive reasoning.’ “

Or, as a friend of mine put it, the “worst case scenario” of showing up to class knowing only what book you are going to read is really not the worst case scenario.

As with the previous idea, of course, there is a paradox at work here—teachers have a responsibility to learn even more than their students, and the life of a teacher is one that is always striving to increase in the knowledge of the good, true, and beautiful. But a healthy perspective of humility in the midst of this can greatly aid in dispelling the preposterous notion that the lion’s share of important information our students receive will originate from you.

Show Your Students That You Love Them

This might sound like it should go without saying, but it needs to be said.

It’s hard to put this into words, though, because it naturally leads us to raise the question, how should we love our students? What does that look like in practice, when it is actually embodied? And while there is no way to possibly exhaust all of the possible ways in which we can manifest love for our students, I think that this piece is a very good starting point: we need to trust our students and be willing to be vulnerable with them; we need to repent.

Because of the imbalance of power that is often implicit in a teacher/student relationship, it is dangerously easy for teachers to fall into the habit of viewing our students in an “us/them” dichotomy. Your students must know that you are a human just like them, that you are fallen and need to repent just like them, that you sometimes find it hard to muster up the courage to do your work well. You must make yourself vulnerable in order to truly love; there simply is no other way.

In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks argues that eros should be the foundation of the relationship between student and teacher”

“Today, eros simply means romantic love, but to the ancients it involved a much richer concept, joining the mind of the student with the mind of his master, uniting the idea [of virtue] and the deed. Eros charged the air of the ancient classroom with the genuine feeling of the master for his student and for his pupils: the emotional commitment necessary for capturing the imagination of his students. One can neither know what virtue is nor benefit from the knowledge of it…unless one participated theoretically and practically virtue, unless one abandoned oneself–as in love–to act in accordance with the good and the beautiful, in headlong pursuit of excellence and moderation.”

I love that picture of abandoning yourself for your students. You must be willing to love (die for) your students every single day.

This does not mean, as Lewis says at the end of his essay The Weight of Glory, that we must be perpetually solemn, but rather that, having taken each other seriously, we must play; and this applies especially in the classroom. When you take the terrifying, humbling, and difficult step of taking your students seriously, you put yourself in a position to really speak the truth and love of Christ into their lives.

That is, in the deepest possible sense, the most important thing you can possibly hope to accomplish as a teacher.

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