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Guard Your Heart: On Teaching Difficult Students

Recently, I stumbled upon some helpful pedagogical advice. I was making my way through a collection of Early Church writings when I came to the Letters of Saint Ignatius, bishop of Antioch. Around the year 110, Ignatius composed several letters to churches and to Saint Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. In this epistle, Ignatius offers his fellow overseer the following guidance: “It is no credit to you if you are fond of good pupils. Rather by your gentleness subdue those who are annoying.” I have been contemplating these words for weeks. While Ignatius’s focus is obviously one of pastoral discipleship, I think his advice could bear fruit to anyone teaching students today, particularly Christian Classical teachers.

First, Ignatius rightly tells us to maintain perspective about our excellent students. In my first high school teaching assignment, I had one class of about 20 students, 5 of whom eventually earned National Merit Scholarships. The class moved briskly and confidently, with students often covering up my poor explanations or shoddy projects with their natural intelligence. They were smart, generous, and funny, and they were that way on the first day of class. I loved teaching them. Over the years, I have seen this pattern continue. My best readers, my most thoughtful and insightful writers, my most responsible pupils—they’ve all come to me that way. I cannot take credit for their brilliance or, as Ignatius says, my love of them. It’s easy to love a good student.

If we move on to the second half of Ignatius’s words—those that deal with difficult students—the word “annoying” might first seem off putting. This word is now a petulant insult, conjuring images of an older sister calling her little brother “So annoying!” because he won’t leave her room. But I think we can assume the best about Ignatius’s tone and pastoral purposes, and we can look at other translations of the letter that replace “annoying” with the phrase “more troublesome.”

Even with this new phrase in mind, Ignatius proclaims an unfashionable truth: some students are more troublesome than others. Any veteran teacher can tell you that the absence of a single disruptive student allows a class to run far more smoothly. Teenagers can master a sort of superficial obedience that keeps them out of trouble, but still subtly disrupts a classroom dynamic. Of course, it is ultimately up to the teacher to competently manage his class, but non-teachers often forget that a good class has a good group dynamic first. A teacher primarily feels the weight of teaching 20 students at once, and a student who constantly disrupts will make that weight feel heavier. Ignatius’s words remind us that it’s not mean-spirited to state that some students demand more energy than others, and that that demand can frustrate. Just as a loving parent may confess that her “strong willed” son is uniquely exhausting because he always argues about curfew, so a loving teacher may confess that one of his students is uniquely exhausting because he always seeks attention in class. A teacher needs to acknowledge his frustrations candidly so they do not fester.

So what, then, can a teacher do with difficult students? Ignatius says to subdue them with “gentleness.” At first, this seems odd advice, but I take the word “gentleness” here to be about a teacher’s proper inner state. To acquire a “gentle” inner disposition, I think teachers can first aim for a spirit of humility. An easy way to do this is to simply remember our own high school years. Adulthood glosses over childhood memories with a kind brush, covering up just how tedious we were for some teachers. Second, we can remember Christ’s “Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector,” and ask the Lord for mercy, lest we quietly thank God we aren’t like that kid who never remembers his textbook. Third, remember that you are not any student’s savior, no matter what Dead Poets Society suggests. This grounding can make for a more gentle disposition, which is vital. Students sense a teacher’s inner calm or exacerbation, and — in my experience — respond better to a quiet spirit, even if it’s coupled with a strict consequence. Granted, a troublesome child will only be “subdued” over time, from the work of many “gentle” teachers, but good instruction takes the long view.

The advice from Ignatius to Polycarp is compelling for teachers because it speaks to the center of a classroom: the heart of the teacher. Teachers do much of their exhausting work alone, and that isolation can lead to deep, even painful frustration. A frustrated teacher must, as Solomon says, guard his own heart with all vigilance so that he does not store up resentment for those he is called to train in love. A Christian Classical teacher needs to guard his heart all the more. Teaching others about Virtue can deceive you into thinking that you’re virtuous, which is dangerous ground indeed. In the end, our difficult students were not given to us to be controlled. They were not given to us to be fixed. They were given to us to further work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.

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