I recently spoke to a group of new classical teachers about how to embody classical values in their classrooms through practices and routines—habits. I quoted heavily from Something They will Not Forget by Joshua Gibbs and You are What You Love by James K.A. Smith.
I spoke with passion. I cracked a few jokes. But they just looked scared.
At the end, one teacher was brave enough to raise his hand. “But you couldn’t have been like this your first year,” he said. “You had to start somewhere. I mean, I’m not Joshua Gibbs.”
He was right. We all start somewhere.
Far too often, the place where new teachers start is saturated with progressive educational philosophy, and they don’t even realize it. The way they learned to teach at the university will not work in a classical school. The way they were taught at government schools will not work at a classical school. And quite possibly, even the way they were homeschooled is not going to work in a classical school. When confronted with this truth, it is good and right—even holy—to be scared.
But, starting with the realization of how much you don’t know is starting somewhere.
When confronted with how much he doesn’t know, the first thing a new classical teacher should consider is that he has been hired to teach a curriculum and to enculturate.
The culture we aim to transmit in the classical school is an inherited culture. It is not a culture we create based upon parent feedback or download off Teachers Pay Teachers. We are to be true to the Western tradition and faithful to the Western canon. We are guardians of a tradition and keepers of a culture. One we didn’t make up, but one we pass on with humility.
The best place for a teacher to go when he realizes what he does not know is toward knowledge. A new classical teacher does well to brush up on his understanding of the Western tradition. He should commit to reading his Bible, his whole Bible, over the course of the academic year. He should pick up a book like “The Great Tradition” and read, maybe for the first time, excerpts from Plato, Socrates, Cicero, and Quintilian. And he should choose one great book from his school’s curriculum to read over the course of a year. This is starting somewhere.
The next bit of knowledge a new teacher needs to acquire pertains to his or her curriculum. A teacher cannot teach what he does not know. A slow and steady walk through the great works of the tradition will help ground him in the culture he must pass on, but he still needs to write a lesson plan and lead a Socratic discussion. Committing time to read his curriculum and plan his lessons will give him confidence in the classroom, creating a leisurely atmosphere of inquiry for his students. They will be able to tell whether he has meditated on the ideas or is winging it. And students respect a teacher who demonstrates through his attitude, habits, and language that he is on a path toward greater understanding of the curriculum just like they are.
There are a number of master teachers from the classical tradition a new teacher can study. There are probably a number of good teachers at your school right now who are worth observing. There are certainly endless podcasts to listen to and videos to watch.
All new teachers start somewhere. But no new teacher should stay there. We can all commit to becoming better teachers by becoming better students.