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A School Is Only As Classical As Its Teachers

For the time being, it seems there will always be a dozen classical schools on the cusp of opening in this country. The group of people intent on founding a school have innumerable tasks before them. They must find a place for the school to meet, determine the curriculum, draft a mission statement, design a logo—not to mention all the legal concerns, banking concerns, and so forth. All these issues are vital because they ensure the stability of the school. Nonetheless, whether a school can deliver a classical education to students ultimately depends on its teachers. If a school has a Latin name, a Latin motto, an ancient Greek mascot, an impeccable curriculum, beautiful grounds, tasteful uniforms, and yet the teachers tell students that taste is relative and everyone needs to be true to themselves, the school is not really offering a classical education. It is just a private school with classical clothes.

I do not mean that teachers are the only important part of the school, for the headmaster, the principal, and the academic dean are more important to the smooth operation of a school than a literature teacher or a science teacher. However, there is a great difference between a school that runs smoothly and a school which trains students to wisdom, virtue, and good taste.

A great headmaster makes it possible for his teachers to offer a classical education. The headmaster is responsible for carving out a safe place in the modern world wherein a classical school can exist, which is no easy task, for a classical Christian school must go against the tide and shun the fashionable virtues which make advancement easy. It is the responsibility of the headmaster to explain classical education, define it, and make it seem worth the financial and existential sacrifices parents will be required to make.

And yet, there is a very real sense in which all the headmaster’s work comes down to the work his teachers do in the classroom. Delivering a classical education is like a relay race. The board runs the first leg, the headmasters runs the second, the curriculum runs the third, but the teacher runs the final leg. If the teacher is not classically minded, everything else was for nothing. A very strong teacher can (sort of) make up for a weak curriculum, a daft motto, a risible mascot, indifferent parents, and ugly buildings, but there is nothing which can make up for a weak teacher.

In this, a teacher is not exactly a team player. The runners in a relay race work together in a different sort of way than a basketball team works together. The literature teacher needs the math teacher to do his job properly and vice versa. And the math teacher and the literature teacher can both make one another’s jobs much easier or much harder. However, day by day, hour by hour, each teacher works alone.

In a Chili’s kitchen, the mistakes of one cook are easily caught and fixed by other cooks, the manager, or the waiters. In a classroom, though, the incompetent lecturer is unlikely to be caught and told, “Don’t do it like that. Do it like this.” In a classical classroom, a teacher who tells his students that old books are no better than new ones, or that Jackson Pollock was a genius, or that Marvel movies are the Homeric epics of our time is not likely to be corrected. A student may come home and tell his parents, “In class today, Mr. McLaren said Jackson Pollock was a genius,” and his father may frown and say, “I thought we paid tuition at a classical school,” but once a teacher has been hired, it is hard to dismiss him simply because his tastes and prejudices aren’t old-fashioned enough. This sort of information has to come out when he is being interviewed. After he is hired, it’s too late. You simply have to wait for him to decide he would prefer a job at the more liberal school across town.

It is tempting to believe that any Christian can—with enough teacher workshops after school and a robust teacher development plan—be made into a classical educator. I am more than a little skeptical. Turning a garden-variety conservative into a classical educator does not simply involve showing them a few pedagogical tricks. It often involves a full transformation of beliefs and tastes. There is nothing about buying into the theory of poll-parrot, pert, and poetic stages of child development that will necessarily convince someone heavy metal doesn’t belong in a church nave. I have nothing against teacher development plans or asking the faculty to read a certain book together, but I see little evidence that these practices will convert a Christian disciple of Dewey into a classical educator—not in less than ten years, at least. Hiring someone who isn’t classical with the hope of turning them is a bit like marrying a Catholic in the hope of turning them Presbyterian (or vice versa). What is theoretically possible and what is likely are quite different.

For all those people now starting classical schools, my advice is to ask prospective teachers far more about their tastes than their experience. The prospective teacher who agrees with all the items on a school’s rudimentary statement of faith has proven very little about himself. Good taste is rare, but necessary. Do not assume, “If you build a classical school, classical teachers will come.” Unless you have classical teachers, it’s not really a classical school. Thus, the founders of a school should not open their doors for business until they have secured a classical faculty.

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