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Signs Of A Great Teacher

What’s the surest sign of a great teacher?

If I were a principal interviewing prospective high school teachers, the question I’d ask older applicants is, “How many of your former students do you keep in touch with? How many graduates want to talk to you after they no longer have to talk to you?”

If a veteran teacher said, “None,” that might be the end of the interview.

What sort of teacher do graduates want to stay in touch with, though?

The “ideal” teacher of our day and age strikes me as a character who is nearly calculated to repel graduates. That might seem like a rather outlandish claim, though I would point to an early passage in Jane Eyre as an explanation.

At the Lowood School, Bronte presents readers with two very different sorts of teachers. Miss Scatcherd strikes students with a rod for not giving proper answers in class. Miss Temple feeds her students when they are hungry and corrects their faults with mildness. Jane despises Miss Scatcherd, but her friend Helen Burns doesn’t. One day, Helen receives a beating from Miss Scatcherd and Jane is incensed on behalf of her friend. Later in the day, they talk. Jane says that Miss Scatcherd is “cruel,” but Helen disagrees.

“Cruel? Not at all! She is severe: she dislikes my faults.”

Jane replies that Helen has no faults and Helen retorts, “Then learn from me, not to judge by appearances: I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements…”

When Jane asks Helen about Miss Temple, Helen responds, “Miss Temple is full of goodness; it pains her to be severe to any one, even the worst in the school: she sees my errors, and tells me of them gently; and, if I do anything worthy of praise, she gives me my meed liberally. One strong proof of my wretchedly defective nature is, that even her expostulations, so mild, so rational, have not influence to cure me of my faults; and even her praise, though I value it most highly, cannot stimulate me to continued care and foresight.”

Jane asks if Helen “is good” with Miss Temple and Helen replies, “Yes, in a passive way: I make no effort; I follow as inclination guides me. There is no merit in such goodness.”

This is the scene in the novel wherein Jane’s spiritual transformation begins. Many years later, when Jane submits to terrible suffering in order to overcome temptation, it is due to Helen’s influence and teaching. She has received a double portion of Helen’s spirit.

I would be genuinely interested to hear this passage of Jane Eyre discussed in the average faculty development meeting or in-service. Miss Scatcherd strikes me as something of a witch, and were I made the headmaster of a school where she taught, she’d have cleaned out her desk by lunch. My interest in this passage has less to do with Miss Scatcherd—from whom we have little to learn—but from Helen’s curious critique of Miss Temple.

In many ways, Miss Temple is the ideal modern teacher. She is kind, warm, friendly, forgiving, encouraging, nurturing, comforting, gentle, mild, and—as Helen notes—just not very effective in teaching virtue. Why? Well, because she refuses to add qualities like authoritative, strict, and demanding to her character. She doesn’t have high standards. She’s easy to please. “You do not have because you do not ask,” and as Miss Temple doesn’t ask much of her students, her students don’t give her much. I’m not arguing that “encouraging” and “demanding” are antithetical, but many modern teachers think they are. “A student is not above his teacher,” teaches Christ, to which the modern educator retorts, “A teacher is not above his student.” Our ideal teacher stands beside his student, explains the landscape before them both, and encourages the student to choose whatever spot on the horizon pleases him most.

In many Christian schools, the ethos of an “ideal” teacher is far more defined by Christian radio, youth group, books about the family, and devotional literature written for small groups than it is by, say, the Rule of St. Benedict. The contemporary Christian teacher is aghast by old adages like, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” We’re convinced that the only way students will like a teacher is if the teachers tries his hardest to be likeable. If karate were taught at a Christian school, we’d fire Mr. Miyagi and his pointless “wax on, wax off” schtick after five minutes. Too hard. Too pointless. Not friendly enough.

I’m 41 and I still keep in touch with a handful of teachers from high school. The first word I’d use to describe them isn’t “friendly” or “caring,” but neither were they churlish or mean (actually, one was). I think the best word to describe them is “awesome,” though I don’t mean that word as superlative praise. I mean they held me in awe. They were grander people than I was. There was something mysterious about them, something distant, something unknowable. Their ways weren’t my ways. I didn’t entirely understand them, nor could I at the age of sixteen. There was even something a bit mischievous about them—sort of like Santa Claus, who unsentimentally judges bad children worthy only of coal.

Long after I graduated, I came back to these teachers because there was more to know. They hadn’t given away all their secrets. They hadn’t made themselves familiar to me (and so familiarity never bred contempt). They had more to offer—and what they had to offer wasn’t friendship or comfort. I wouldn’t even say I primarily wanted their advice, though I did seek it. I believe, rather, that I wanted from them was what Elisha wanted from Elijah. I wanted a double portion of their spirit.

The human experience is far too vast—and human beings are far too complex—for anyone to definitively argue, “Every teacher ought to be just like this.” I’m quite sure there are some warm, encouraging, kindly Miss Temples out there whom are well beloved (and oft visited) by graduates. And this is fine. However, I believe such teachers are far fewer than we—in our religious devotion to niceness—are willing to admit. Miss Temple is many things, but she’s not awesome. Awesome things are demanding, sublimating, humbling, and maybe even a little fearsome.

The character from Jane Eyre we ought to emulate is neither Miss Scatcherd nor Miss Temple, but Helen Burns, whose approach to learning began with confession, not with an insistence on comfort and encouragement. Jane fears Helen because her willingness to suffer strikes her as otherworldly and superhuman.

But if more children were raised to think like Helen, we wouldn’t need every teacher to be a Miss Temple.

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