The Defining Difference of a Classical Teacher
What separates a good teacher from a great teacher? It is difficult to pinpoint, but you can tell when you are in the presence of the latter.
A good teacher can manage a classroom, complete tasks on time, advance in the curriculum, do well on state testing, etc. But a great teacher can change the way students see the world and their place in it.
How, then, does a teacher become great? I would argue that, while state-based teacher training can make a teacher good, it can never make them great. Initially, this may seem irrelevant, but the way state school teachers are trained affects 1.2 million students each year. After serving in three different public schools, one Christian school, and one Classical Christian school, I have found the way Classical educational leaders train their teachers a practice worth spreading to all educational leaders. More importantly, it is a practice worth sharing with parents, as the teacher’s training ultimately affects the student’s learning.
While state-based training emphasizes the technical skills of the teaching (lesson plan delivery, assessment strategies, etc), Classical teacher-training emphasizes content mastery. In public schools, the teacher is often a facilitator so that students can find information themselves but in a classical model, the teacher is the lead learner that students are imitating. The classical teacher must have a depth of knowledge in the content area and be trained in forming the affections of young people, instead of merely managing them.
Before understanding the training that forms great teachers, we must define conventional state-based teacher training. To earn their teaching license, public school teachers must meet three requirements: earn a Bachelor’s degree, complete a Teacher Education program, and pass the Content Exam for their focus subject. Most ongoing “professional development” is, in my experience, mainly technical and pragmatic. State training addresses issues such as “how to assess students,” “how to never lose students’ attention,” and “how to manage classroom behavior.” As a teacher with the state, I learned to manage a classroom, teach to state standards, measure progress, and differentiate instruction. I knew how to solve managerial problems with techniques. This training was good, but it was not great.
“Even as an educational leader, I had not learned how to think for myself.”
When I graduated with my Masters of Education and began seminary, I realized my own learning deficiencies. Seminary really forced me to think while my Masters felt mainly like busywork. As an example of my deficiency of thought, I remember Googling reasons why students should learn Spanish rather than writing an original list. I completed the state certification steps but still used Pinterest to steal a writing prompt five minutes before students walked in my English classroom. Even as an educational leader, I had not learned how to think for myself. I aptly jumped through hoops and completed specialized tasks, but I lacked the intellectual and scholarly habits that mark true learning. The scholarly virtues were not part of my training.
As a teacher for the state, I was told I needed to be a professional — which did not necessarily mean I needed to be a scholar.
Compare this experience to Classical scholarship. The three-fold path of Classical scholarship includes: a disciplined love for learning, a worthiness of imitation, and a commitment to The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory. This scholarship takes place in a collaborative environment, more restful than competitive. Many of the faculty at Classical Christian schools have not completed a Teacher Education program or passed the state content exams. Rather, they come into the teaching profession having an academic or professional background in the area they teach. More notably, they have an infectious enthusiasm for their content area. That enthusiasm grounds their learning. A love for the content, the kids and the King functions as the V8 motor of a classical teacher’s classroom.
“Any teacher training that does not address the heart intentionally is merely informative, not transformative.”
Because our ultimate goal at Coram Deo Academy is to cultivate a generation of lifelong learners, we only pursue faculty who love the kids, love the work of teaching, and love Jesus Christ. These loves ground a teacher’s knowledge and competence. Next, we believe at Coram Deo that all faculty aught be worthy of imitation in their Christian character. We see the “just be kind” movement in education today as a plant that lacks any roots. The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. Thus, any teacher training that does not intentionally address the heart is merely informative, not transformative. Lastly, Coram Deo use resources like The Seven Laws of Teaching because they encourage a thorough knowledge and love of subjects rather than a mastery of technique. And instead of requiring our faculty to be members of the Indiana Teachers Association, we require them to be active members of a Christ-centered church.
THE ULTIMATE PURPOSE
Ultimately, the difference between state-based teacher training and Classical scholarship is the difference between Mary and Martha as described in Luke 10:40. Martha bustled with “all the preparations that had to be made,” while Mary “had chosen what was better” by sitting at the Master Teach- er’s feet. We as a state train teacher in bullying prevention, literacy instruction, and standards-based grading and are surprised that those same teachers have lost the transformative love of learning that changes students’ lives. To have durable students, we need well-educated and durable teachers who are worthy of imitation, who encourage lifelong learning, and who desire to honor God through their instruction. We need teachers who choose what is better.