What makes a good teacher? I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves that question at least a few times. In fact, we probably all have had a few teachers that stand out in our minds as exemplary at their craft. But what was it that set them apart? Were they just particularly gifted at explaining all the details, or following tried and true methods, or perhaps they knew how to paint the big picture?
Well, it was probably a combination of many things. But I want to suggest here something that is perhaps more important for teaching than anything else, and that is: love.
And I don’t necessarily mean love for one’s students (although that is of course important as well). But what I mean is love for what it is you’re teaching; that is, your subject; your craft; your area of expertise. And this love shouldn’t be confused with a mere enthusiasm for enthusiasm’s sake, something all-too-common in modern pedagogy (although certainly enthusiasm often hovers around the true lover). What we’re talking about here is the deep, strong, affection for the thing studied. It’s something that can’t easily be faked, and on the other hand is often easily transferred as a contagion to the receptive student. Simply put, it is the love for the classics by literature professors; the love of history by history buffs; the love of painting by art instructors. And it’s precisely this love, I believe, that sets good teachers apart from mediocre (let alone bad) ones.
The Blessed Saint Augustine once formulated a famous adage, in Latin it reads: Ama et fac quod vis. In means simply, “love and do what thou wilt.” It’s an almost paradoxical bit of oracle, somewhat tricky to get right and open to misunderstanding and abuse (and thus opposed by Pelagius the heretic); but nevertheless it remains deeply true. And I say this principle, “love and do what thou wilt” applies to teachers very well: “Love [your subject], and teach how thou wilt.”
Now, I get this idea from none-other than Dr. John Senior, (1923-1999), professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Classics, and founder of the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at Kansas. And one of his goals was to restore Christian (Catholic) culture to its classical heritage and civilized roots, particularly a love for good literature. As a teacher himself, Senior felt very much the weight of this restorative task, and its dependence upon good and solid teachers:
… teachers must start with themselves. It is the same with teaching as with any calling, good or bad — it is a person who does it. No one ever learned from a method any more than he was ever killed by a gun or knife. We learn and are killed by persons who may or may not use various instruments. The first rule of a teacher then, as for any person, is to be somebody worthy of his calling, having an appropriate “dignity”… this cliché happens to be true: if you want to teach something, you must have that something yourself. If poetry is not a part of your life, no method in the classroom will create ex nihilo the love of poetry in your students. Recall the famous dictum of St. Augustine: Love God and do what you will. It is open to grave misuse, but the essential truth of it stands. The same maxim applies to what we call “English”: Love literature and do what you will.The Death of Christian Culture, p. 103
It seems such a simple thing, I know. And that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing, or that ‘anything goes.’ No. But it does mean that love is the most important thing, the most powerful, and indeed “the greatest of these,” as Saint Paul reminds us in his famous ‘love chapter’; “for if you have not love, you are but a clanging gong” (does anyone hear that school bell?).
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away… When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”1 Cor. 13:8-13
So then, when you remember your favorite teachers — the ones who really meant something to you, the ones who passed on to you their own love for history or art or literature — remember that it is really this love (caritas) that tied it all together and offered it as a gift to you the student.
Good teachers are truly a gift from God, and so this connection between teaching and love shouldn’t surprise us at all, since God himself is love. And if anyone mistakes all this for peachy sentimentality, one needs only turn to the biblical and ancient linguistic connections between knowledge itself and love (e.g. in Biblical Hebrew y’da means both to know and to love). “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).
What makes a good teacher? Love of course. Love your subject; love your craft; and teach as thou wilt.
“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14)