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The Art of Teaching: Part 1

By: Mr. Ben Walter

Part 1 - Knowing and Liking Your Subject
 
While few are professional teachers, everyone is a teacher. You may teach a child how to tie his shoes, an intern how to write a report, or a friend how to cast a line. In a broad way, our daily actions influence and teach those around us, for better or worse. And very recently, some parents have been on a homeschool-teaching adventure as schools go online!
This year, the faculty at JHCA have been reading The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet. I first came across this delightful book five years ago, when a mentor lent me his own treasured and well-annotated copy. Unlike many other useful but dry handbooks on the subject, Highet does not merely regurgitate techniques, quote statistics, and employ studies. Instead he shows how to teach in the very style of his book, which is knowledgeable, witty, experienced, and persuasive.
 
Gilbert Highet was a popular teacher of Greek and Latin at Oxford and Columbia through the mid-1900s. He reportedly kept class after class of undergrads enraptured, and sometimes in stitches, with his lectures on the great books. 
 
At the beginning of The Art of Teaching, Highet lists the essential qualities of a teacher. First, he argues, a teacher must know the subject. Take, for example, a middle school English teacher. It is not enough for the teacher to know the rudiments of grammar, have read the syllabus, and memorized a few poems. No, the teacher should also know some history of grammar (even the grammar of other languages), have strong likes and dislikes (hates Dickens, loves Bronte), be able to call to mind and relate dozens of poems and references, etc.--in short, know much, much more than he will ever teach the class. It is the only way to make a subject interesting and instructive at the same time.
 
Not only should a teacher have this knowledge, but he should also be always learning. Perhaps, he can take a summer course in French poetry or an online creative writing class. 
 
This learning would be burdensome to most people. But the English teacher should not have just an average interest in English--it should be an obsession of sorts. This gets us to Highet's second criterium: a teacher should like the subject. He begins by illustrating the opposite:
 
"If a girl sets out to make a living...teaching history, and really cares for nothing whatever for politics, for biography, for reconstructing the manners and mentalities of other ages, and for the different interpretations that can be put on such important events such as the Crusades or the Versailles Treaty, it is useless for her to go on. She will teach it badly to begin with, and worse as she goes on, for she will come to hate it more and more. Eventually, she will become like the horse harnessed to the millstone, plodding round and round the same circle, without hope, day after day."
(Highet, pp. 18-19)
 
Imagine the effect a history-hating history teacher would have on a student! For one, the student would sense that history is inherently boring, for why else would it bore an adult who has chosen this as a profession? The problem is further compounded if the said teacher feigns enthusiasm. The hypocrisy--children are very good at spotting it--of a teacher who inwardly despises history and outwardly gushes over it, would fill the students not just with boredom, but with loathing, for the subject. Perhaps they would even loathe the teacher.
 
Contrast this with genuine infectious enthusiasm of someone who has chosen to devote her life to the pursuit of something. Even ornithologists and stamp collectors are fascinating people if they really know their hobby.
 
Of course, a teacher does not have to be in love with every single aspect of their subject. As a (perhaps irrelevant) example, I prefer teaching Latin verb tenses to the uses of the ablative. But a teacher can admit to certain areas of a subject being personally tedious while communicating great enthusiasm for the subject in general. In fact, such admission might make the enthusiasm all the more believable.
 
It is a privilege to work at JHCA with colleagues who love--maybe are even a bit crazy about--the subjects they teach. This enthusiasm is infectious among the faculty and the students!
 
The two questions that summarize this section are:
  • Do you like what you do?
  • Do you continue to learn more in your field?
Worthwhile for all of us to think about!
 
 
Stay tuned for Part 2: "Liking The Students"
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