“Those who can, teach; those who can’t go into some less significant line of work.” Years ago, my wife gave me a coffee mug imprinted with these encouraging words, which I still keep on my desk, broken handle and all. I suppose I have always been partial to teaching. I remember with what pride at eight years old I showed my family how I had taught my sister to read the word, “the.” My love for teaching grew during my college years, as I helped friends struggling with mathematics and led semester reviews in natural science and music.
But only lately have I come to understand the great significance of teaching. The Scribes and Pharisees apparently understood it well. Our Lord pointed out that they loved being called “Rabbi” by men, which they saw as a title of great honor. Literally “Rabbi” means “My Master,” and has much of the etymological flavor of that rich English word. Both derive from words meaning “greater;” those addressed by these titles are seen as greater than those who seek their wisdom. In the days before formal education, young men would seek out older men so they could live with them for some time in order to gain knowledge in mind and heart and body. They expressed their reverence and gratitude for the great good they received by calling their mentors “Master," “Father,” “Leader,” “Teacher,” “Rabbi.”
One who hears (a teacher) likewise sees those things with an inner and individual eye. He knows the matter of which I speak because of his own contemplation, and not by means of the words of the teacher. Hence I do not teach even such a person, although I speak what is true and he hears it. For he is taught not by words, but by the realities themselves made manifest to him directly by God revealing them to his inner self. (De Magistro, 40)
In this way, we as teachers are both humbled and exalted. Our vocation is to facilitate the encounter between young souls and the Truth. St. Thomas Aquinas likens the role of a teacher to that of a doctor. Doctors can’t make people healthy, or force their bodies to be healed. They can only help the natural inward strength of a person to heal from within. So, too, a teacher cannot place knowledge into a student, but he uses his words and other tools to help the student learn for himself from the Light within.
Whether I am teaching math, or history, or religion, or science, I have a privileged opportunity to help the student experience the revealing inner light that God provides. I do this by making sure that my words are not considered the object of learning, but rather tools that help students to consider the realities that my words signify. Words are so easy to learn by heart (especially for those educated in the Trivium), and students often prefer memorization to real learning. This is beautiful for younger children, but we must do everything we can to encourage older students to look at the real things signified by our words.
An easy example can be found in mathematics. Students memorize multiplication tables, a time-honored practice that is even more valuable in our computer age. But as a teacher I want to take every opportunity, as the capabilities of the students allow, to have them think about the numbers themselves and about the meaning of multiplication so that they can see why 8x7=56, and why 8x7=7x8 is true but not a tautology. St. Augustine marveled at the way in which simple truths about numbers were eternal, and so must be the soul that could understand them. No doubt, he considered it a great blessing when a student of his would say, “Ahh! I see now.”
We also help strengthen our students’ ability and desire to learn. Doctors not only want to fix immediate problems, but they want to encourage activities that will lead to greater strength of constitution. Exercise and diet are important considerations. Physicians try to inspire their patients to put in the effort it takes to gain and preserve health. Similarly, teachers need to look beyond the immediate lesson to seek opportunities to arouse wonder and encourage diligence in the pursuit of understanding. They also need to emphasize that the Truth within, once heard, must be followed.
Archbishop Michael Miller highlights the teacher’s role in mediating Christ to his students, explaining why teachers need to be witnesses to Truth: "The more completely an educator can give concrete witness to the model of the ideal person [Christ] that is being presented to the students, the more this ideal will be believed and imitated."
Our Lord owned two titles that His disciples gave Him: “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.” His mission on earth was to reveal the Father to those who would listen. As teachers, we share in a special way in His mission. An exciting thought, a frightening thought. As we pursue our high vocation, may I recommend the comfort of this beautiful prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman’s, also a favorite of Mother Teresa’s.
Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly,
That my life may only be a radiance of Yours.
Shine through me, and be so in me
That every soul I come in contact with
May feel Your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!