In The Seven Laws of Teaching, John Milton Gregory’s little gem of a template for the art of teaching, Gregory takes on the apparent conflict between “inspired” teaching and a systematic, ordered approach to it. Early in the book, he states that “Unreflecting superintendents and school boards often prefer enthusiastic teachers to those who are simply well-educated or experienced.” This rings true, as many of us who became teachers envisioned ourselves inspiring our students in the manner of Keating from Dead Poets Society or JaimeEscalante from Stand and Deliver.
Depictions of inspiring teachers in films and novels seem to suggest that the teacher’s effectiveness is born of a charismatic (and often enigmatic) personality. I think Gregory would take issue with this. Gregory, in contrast, roots inspiration squarely in knowledge. In fact, his first “law” of teaching is this: the teacher must know that which he would teach. Just as creativity begins with careful study and disciplined practice, an effective and inspiring teacher must diligently work to master his material. Gregory would have us know that the imposition of this ordered approach to gaining knowledge and understanding does not negate our potential to inspire; on the contrary, he posits that the most inspirational teachers are those “whose own mind glows with the truth, and who skillfully leads his pupils to a clear understanding of the same truth”.
In a sense, this is deeply practical and “common-sensical”. We simply cannot give what we don’t have; we can’t spark a flame in another if there is none burning within us. The image of a mind “glowing with the truth” should hearten us and call us to a kind of professional formation that begins with encountering the truth by deepening our understanding of the subject matter we are called to teach. We need – in short – to fall in love with truth, chase it relentlessly, and devour it when we find it. We teachers must be learners and lovers of truth before we can properly lead our students to it.
Consider Pope Paul VI’s observation that “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” A witness must possess first-hand knowledge of the truth (the answers in the teacher’s guide are no substitute for this). Once in possession of this knowledge, it is the witness who can testify to truth. And those whose minds “glow with the truth” will do it most powerfully and effectively.
Mary Pat Donoghue is currently the Director of School Programs for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. Teaching is still her primary vocation.