In Praise of Good Teachers

Both Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas speak of the debts of gratitude we owe to others—to God, to our parents, to our city or nation—anyone from whom we receive benefits. We pay our debts by giving to each benefactor what is due to him, according to our abilities. Often, the best we can do is to offer praise. And since, within the category of benefactor, the highest candidate after one’s parents is surely the good teacher, we owe it to our good teachers to acknowledge what they have done and meant for us.

There are two kinds of good teachers. There are those who, whether they were believers or not, aided in a special way in the formation of our intellects. And there are those who gave striking examples of gentleness, charity, prudent counsel, prayerfulness, fidelity under duress, or some other Christian virtue. Here, I wish to talk about the former kind.

Sometimes people ask me where I learned to write, and how I manage to write so much. In addition to my father, who was no mean writer himself and who gave me over the course of many years excellent bits of advice—going on “which hunts,” following the KISS rule (keep it short and simple), rewriting for clarity, and correct word choice—I had an unbelievable string of English teachers from grammar school through high school.

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There was, in third grade I think, Mrs. Levin and her money jar. Every time a student misused the word “like” or inserted a gratuitous “um” or “you know,” she would stick out her hand for the penny or nickle fine. By the end of that year, I can assure you, all her pupils had overcome their bad habits. I want to say she took the money and bought us something nice with it, but I can’t quite remember.

There was Father Gerard in my freshman year of high school. He was a Benedictine monk, trained at Oxford, who always had a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye, and announced his approach with hearty peals of laughter. He required the memorization of many poems, from the sublime (the first eighteen lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English) and the melancholy (“The Twa Corbies,” Shelley’s “Ozymandias”) to the ridiculous (Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwock”) and the trite (Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”). Several of these poems are still lodged firmly in the occiput. Father Gerard would project transparencies on to the wall with grammatical rules and make us repeat them: the distinction between affect and effect, raising and rearing, and envy and jealousy. When we read Shakespeare plays, Father’s dramatic renditions transported us to the Globe.

In sophomore year, Mr. Damon, a graduate of Amherst College, led us through great works of literature with an oddly relaxed stiffness and a case of red pens wielded mercilessly on our papers. I did not realize at the time (it came home to me much later as a teacher myself) how incredibly time-consuming it is to mark up student writing in detail. He expected the best from us, and cajoled it out of us.

Mr. Sheridan, educated at Dartmouth, brought color, wit, and a touch of madness to junior year, sitting on the edge of his desk, legs dangling, eyes wide open, and facial muscles tensing in the midst of our class discussions of this or that book. Looking back, I cringe at some of what we read (such as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye), but I recognize the expert touch with which the teacher entered into the text and dug out what it had to say. It was an apprenticeship in attentive, sympathetic, and analytical reading, as well as a crash course in how to pick up the inflections of an author’s voice and follow the train of his thought. He, too, lavishly expended red ink.

Senior year was the most vexatious and rambunctious, with Mrs. Levine, a liberal secular Jew, burying us in feminist, Marxist, who-knows-whatist perspectives (one of the novels we read was Kate Chopin’s The Awakening). She certainly had her hands full, as most of the members of my class were simultaneously enrolled in an elective philosophy course, where the teacher—a massive influence on us all back then, and still a good friend today—was outfitting us with a Gatling gun of arguments against the fashionable ideologies of the day. It was bitter verbal warfare with, I’m sure, a lot of immaturity on the students’ part, but, looking back, I cannot say that I am not grateful for that year. Perhaps it was a training camp for later battles when the stakes would be higher.

Outside of English literature, I fondly recall a semester of history with a Benedictine brother who poured buckets of ink on my papers (it seems to have been company policy). He once wrote on one of my essays, next to a purple polemical passage, “Take a lesson from the Jesuits: proceed by indirection. It is often more effective.” I’m not sure if I’ve always heeded that advice, or if it always is the best advice, but it made a deep impression on me about eschewing or tempering excessive belligerence and looking for the right approach for each situation.

It would not be possible to forget the genial, earnest, and highly competent Benedictine monk who taught art history, which has remained a passion of mine. Every time he mounted the long staircase up to the classroom, he would boom out William Cowper’s line: “Blest be the art that can immortalize!”

After high school, I spent one year at Georgetown University. I came to see halfway through that I could not receive an education there that would be comparable to that which Thomas Aquinas College promised to give me, so I left at the end of the year and started over in Santa Paula as a freshman. But that is not to say I did not benefit from individual teachers.

One in particular stands out: Paul Betz, a scholar of Wordsworth, who imparted to me a love for this English poet and his contemporaries that has not waned. Like Father Gerard, you could see that Paul Betz was in love with great poetry—it was no mere intellectual exercise or academic chore, but a devotion born of wonder and joy. With a great poem like Wordsworth’s Prelude (the 1805 edition), he relished the beauty of its sound and the depth of its insight into nature and human nature. Since the course I took with him fell during the bicentennial of the French Revolution (1789–1989), at a time in my life when I was becoming more and more aware of the contrast between modernity and traditional Catholicism, I chose to write (as a final project) a one-act play in rhyming couplets about a monastery’s destruction at the hands of French revolutionaries and the apotheosis of the hero who dies carrying the Blessed Sacrament.

Readers may detect a monastic motif. In spite of the secular conventional worldview that informed it from top to bottom, the Benedictine high school I attended had indeed left a subtle mark, a hint of where I should turn my gaze. Ten years after graduating from that school, I visited for the first time a fully traditional Benedictine monastery—the Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, Italy—and saw what monasticism is; you might say I finally met the real St Benedict in his disciples. Another fourteen years later, I became an oblate of that same monastery.

It is completely natural for me to see a parallel between the devastation of the Church after the Second Vatican Council and the destruction of medieval monastic culture by rabid political revolutionaries. I do not have a copy of my one-act play anymore, but the theme of it has endured in my thinking and in my writing.

In a new book from Angelico Press, Glory in All Things: St Benedict and Catholic Education Today, André Gushurst-Moore writes about the Benedictine vow of conversatio morum, or conversion to the monastic way of living—or, more broadly expressed, the spiritual transformation of one’s life by the daily practice of virtue:

Conversatio leads us to see learning as transformative of the lives of those who participate in it. When a lesson happens to work at the deepest possible level, it can contain a life-changing experience, which might be a moment of insight or of grace, which radically reorients the future direction of the learner (or the teacher). Such moments cannot be determined by the teacher, but the teacher can so dispose the materials and the activities that such moments, whether profound or less profound, are more likely to occur.

With at least one teacher—the philosophy teacher mentioned above—exactly this happened to me: my future was radically reoriented. I started the semester mostly ignorant of philosophy, and ended it having made the decision to pursue philosophy (to me, at the time, that included theology as well) for the rest of my life and as a career.

This determination never flickered or wavered: I went to Georgetown and Thomas Aquinas College, then earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America, taking as many courses on the writings of Saint Thomas as possible. A great teacher challenges his students to be more than they think or know they can be; the rarest teacher changes the life of his students.

For all the teachers mentioned here (and for others who also deserve mention), I give heartfelt thanks—thanks to them for what they have given, and thanks to God for placing them in my life.

Am I permitted a postscript? The foregoing might convey the impression that my experience of schools was entirely positive. It had its positive aspects, to be sure, but it would take an even longer article to describe the evils and poisons to which I was exposed during all those years, so much so that I consider it something of a miracle that I remained Catholic when so many of my contemporaries drifted away. My wife’s time in public schools was a similarly mixed bag.

The degeneration of schools in the past few decades persuaded us that the best thing we could do for our own children would be to homeschool them. Although homeschooling and perfection do not play nicely together, we knew that academic formation, in the conventional sense, is only one piece of the picture, and not the most important piece. We knew that there can be no hope for the fruits of real learning if the subsoil of wonder, the seeds of truth, the rain showers of grace, and the sunlight of faith are not in place first and always. As a teacher myself, I was never surprised to discover that the best students—best not always in terms of dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s, but best in terms of a fresh and pure openness to truth and the ability to let it possess them and change them—were the homeschooled beneficiaries of their parents’ dedication. The best teacher, in the end, is not the one equipped with qualifications and cleverness; it is the one who, knowing her subject with love’s connaturality, imparts it out of love.

With this in mind, it is fitting that I end my paean to pedagogues with a tribute to the best and most influential teacher who has graced my life. I speak, of course, of my wife—mother, headmistress, and teacher of our children.

Image: Two Men Reading by Jan Lievens


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