The Role of the Teacher


Since we entered into the strange time of an epidemic, and schools closed, and as my daughter likes to put it, “EVERYBODY gets to homeschool!”, the role of the teacher has been examined even more closely. What is the teacher supposed to do? How can the role of the teacher exist if not in the school?

Charlotte Mason, who wrote over 140 years ago, had truly impressive insights into the role of the teacher that stand true today. If you haven’t read my post What is Education, read it before or after reading this one and it will help.

1. The role of the teacher is to help children form their own opinions, not force the teacher’s (or the dominant cultural paradigm) on them.

“It is our duty to form opinions carefully, and to hold them tenaciously in so far as the original grounds of our conclusions remain unshaken. But what we have no right to do, is to pass these opinions on to our children. We all know that nothing is easier than to make vehement partisans of young people, in any cause heartily adopted by their elders…Children are far more likely to embrace the views of their parents, when they are ripe to form opinions, if these have not been forced upon them in early youth when their lack of knowledge and experience makes it impossible for them to form opinions at first hand. Only by masterly inactivity,’ ‘wise passiveness,’ able ‘letting alone,’ can a child be trained to reverence his conscience as his king.” (School Education, p. 42)

Even for religious parents this means NOT forcing your beliefs on your child. Raising them in an atmosphere that makes an impression on the child and in all likelihood may persuade them to its possibilities and rightness is quite acceptable. Charlotte Mason knew, even then, that teenagers will always rebel against ideas that are forced upon them. She encouraged parents to trust the conscience of the well-formed child and model their influence after Christ who forced no man.

“Even the divine authority does not compel. It indicates the way and protects the wayfarer, and strengthens and directs self-compelling power. It permits a man to make free choice of obedience rather than compels him to obey. In the moral training of children arbitrary action almost always produces revolt.” ( School Education, p. 128)

2. A teacher’s job is show children where to look, not what to see. Therefore, a teacher must put the child in the way of living books and living things. This will expose the child to living ideas.

“Intelligent teachers are well aware of the dry-as-dust character of school books, so they fall back upon the ‘oral’ lesson, one of whose qualities must be that it is not bookish. Living ideas can be derived only from living minds, and so it occasionally happens that a vital spark is flashed from teacher to pupil. But this occurs only when the subject is one to which the teacher has given original thought. In most cases the oral lesson, or the more advanced lecture, consists of information got up by the teacher from various books, and imparted in language, a little pedantic, or a little commonplace, or a little reading-made-easy in style. At the best, the teacher is not likely to have vital interest in, and, consequently, original thought upon, a wide range of subjects.” (School Education, p. 170)”

In our public schools the opposite usually happens. At best the teacher is set up as a Sage on the Stage. At worst, the teacher is a demi-god who can do no wrong in the child’s eyes and is the imparter of all knowledge. Most often, in our schools, few ideas come from books and things explored by the child herself, but rather the teacher is the middle-man through which the ideas come, massaging the message to make sure it is appropriate, culturally sensitive and at the right level for the student. Sadly, the living idea falls flat in a game of telephone where it quickly loses its poignancy and originality. Teachers are generalists, mostly, and are not in position to always deliver knowledge first-hand.

Limitations of Teachers.––We wish to place before the child open doors to many avenues of instruction and delight, in each one of which he should find quickening thoughts. We cannot expect a school to be manned by a dozen master-minds, and even if it were, and the scholar were taught by each in turn, it would be much to his disadvantage. What he wants of his teacher is moral and mental discipline, sympathy and direction; and it is better, on the whole, that the training of the pupil should be undertaken by one wise teacher than that he should be passed from hand to hand for this subject and that.” (School Education, p. 270)

I do not judge the motives of the teacher. They are well placed. Mason defended the teacher’s motives but not the outcome:

But the teacher is not moved by arrogance, but by a desire to be serviceable. He believes that children cannot understand well-written books, and that he must make himself a bridge between the pupil and the real teacher, the man who has written the book. (Quoted in Parent’s Review article, Household, “Teaching Methods of Miss Mason”, 1921, pg. 10-20),

Sometimes a teacher is a specialist and from time to time can offer special insight and reflection on a relevant area. Perhaps, in these cases, oral instruction directly from the teacher might be suitable.

In fact, most times, Mason remarked that living books are preferred to oral teaching because most teachers are not naturally good speakers (School Education, p. 242-243). A second reason is given in volume 6, Toward a Philosophy of Education. Art Middlekauff from Charlotte Mason Poetry helped to answer my question this way when I asked about the de-emphasis on oral teaching from a Mason perspective:

“There are those who have a right to lecture, those who have devoted a life-time to some one subject about which they have perhaps written their book. Lectures from such persons are, no doubt, as full of insight, imagination and power as are their written works; but we cannot have a score of such lecturers in every school, each to elucidate his own subject, nor, if we could, would it be good for the children. The personality of the teacher would influence them to distraction from the delight in knowledge which is itself a sufficient and compelling force to secure perfect attention, and seemly discipline.”

3. A teacher’s role might have an important hand in forming the Will of the student, their habit of attention, their best qualities overall… NOT to explain everything.

“–And children have not altered. This is how we find them––with intelligence more acute, logic more keen, observing powers more alert, moral sensibilities more quick, love and faith and hope more abounding; in fact, in all points like as we are, only more so; but absolutely ignorant of the world and its belongings, of us and our ways, and, above all, of how to control and direct and manifest the infinite possibilities with which they are born.” (173, School Education)

Mason has argued that the “strong-willed” child is a misnomer. The strong-willed child is usually a child who has a weak will and cannot control her strongest impulses. Think of the child who refuses to sit at the table to eat, to go when asked to go. The child is giving in to the most natural of impulses.

“The teacher’s part in this regard is to see and feel for himself, and then to rouse his pupils by an appreciative look or word; but to beware how he deadens the impression by a flood of talk. Intellectual sympathy is very stimulating; but we have all been in the case of the little girl who said, “Mother, I think I could understand if you did not explain quite so much.” A teacher said of her pupil, “I find it so hard to tell whether she has really grasped a thing or whether she has only got the mechanical hang of it” Children are imitative monkeys, and it is the ‘mechanical hang’ that is apt to arrive after a douche of explanation.” (179, School Education).

I am sure that I exhaust my children sometimes with my explanations that they never asked for. Occasionally they may ask for answer to a question, and only expect a simple response. I will not help build their habit of attention by drawing out the endless possibilities of, really, a very simple question.

So what is a teacher to do?

4. “[The Teacher’s] part is not the weariful task of spoon-feeding with pap-meat, but the delightful commerce of equal minds where his is the part of guide, philosopher and friend.” (Toward a Philosophy of Education, p. 238)

Now there is no question that a parent is not a friend in the sense of childhood playmate. Mason was clear on this. She wrote at great length on the role of the parent as one of authority. However, in the part of education the parent must come alongside the child.

But in practical terms, what does this mean? At most, this is the work of the teacher:

“The teacher’s part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils’ mental activity. Let marginal notes be freely made, as neatly and beautifully as may be, for books should be handled with reverence. Let numbers, letters, underlining be used to help the eye and to save the needless fag of writing abstracts. Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied; he need not write the answers if he be taught that the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.” (School Education, p. 181)

Again, the role of the teacher is to put the student in the way of good things, good ideas, and accept that the child may reject some parts and take others. This rejection isn’t for always. The next year, she may return and take new nourishment, new ideas that last year she left behind, not yet quite ready to take them in.

“Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs.” (School Education, p. 109)

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