The Teacher Who Makes the Difference

by Dr. Christopher Perrin

How does one start a new academic year? Well, I think with hope and prudence.

Hope we know as that theological virtue that tells us things could be different, that a flower may bloom in the desert. Prudence we recognize as that classical virtue that tells us the future will resemble the past.

If you are a returning teacher with several years of experience, then you have observed your share of repeating and predictable patterns. You have likely encountered students who hit well-known “walls” when it comes to learning to read, or do division, or understand deductive logic, or appreciate the power of metaphor. You will not be surprised when a student cowers in fear before a new math concept or a new rule of Latin grammar (especially rules governing the subjunctive mood). Nor will you be surprised to encounter various forms of intemperance, of either the lazy or excessively ambitious variety. John has not done his homework (again), and Ryan has not only done his homework but also read through the entire math book over the weekend (and is trying his hand at algebra).

But prudence also teaches us to hope. In other words, our past teaching experiences remind us that we sometimes are indeed surprised as the year goes on. John becomes faithful about doing his homework and announces that he loves doing math and thinking about math. Ryan tells you that it is silly to study advanced math until you really know the math for your current grade. “You have to learn things step-by-step,” he says. Then there are those students who at first you think simply will not learn to love learning. And then they do. Maybe if you are a new teacher, you hear these stories of transformation and unexpected growth. You hope a little.

Child completing maths homework
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Mark Edmundson, in his book Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference, tells such a story—one that is also his own. The son of a blue-collar family, living in a blue-collar town, in high school he was mainly interested in football, without vocational interest of any kind, and figured he would ultimately work in a factory or coal mine. Then, inexplicably, a new teacher (right out of Harvard) came to the local high school his senior year and offered a philosophy course. That in itself is a remarkable surprise. How many of us took a philosophy course in high school?

The book is worth your reading, but to summarize the conclusion of his story: Edmundson encountered writers and ideas he had not known existed, that dug in deep and took root in his soul almost without his consent. He encountered a type of teacher he had not known could exist. That class of students was rocked intellectually and started to awaken. Today, Edmundson teaches literature at the University of Virginia.

Chesterton says that the chief pleasure of man is surprise. Maybe that is one reason we become teachers—we sense that in this profession, it is proper to expect the unexpected. Perhaps our own biographies indicate this, too. Did not someone or something awaken you unexpectedly? Is it a surprise that you find yourself a homeschool or school teacher?

Could you be the surprising teacher—the one who makes a difference—and foster surprises among the students you teach? I hope so.

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