Back To School: Unsolicited Thoughts on Teaching

[It is the time of year to think about how and why we go back to the classroom.  Since Academic Year resolutions are making the rounds, I decided to polish up this old post.]

Next week, I start my first semester of teaching at a new institution. This also means I am well into my second decade of teaching. At the same time, my collaborator and co-conspirator Palaiophron is starting a new year as a Latin teacher in a local high school.

As is my custom, the coming semester fills me with excitement, anxiety and just a little bit of dread. But then again, I started on my teaching journey in the same way. So, before many of us throughout the country (and the world) prepare to return to classrooms, I need to review my thoughts about teaching.

We all know that technology, politics, and money are changing the way we think, talk and approach the classroom. In applications for positions and awards, the ‘statement of teaching philosophy’ is all the rage; but most of us who practice as teachers, I suspect, operate from a mixture of experience and precept, observation and reaction. Whatever happens outside, we know that teaching is about human beings learning from each other.

So, a new zeroth law of teaching I will be adopting this year is cribbed from Zeno:

διὰ τοῦτο … δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

“For this reason we have two ears, but one mouth: so that we may listen more than we speak”  (Diog. Laert. 7.23)

So, below, I have gathered my basic precepts, some classical topoi they resonate with, and some very basic explanations. This is unsolicited and probably unneeded, but I write it as much to remind myself as anything else.

“Men become good more from practice than nature.”
ἐκ μελέτης πλείους ἢ φύσεως ἀγαθοί (Critias, fr. 9)


1. Teaching is an act of love

Socrates’ other student, the historian, military adventurer and polymath Xenophon, makes the love of learning (philomatheia), the love of honor (philotimia), and love for fellow man (philanthropia) central qualities of his theory of leadership in the Education of Cyrus (he also adds equestrian skills to the mix too, but different times call for different measures).

We all know that the financial remuneration of educating is limited; we also recognize the dangers of self-exploitation from using the rhetoric of “love” to describe any employment. But if you don’t love the subject, if you don’t love the opportunity to guide other minds, and if you do not believe that the act of teaching makes a meaningful contribution to the world, then each individual act that makes up those days and years will turn out to be Sisyphean.

Teachers are leaders of minds; they must be masters of their own to be guides to others.

2. Teaching is Inspiration and Perspiration

In Plato’s Ion (533d4), Socrates—partly in order to undercut the authority of the eponymous rhapsode—describes poetic inspiration as moving from the Muses through the poet and performer to the audience. He compares the movement of this power to the way a magnet endows each piece of metal connected with it with a similar ability to ‘move’ the subsequent link. In this way, a chain of inspiration links together the source, the medium and the target.

Education can be something like this: sometimes the material is so powerful that the teacher need merely act as a channel to share the intensity and wonder of the source with students. At other times—perhaps to contrast with Plato’s metaphor—the source is weak and the teacher must act more like an electrical transformer. We all know teachers who can do this powerfully, who can take any subject and amplify it for students. And we all know subjects that are more magnetic than others.

In the daily classroom, we find a mix of occasions. Sometimes, we have to work far harder than others. This is where the perspiration comes in: for the first few years in the classroom, at least, the hours without students are as important as those with them. Always prepare more than you need; but always be ready to limit how much of your preparation you use. It is better for students to learn some of the material well then to be confused about much of it.

3. Teachers are Born and Made

To stick with Plato for a bit, in describing the arts of divination he divides those that rely on skill (tekhnê or epistêmê, like bird-omen reading or dream-interpretation) and those that result from inspiration (mania, oracular prophecy, etc). In a way, I think that this is true for teaching as well, except that as teachers we need to resolve the false dichotomy between the two. In my best classes, I feel like I enter an ecstatic state, an other-worldly place, where the words flow freely along with ideas that had never developed before. Part of this is the energy that comes from students; another part is the inspiration that comes from material.

You can be a good teacher relying overly on either skill or inspiration (let’s call it charisma too) but you can’t be a great teacher without both. On the days when inspiration wanes or your charm seems to fail with the students, you will need to rely on your preparation, your knowledge of pedagogy, and the classroom management skills you have learned and must practice. When the furious Muses take over, however, your skill will be there to guide them and direct them more effectively.

Pindar, Olympian 8.59-60

“Teaching is easier for someone who knows; not learning first is stupid. “

τὸ διδάξασθαι δέ τοι εἰδότι ῥᾴτερον• ἄγνωμον δὲ τὸ μὴ προμαθεῖν•


4. To Teach and Endure, Be Patient: Repetition and Novelty

Heraclitus, fr, 61

“The road upward and down is one and the same.”

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή.

Aristotle writes that “men learn first by imitation” (Poetics 1448b5-6) while a Presocratic philosopher says that “men become good more from practice than nature” (Critias). The act of teaching involves daily (if not hourly repetition).

The hardest thing to remember as the daily lessons accumulate and one group of fresh faces is replaced by another is that, though you have heard the same question 300 times, the student asking that question again is asking it for the first time. Teaching year after year requires a type of emotional and mental rebirth and a reminder that it takes effort and kindness to give each student the attention and care you gave your first. Make a reminder of this renewal a mantra for each day.


5. Teaching should be transformative

Heraclitus, fr. 73

“It is not right to act and speak like men who are sleeping”

οὐ δεῖ ὥσπερ καθεύδοντας ποιεῖν καὶ λέγειν·

For me, teaching has long been a combination of the Platonic metaphor of the cave nestled in the Republic—that through discipline, study, and reflection we can gain access to greater truths—and the essential linguistic message implied by the Latin origin of our word education, namely that through some process we lead out from ourselves and others new forms and new futures.

Our modern economic emphases on education too often miss out on this or intentionally try to limit it for fear of indoctrination. But every interaction with new material (or repetition of old material) changes us in sometimes unintentional ways—Heraclitus’ river is always unavoidable. Education is unique in that it is intentionally and explicitly transformative.

And it is not so for students alone. They change as they grow and the material you teach them adds to their knowledge and experience. But you change as you teach them and, if you are open to their responses (to their failures, success and yours) you become a better teacher and a different person.

In my first year of teaching, I knew I was not a master, but I thought I was good. Fifteen years later, I know where I can be good, but I also know the many ways in which I have failed. Don’t be afraid to look at your failures. Your training in pedagogy will give you the tools of formative assessment, it will teach you to focus on student learning outcomes and evaluation. These tools are necessary but not sufficient—a teacher must understand that excellence is a habit (Aristotle again!) that requires reflection, whatever measures you use.

Heraclitus, fr. 40

“Knowing much doesn’t teach you how to think.”

πολυμαθίη νόον ἔχειν οὐ διδάσκει.


6. Teaching and Learning Require Failure

“Trying is the first step of learning”

πῆρά τοι μαθήσιος ἀρχά (Alcman, fr. 125)

In the modern world of self-esteem and quantitative assessment, we too often see failure as, well, failure, a type of death from which no student or teacher can return. But, in the spirit of the last aphorism, if we don’t embrace failure and teach students to do so, then we ultimately fail to learn. What do we learn from always succeeding?

And, in the spirit of the last aphorism, never assume that a student who fails will never succeed. If we do not believe in the capacity of even our least obviously capable to improve, then we do not believe in the potential for education to effect change. Encourage students to fail; but provide them the space to change and succeed.


7. Try to add something special to every class

My wife, who enjoys decorating and crafting when she is not fixing teeth and who trained as a studio artist before going to dental school, insists that every element of a design—whether a room in a house, a page in a scrapbook, or a canvas in a collection—needs something special to set it apart. The ‘special thing’ can be a small flourish or a striking contrast; what matters most is the attention to make each thing truly its own.

In his semi-famous simile from the fourth book of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius compares his verse to the sweet honey dripped around the rim of a cup to make bitter medicine go down. Now, the daily lessons of a classroom need not be bitter, but presentation and ornamentation can help the mundane or the repetitive stick in the mind and help the days more engaging. Whether it is an amusing quotation from an ancient author, a short writing assignment, a game, a ruse, a video or a song, try to add something unique to make every class different. It will enliven the day for you; bring something new to the students; and help all minds involve re-set and absorb the lessons to follow.


8. Different Learners Need Different Methods

Most teachers understand that there are a variety of learning types and that the classroom requires multiple approaches for this reason. A language class, especially a ‘dead’ language, demands regular attention and some real creativity to address auditory and synesthetic learning. Different methods can also be fun: both Plato and Aristotle recognized that games were essential to learning for children. Starting a new language is like returning to childhood.

(Even though it makes my wife wince when I call the introductory level “Baby Greek”…)

Even more challenging for us, memorization—that critical bulwark of language pedagogy—is not a skill emphasize in the modern classroom. Make students move; have them sing and shout; make them draw and color. But always remember that they need to hear, see, feel, think and do in order to learn completely

And let’s not forget that some students will challenge us with their abilities or characters (or both). This always makes me think of the story of Alcibiades punching his teacher when he found out he didn’t have any books of Homer

Pindar, Nemean 4

“Different ages bring different men: but everyone hopes
to claim the things he witnessed were truly exceptional.”

ἄλλοισι δ’ ἅλικες ἄλλοι· τὰ δ’ αὐτὸς ἀντιτύχῃ,
ἔλπεταί τις ἕκαστος ἐξοχώτατα φάσθαι.


9. Admitting what you don’t know is instructive and transformative

We all know the Socratic confession from the Platonic Apology that he is only wiser than other men because he admits what he doesn’t know. As teachers and leaders we need to be models. Our youth (and many of our elders) lack the metacognitive skills most important to life-long learning, namely diagnosing what we do not know and coming up with a plan for addressing it. Even if you find yourself forcing it, finding moments to confess your own ignorance and perform the act of addressing it will help your students understand that the admission of limitations is a crucial first step towards resolving them.


That’s what I got. No matter how hard classes have been or how well they have gone, these are the thoughts that have been foremost in my mind.

Xenophon’s Memorabilia (Iv.1.5): “anyone who believes that without learning he can distinguish between what is profitable and what is harmful is a fool…”

ὅτι μῶρος μὲν εἴη, εἴ τις οἴεται μὴ μαθὼν τά τε ὠφέλιμα καὶ τὰ βλαβερὰ τῶν πραγμάτων διαγνώσεσθαι…

And regardless of belief, I like this reminder from Sophocles (a bit close to the ol’ Serenity Prayer):

Fr. 843

“I learn what can be taught; I seek what
can be found; and I ask the gods what must be prayed for.”

τὰ μὲν διδακτὰ μανθάνω, τὰ δ’ εὑρετὰ
ζητῶ, τὰ δ’ εὐκτὰ παρὰ θεῶν ᾐτησάμην

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