Classroom Confession: I am a Terrible Teacher

My students hate Latin. It’s a dead language, it has nothing to do with their lives, it takes too long to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary, all of the sentences are in the wrong order. As far as they can tell, Caesar bored the Gauls into submission, Vergil was right to ask that the Aeneid be burned upon his death, and Cicero has received the nickname the Roman Aeolus on account of the fact that he possesses such an ample store of wind. They like Catullus at any rate, and react to his poems with that peculiarly condensed form of internet speak which effortlessly conveys entire paragraphs of thought in one adjective, ‘relatable’. (Or sometimes, though now less frequently, ‘saaame.’ Yes, the vowel must be lengthened.)

Why are these students in Latin then? For the most part, they aren’t. Approximately 2,700 students attend my school, of which about 100 are enrolled in one of the Latin courses in any given year. Of those, I have never had more than 20 enrolled in my Latin III & IV courses (that is, 20 students between those two courses combined) because students in Texas are only required to take two years of any given language. Of the students who go through all four years, typically only one or two are there for Latin; the rest simply like me as a teacher. (Lest this seem prepossessing, I note that this is what the students have told me explicitly.)

I often tell them that I would prefer that they love Latin while hating me as an odious tyrant, whose grim oppression they endured in the pursuit of their favorite subject. Though I may be charged with insincerity on this score, I nevertheless cannot help but feel like a failure as an educator when I realize that I have not transmitted my enthusiasm to my young charges. I have heard Reginald Foster remark on numerous occasions that this is the central failure of modern Latin pedagogy: a failure to instill a sense of Latin’s beauty, power, and interest. Typically he adds that a music class would be unsuccessful if the students walked away disliking Mozart. Rhetorically, this is appealing, yet I think that it unfairly compares something (music) which has a certain universal and almost primal appeal to something else (Latin), learning which requires a previously-developed interest to undertake, and – once undertaken – a substantial amount of labor to appreciate in any meaningful way.

Latin per se is a hard sell in high school, because few students have any real idea about the potential treasures which await them. Indeed, I did not even take Latin until my third year of college, and only then because I was so captivated by a Classical literature in translation class which I had taken the year before, and I doubt that I would have applied myself so diligently to mastering declensions and conjugations if I were not already so eagerly desirous of reading ancient texts in the original.

I have been listening recently with rapt attention to Scott Lepisto’s delightful Itinera podcast, which satisfies my own deep craving for vicarious professorial experience as someone who always thinks wistfully about what could have been if I had gone to graduate school. Yet, both on the podcast and in my personal interactions with professional Classicists, I have been surprised to learn just how many professionals in the field either hated Latin in highschool, or found it extremely challenging. I first encountered this latter sentiment among one of my fellow Latin teachers in town. Never before had it occurred to me that anyone in Classics found Latin difficult. This may itself reflect an inherited form of elitist prejudice which I subconsciously inherited in my early days as a Classics student. We are told that the languages are what make the field rigorous and clearly superior to the other humanities as physics is superior to the other sciences. Quite often, as Amy Pistone noted in her post, ‘You can’t spell Classicist without Classist’, the phrase ‘linguistic rigour’ is used as a criterion for base exclusion. Indeed, professors and graduate school application advice pages often imply that a certain linguistic wizardry is required to even consider proceeding to advanced study within the field.

Indolence, however, is my chief besetting vice, and in this case managed to form a potent cocktail in conjunction with personal vanity. I recall that I spent a fair amount of time doing the basic gruntwork of paradigm memorization, but I was attracted to Latin in part because I found it supremely easy. This in turn allowed for the requisite amount of idle time-wasting so essential to the authentic American college experience. Whether my interest was bolstered by my apparent facility with the language or whether I acquired it so readily because of my blossoming enthusiasm for it is impossible for me to determine. My retrospectacles have become so darkly tinted with the accretions of later time and experience that I have lost all sense for the difficult spots in Latin.

That is why I am a terrible teacher. I can present reams of information in an exciting and compelling way, but I struggle with anticipating students’ difficulties, and indeed, cannot understand it when they are stuck. Boswell noted of Samuel Johnson that he was not “well qualified for being a teacher of elements, and a conductor in learning by regular gradations”. This has given rise to my most toxic and obnoxious pronouncement in class: “Oh it’s not that bad, Latin practically learns itself.” By now, I regret saying this to my students because I realize that it is likely to produce further frustration among the ones who are struggling, but at the same time, it has become something of a running joke/catch-phrase among the kids. One student even wrote on the top of her test, Lingua Latina a se discitur!, which was enough to earn a laugh and some extra points.

Mythology, history, and Roman culture all still captivate the students. But not Latin itself. They catch a sense of my unbridled enthusiasm for Classics. But they do not catch that enthusiasm themselves. I often return home depressed that, because of my pedagogical limitations, my own highly-charged and passionate teaching does little more for the students than the sit-at-your-desk-and-watch-football pedagogy so rigorously and assiduously applied by the coaches on campus. Only one of my students has gone on to study Classics in college, and even the best have laughed when I suggested that they may want to hold on to their Latin dictionaries after high school so that they can keep reading.

Perhaps my perspective is fundamentally flawed. Almost all Classicists took Latin in school somewhere, but that in no way implies that all people who took Latin in school wanted to become Classicists. I try to remember that there is a disparity in experience between my role in the classroom, where I am doing what seems to me the most important thing in the world, and the students’ role, which is simply to make it through one of seven courses for the day in the pursuit of grades and credit certifying them for the next stage in their lives.

I have begun to get away from thinking that every student in my class needs to learn Latin. Some of them simply do not put in the time to make anything meaninful out of any of the texts. I could of course simply give them a failing grade, but this would compound the problem of having wasted my own time by wasting their time too. Recently, for those students whose averages are regularly well below 70, I have assigned essays on Roman history/culture, Classical myth, and even Classical reception. One student is inordinately fascinated with dictatorships, so he is now writing an essay on the use of Roman history and symbols under Mussolini’s fascist rule. Another student is reading Plautus in translation and writing a comparative appraisal of Roman comic tropes with those of contemporary Hollywood comedies. I wish that they were doing actual Latin, but at this point (second semester of the second year), it seems clear that they can/will not. Perhaps a better teacher could make it happen through sheer force of will, and perhaps this compromise is more reflective of my limitations than theirs.

It may be that one of these students will be interviewed on Itinera twenty years from now, and they will concede that though they didn’t care much for Latin itself in highschool, they gave it a second shot in college and became experts on Martianus Capella or something similarly recondite. Perhaps they will at least, in later life, look back upon the time in my classroom as well spent and pick up a translation of Tacitus to better understand our own time. My impact on the field and on the world may always be entirely negligible, but I am at least happy that for a few hundred hours of these students’ lives, I get to share with them what I love.

Image result for fox teaching medieval manuscript

7 responses

  1. As regards struggling to anticipate students’ difficulties and not understanding it when they are stuck – that’s not inevitable! I teach mathematics – to me it was always “supremely easy” (to use the phrase above) but with experience, observation (and even occasional reading of educational research!) , I have got pretty good at anticipating when problems and misconceptions will appear. Keep at it!

    But telling students it will be easy won’t help with their resilience (Which I guess is an important quality for language learning, as it is for mathematics)

    (Oh, I liked Latin at school, and persuaded a kind teacher to do Greek with me too. Quite a lot of mathematically inclined people do, in my experience !)

  2. In the field of language learning, there are several indisputable facts. One is that anyone who communicates in one language is capable of communicating in another language, and he or she will, with time, achieve varying degrees of mastery of the second language. This is proven by the case of immigrants. One is tempted to go so far as to say that that it is impossible that a person will not acquire a second language if he is forced to communicate in it and has no recourse to his mother language. This is proven by the experience of soldiers captured in enemy territory, such as Americans in Vietnam and held in P.O.W. camps, or of Western drug smugglers incarcerated in prisons in Asian countries.

    I hold it, therefore, to be axiomatic that all languages are learnable, and if learnable, then also teachable. I also hold it to be a fact that anyone who has mastered one language (and I use the term ‘master’ in a qualified sense) is without exception capable of mastering Latin (again, I use the term in a qualified sense) with varying degrees of success.

    The problem that faces classics teachers today, however, is that we are not on a level playing field, so to speak, with our modern-language-teaching counterparts. They sell a communicative, functional, and social product. We sell essentially an intellectual, nerdy, lonely, and asocial product. If a student is not attracted to intellectual, nerdy, lonely, and asocial activities, it is impossible — irrespective of the affection he or she may have for his teacher — that he or she will ever achieve any kind of mastery of the kind of Latin we are peddling. This kind of dead Latin is indeed a “hard sell” despite the best and well-intentioned efforts of educators to package the product as fun and easy by means of glossy textbooks with coloured pictures and comic artwork and interspersed with amusing stories from mythology and Greek and Roman history.

    I ask you to imagine if we took an Anglophone student of a decidedly non-intellectual inclination and taught him German in the same intellectual way that we teach Latin and Greek. We will say to him: you will not learn how to speak this language. You will never be taught how to greet or talk about your family or your life in German, nor what kind of food you like and don’t like. You will never be able to talk to any Germans about music, friends, movies or anything that you normally like to chat about on Facebook or whatever other social media you waste your time on. In fact, you will never meet any Germans at all. Instead, you will learn lists of German vocabulary. You will learn German grammar paradigms thoroughly. You will learn the German case system and the rules for the different uses of the cases. Once you have mastered all of this, we will teach you the mood system of German verbs and how these are used in hypotaxis, and you will also learn the subtleties of German particles. You will learn how to write elegant and well-constructed sentences in German in the manner of the great German writers. The only pleasures you will have will have until you reach advanced German will be the recognition of the relationship between some isolated German and English words, and possibly also the rather dry pleasure that comes of mastering a paradigm table. However, if you work hard and reach advanced German, we promise you the greatest of pleasures imaginable: reading Goethe, Schiller and Heine in their original language!

    If you have one hundred such students in your dead German class out of the school population of two and a half thousand (the vast majority of whom are poorly read and have been for nearly thirteen years provided with an intellectual diet consisting largely, if not entirely, of computer games, low-brow television, movies and social media), I should say that you have done superbly well in terms of enrolments.

    I do wonder if for this kind of less intellectually inclined student — if not indeed for all students — something is not to be said for teaching Latin as a spoken language. I remember once conversing with a very experienced classics teacher and she dismissed spoken Latin in the harshest terms as not being a serious pursuit and as not “belonging to the future of Latin teaching”. I am rather inclined to think, however, that her methods don’t belong to the future of Latin teaching, and this seems to be proven by the frustrations and feelings of failure expressed in this poignant blog that must surely resonate with many of us.

  3. I agree with Alejandro,
    language is what you make of it, and teaching it the same. The world has moved beyond us teaching in academic gowns covered in cobwebs (which is a good thing), but I think that the experience of having uninterested pupils or having pupils who need to be coaxed or threatened to do anything in the language is not limited to classical languages, and I have observed in at least one English class in an Asian country with similar experiences.

    The article said that there is no longer any meaningful attempt to get them to read and analyse the texts, but how is this any different from German students who won’t read “der Besuch der Alten Dame” (I’ve been in a class where students just refused)? Would a communicative approach work better. Why not find out?

  4. Saame.

    Of the endless waves of students that I teach, only a few of them grasp that the subject itself is beautiful and worth exploring. Some of them go through the motions without interest, and some of the hate it with a passion.

    You have to trust that the ones who never warm to the subject will eventually find something else that clicks for them and sparks their curiousity.

  5. Before I dropped out of school, I attended two high schools in two-and-a-half years. While enrolled I failed every class I took including Gym. I remember and always will remember my freshmen English teacher reading Gunga Din with a cockney accent. I was moved by his recitation. Like the butterfly flapping its wings in Japan, you will never know the effect you have on the students in your classes.

  6. Your comment that you’d rather your students liked you less and the subject more put me in mind of “The Browning Version”, in which Andrew Crocker-Harris makes such a choice.
    Although I’m not a teacher, I know what it’s like to be eager to share some beautiful verses and find only deaf ears. To face that field of unmoveable flowers every day must be frustrating, but sometimes education is a slow-acting drug, so don’t despair.
    I would find it fun to add a little casual conversation in Latin, as a game among pupils. They don’t have to be perfect. No one really knows how Cicero sounded when he asked for scrambled eggs!

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