We don’t need teachers
Pope Paul VI said, in Evangelii Nuntiandi that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does not listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
I am writing another piece on the meaning of being a teacher because some schools continue to honor their teachers around this time. I believe though that a more important reason for another reflection is the timeless value of teaching itself.
Let me begin with some realities about the teaching profession. One, though professionalized, teaching is perceived by some people as a pale achievement compared to other professions. To make this more concrete, let me put the matter this way: passing a teachers’ board is nothing compared to passing the medical board or bar exam. This means that in terms of impact and intensity, becoming a lawyer or a doctor is harder than becoming a teacher.
Second, other professionals are almost always “unquestionable authorities” in their field. It is rare for a patient not to at least initially trust the medication of a doctor. And as for the lawyers, who would not trust them? People even go to lawyers much as they would love to go to St. Jude, the patron of hopeless and desperate cases. This is not the case with teachers. I know for a fact that worse comes to worst – a parent discontented with the score of her child would end up questioning the teacher’s credentials. It is not even a secret that many parents would say that the reason why their children fail is because the “teacher does not know how to teach.” Two words summarize this: “teacher factor.”
I am saying these realities for one good reason: one would never truly appreciate the value of teaching if one romanticizes teaching. Many people would love to repeat the phrase “teaching is a noble profession.” This phrase however is empty if we do not embrace the painful truths and the hard facts of the profession. Teaching is not noble if the teacher sits in a throne and gets praises and honors all year round.
A true teacher is not pretentious. It is not the lack of mistakes that makes a good teacher but the humility to admit should one commit them. It is not the content of the subject that a teacher can best give to his students. In teaching, “the medium is the message.” The person of the teacher is the very core of what he communicates to the students.
Let us admit the fact that not many of the topics a teacher teaches will be remembered by students ten more so twenty or thirty years later. When students will gather during their reunion they will remember the person of the teacher, not his lessons. They will recall what their teachers did. Either they will remember the kindness or the abuses of their teachers.
Precisely, Pope Paul VI was right. Our world today needs witnesses and not just teachers. In the end the word teacher and witness are synonymous. The real teacher is a true witness. He lives up to what he teaches. A real science teacher believes in the importance of discovery. A real English teacher believes in the value of communication. A real philosophy teacher believes that he does not know anything and that is why the search is not and cannot be over. A teacher who does not believe in what he teaches is not a teacher. At the very least he is an actor who memorizes a script. Worse, he is a clown who is paid to pretend and amuse people. Students are intelligent, and they can smell from afar if their teacher loves what he does.
If teachers truly want their students to learn, they have to continually renew their commitment to the profession. The greatest challenge on the part of the teacher is to be consciously aware why he is a teacher.
It is not easy to be a teacher. Precisely, teaching is not just a profession. It is a choice. It is a conviction. It is not earning a living. It is a way of life. It is life.