Teaching, Oblivion, and the Mortification of the Self

By Ian August Mosley, Latin Teacher at School of the Ozarks

Most movies are not about teachers. They are not as popular a subject as criminals, warriors, or lovers. Nor do movies about teachers include many scenes of actual teaching. Films cover teaching itself with a demure veil that calls to mind the strict propriety of the golden age of Hollywood. In the old movies, the lovers embrace; the scene fades out. We are left to infer the rest. Similarly, movies about teaching usually cut away right before the lesson begins, to pick up again in the aftermath. Let us not indulge a prurient curiosity about such things, they seem to say. What would be the alternative? To try to dramatize the factoring of polynomials, the scansion of iambic pentameter, the major exports of Paraguay, the declension of a Latin noun? Whatever stories are made of—and their material is almost as diverse as life—they surely do not consist of such moments.

Good teaching often seems to occur behind a veil of oblivion just as total as these cinematic omissions. It must be admitted that teachers do sometimes receive recognition. There is such a thing as The Teacher of the Year, isn’t there? One suspects that few receive such awards because they have taught the multiplication table year after year with competence and dogged persistence. If that is the reason, it is usually passed over in the speeches. Instead, the things mentioned are usually the same things that are dramatized in the movies: the moments before the lesson and in the aftermath.
Certainly such moments are important, and it would be tempting to draw the conclusion that they are more important than the ones that nobody will remember. “They’ll remember how you made them feel” is an adage that seems to sanctify a view of teaching as principally a therapeutic exercise, and it’s superfluous for therapists to trouble themselves overmuch about polynomials. But Scripture warns us of the pride of the flesh which considers recognition from men more important than recognition from God. Why not reckon it a great spiritual gift for our best work to be forgotten by everyone, including ourselves? When you teach, don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.

Many articles about classical education refer to the importance of wonder. I have nothing against these articles. Wonder is an important part of a good education. I do fear they may make some teachers feel they are not successful unless they are constantly looking out on a class of popped-out eyes and mouths that are gathering dust from being constantly open. Good teaching often is not thrilling, not cinematic. Good teaching is often a grind. Most good teaching will not be remembered.

To say that most good teaching will not be remembered is not to say that most good teaching will be without an effect. Otherwise teaching would be a waste of time. Eating is not a waste of time just because we can specifically remember very few meals. The meals themselves we may not recall, but the nutrition they provided has made the difference between life and death. Mental cultivation, mental nutrition, is not less important, though it may be no more memorable. Most good teaching will not be remembered, noticed, or recognized. Thank God for it. The mortification of our pride will make us more fit for the Kingdom.

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