As the school year is now well underway, I have been thinking about the teachers in my life who have helped shape me. From learning to read and write in the early years of grade school to trying to struggle over redox equations in high school chemistry, I have been blessed with many wonderful teachers. They have been men and women, priests, religious and laypeople, young and old. But they all shared certain attributes which I believe makes one a great teacher.
First, each of them knew their subjects well. They were experts in a particular area of study. In early childhood education, this often means being an expert in childhood development as well as possessing the patience needed to instill proper fundamental techniques. I remember the smell of the paper used to first learn “D’nealian handwriting” or cursive. I remember Ms. Faust’s kindness and persistence as we practiced the impossible capital Q time and again. But I also remember the forbearing guidance of professors in college as I struggled to understand the history of Central European History or to find the constellations in Astronomy.
A great teacher knows his subject inside and out. He knows the broad strokes as well as the contours and the trickier aspects of the subject. He also knows that to really know a subject is to commit to continual learning of it; expertise requires the humility to know that few things can completely be understood in one lifetime, let alone in one year or one course. Therefore, he spends time understanding more deeply his expertise: calculus, automotive repair or international relations.
Second, a great teacher does not simply know the subject, she loves the subject. When one teaches a classic text like Dante’s “Inferno” or Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” she cannot hold these subjects at arm’s length. They have to take root in the teacher’s soul. Having a love for the subject allows a teacher to cover material and subjects over and over again, and field questions from students with patience and passion.
We do not have disembodied minds. We have unified passions, hearts, minds and bodies. Our passions can often get us into trouble, but they can also be used for the good. When we direct them to the good, they make us more human. To love – both as a passion and an act of the will – a subject is essential for a teacher. A teacher of basketball, the coach, has to really love the game, he has to be passionate about it if he is worthy of the title “teacher” or “coach.”
Finally, a great teacher is not simply passionate about the subject but passionate about her students learning the subject. She can have lots of information about a subject and even love it but these are simply internal. Only when that knowledge and passion is directed to another does one merit the title of “a great teacher.”
Socrates, truly one of history’s greatest teachers, referred to himself as a midwife of wisdom. He wanted to stir up in his listeners a deep appreciation for and love of knowledge. Teaching is not simply filling another mind with information it is conveying the true, the good, and the beautiful to another person. It is, and it has to be, relational. Therefore, great teachers have to get outside of themselves and put themselves at the service of the other.
Every mature Catholic has a responsibility to be a teacher of the faith. Parents are given this charge at the baptism of their child, and priests are given it at their ordination. Each of us should take this demand seriously, even if we have not been formally entrusted with teaching. In this way, we have to take up these three key elements in our teaching of the faith.
First, I have to know my “subject.” This is God – who is made known to us in and through Jesus – and God’s Church, the Catholic Church. I need to have a knowledge of who Jesus is. This means I have to spend time in his word learning about him. I need to become an expert in who God is and this is most perfectly understood through reading of sacred Scripture and participating at Mass.
Because God has entrusted the incorruptible truth of himself to his Church, it also means I have to know what the Catholic Church teaches. How does Catholic faith and science coexist? Why does the Church teach about same-sex marriage, the death penalty or care for the environment? What prayers from the Church’s tradition should I be acquainted with?
Second, I need to love my subject. God is not an object to be studied like a fossil. Rather, he is someone who wants to be in relationship with me. Loving God is far deeper than loving mathematics, basketball or Shakespearean sonnets. When we love God, he loves us back! In fact, whether we love him or not, he loved us first. If I want to teach others about God, I have to love him.
Loving God means striving to live the way he calls us. He gives us the saints to understand how to do this in every walk of life. Are you young and single? There’s a saint for that! Are you old and infirmed? There is a saint for that! Do you struggle with depression, addiction or anger? There is a saint for that! But loving God is more than getting to know his saints, it is opening up your heart to him so that there is nothing off limits in your life from God’s love. It is a relationship of trust and dependence by which you and I are transformed to be more and more like him. I cannot be a great teacher if I only have head knowledge. I need to be passionate and on fire with love for God.
Finally, a great teacher of the faith is one who wants others to have this knowledge and love too. The real mark of a transformed disciple is his willingness to share the faith with others. As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis wrote these words: “Knowing Jesus is the best gift that any person can receive; that we have encountered him in the best thing that has happened in our lives, and making him known by our words and deeds is our joy.”
The conviction that my knowledge of and my love for God is not meant exclusively for me is paramount to being a missionary disciple. We have been given a gift far greater than the quadratic equation or Facebook’s master algorithm. The Gospel, which brings eternal salvation to souls, has been entrusted to us. We should learn from all of the great teachers in our lives so that we can become the best teachers of the Catholic faith.