“But pray, sir, why must I not teach the young gentlemen?”
“Because, sir, teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect upon the soul. It exemplifies the badness of established, artificial authority. The pedagogue has almost absolute authority over his pupils: he often beats them and insensibly he loses the sense of respect due to them as fellow human beings. He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater. He may easily become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous; in any event he perpetually associates with his inferiors, the king of his company; and in a surprisingly short time alas this brands him with the mark of Cain. Have you ever known a schoolmaster fit to associate with grown men? The Dear knows I never have. They are most horribly warped indeed. Yet curiously enough this does not seem to apply to tutors: perhaps it is scarcely possible to lay the prima donna to an audience of one. Fathers, on the other hand -“
— Dialog between Mr. Martin and Stephen Maturin on page 92 of The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian
I’ve logged hundreds of hours over twenty novels (most of them two times over) enjoying your company, Dr. Maturin. It is difficult to accept that, all the while, you have seen me as unfit to associate with grown men. I appear to myself now like one of the bores in the wardroom with whom you are trapped for months on end.
I wasn’t always a schoolteacher, Stephen; is there anything to be said for that? In fact, I held your opinion of schoolteachers for years until I was brought by the lee fifteen minutes into my teaching career.
I made a grammatical error in front of my first class. Some verb I used didn’t agree in number with one of those indefinite pronouns that can go either way; I don’t remember the exact details.
Some smart girl called me on it in front of the whole class, and I thought it was a good time to introduce my teaching philosophy.
“Hey, I’m new to teaching this. I’m going to make some mistakes. I want you to feel free to point them out to me, but I expect you to take it well when I may have to correct your grammar on occasion. In other words, I’m going to model the humility and the excitement about learning that I hope I’ll find in you guys.”
You get the idea, Stephen. I deliberately shed the image of the all-knowing and infallible teacher, and I was up there modeling learning. You probably would have approved.
Anyway, a few kids on that first class of that first day exchanged sneers, and, if I had had more than fifteen minutes’ teaching experience, I’d have known that I was in deep trouble.
For the rest of the year, that class refused to believe me when I taught grammar. They called out objections when I told them that the past participle of “drink” is “drunk.” They looked at me with exaggerated incredulity when I explained that one might end a sentence with a preposition with impunity. They didn’t even believe me when I insisted that “grammar” ends with “ar” and not “er.” Everything I taught in the grammar line was suspect.
During that year, I read an entire book on grammar and scoured two grammar textbooks I happened to have around. I tried to explain to my students that rudimentary English grammar isn’t rocket science. I’ve got a doctorate, admittedly not in English grammar. Kids, I can learn this in a few weeks!
It was no good, Stephen. Kids – especially kids in that unforgiving stage of life known as ninth grade – want infallible teachers.
I finally picked up the signals. The following year, I admitted to no mistakes until Christmas. I learned how to deflect unwanted challenges with a slight smile, with a turn of the lip, or by just moving on. I learned to answer a hard question with, “What do you think?” delivered with a knowing look. I sent kids to the grammar text or the dictionary to answer their own questions. I’m not at the point where I can make up answers to questions I don’t know and then insist on my answers long after some smarty-pants proves me wrong. But I could get there. I could become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous. I could become “horribly warped indeed.” Sure, I could become the pedagogue of the world, Stephen.
But come to think of it, doctor, you never commanded anything except your sick ward and an occasional surgeon’s mate. What do you know about classroom management? You are to consider how you react given the slightest authority – how imperiously you often treat your patients.
Consider Jack, for all love. Jack’s crew doesn’t want him to be just another mate, someone to learn the ropes with them. Despite his never admitting mistakes, Jack almost always commands happy ships with only occasional floggings. It’s lonely at the top, Jack and I can tell you.
Face it, doctor. Infallibility may be part of good classroom management until kids reach the age of understanding, which I now think is sometime after ninth grade.
“He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater.” What a fellow you are, Stephen!
Posted August 2006