Why do people become teachers?

St. James, the most controversial of the correspondents in the Canon—because he’s so unambiguous—would not be used for recruiting purposes by the education departments at today’s universities. For lots of reasons. But mostly because you could never imagine a spokesman for education saying: “Let not many of you become teachers. For we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all make many mistakes, and anyone who makes no mistakes in what he says, he is the perfect man” (James 3:1-2). It might give pause to anyone considering a career in education. It should.

Jesus is a less controversial figure than James, because we have managed to interpret so much of what he said however we like. And of course, he is somewhat universally regarded as a great teacher, even though what he said got him killed, which again does not exactly inspire one to become a teacher.

Jesus further adds discouragement for the teaching profession when he tells his own students: “Call no man teacher” (Matt 23:10). Gratuitous aside: Our anti-Catholic friends often invoke the verse preceding that one—“Call no man father”—as evidence of how un-Biblical we are because we call priests “Father,” but they tend to go mum on the issue of calling a teacher a teacher.

So why would anyone want to become a teacher?

The cynical answer is: because they don’t have any skills to do anything else. The reason cynicism stings is that it so often hits the mark, even if it misses the point.

The proper answer is that teaching is not a job but a vocation. True teachers have a love of learning and an enthusiasm to share something that they have found to be wonderful and worth telling. There is something evangelistic to it, even if it is only the good news that 2+2 always equals 4. They are called to preach this gospel.

It is a difficult and challenging task to teach when there is a war on certainties. However, this is not a new problem. Truth has always been challenged. Doubt and defiance greet every proclamation. No child likes to be told what to do, what to say, what to think, when he has an alternative idea to all three, a reactionary trait he carries with him into adulthood. Because we are sinful and rebellious, we tend not to trust authority. It doesn’t help when we see authority that is abusive, or weak, or openly clueless. In other words, when we recognize in authority everything that we recognize in ourselves.

The war on certainties is a war on dogma. The common criticism is that dogma is bad, that it stifles freedom. But G.K. Chesterton says that a teacher who is not dogmatic is a teacher who is not teaching:

Now most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities… I mean the responsibility of affirming the truth of our human tradition and handing it on with a voice of authority, an unshaken voice. That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child. From this high audacious duty the moderns are fleeing on every side; and the only excuse for them is, of course, that their modern philosophies are so half-baked and hypothetical that they cannot convince themselves enough to convince even a newborn babe.

There is a supplementary answer to the question of why people become teachers. They are not only inspired by their subject, they have been inspired by their own teachers. Good teachers had good teachers. They remember that moment in the classroom where a light suddenly came on inside their heads. They admired that person up there giving all of themselves to their students. They don’t become teachers because they had bad teachers who discouraged them or left them disinterested. They don’t become teachers out of revenge. (“Mrs. Smith made me suffer, now I’m going to make these kids suffer, too.”)

I remember the great teachers who inspired me. One of them was my father, who was a high school biology teacher. I was especially inspired by the way he inspired others. And what inspired him? His father had been a heroic missionary doctor. In his classroom, my father not only taught biology, he told amazing stories of growing up in the jungles of northeast India, stories of my grandfather helping others, operating under horrible conditions as well as entertaining ones (like operating on an elephant). Consequently, an unusually high percentage of my father’s students went to medical school. A grand example of a teacher called to teach and carrying the truth from one generation to the next.

Why do people become teachers? The paradox is that teaching is a noble task for the very fact that it carries such awful responsibility. It is often a thankless task, whose fruits may never be seen. It is a vital task because it carries great knowledge across a great divide, like the Israelites carrying God and His Word across the wilderness from the place of slavery to the place of freedom, from darkness to light.

DALE AHLQUIST is President of the American Chesterton Society, editor of Gilbert!, host of the EWTN series The Apostle of Common Sense, and chairman of the Chesterton Schools Network.

Copyright © 2018 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.