Learning to be a good citizen is learning to live to the maximum of one’s abilities and opportunities, and every subject should be taught every child with this in view. The teacher’s personality and character are of the greatest importance. I have known many erudite and scholarly men and women who were dismal failures as teachers. I have known some less learned teachers who had the gift of inspiring youth and sending them on to heights where perhaps they themselves were unable to follow.
Knowledge is essential and much to be admired, but no one can know all there is to know in the world, and to inspire a spirit of humbleness toward those who have a real knowledge in any subject and to add to that the “insatiable curiosity” so well described in Kipling’s “Just So Stories” is a greater achievement than to establish the idea that the teacher’s knowledge is infallible and all-embracing.
You will be thinking that few teachers of this type exist and you will be right. The blame lies with the attitude toward teachers and the teaching of our present generation. We have set up a money value, a material gauge by which we measure success, but we have frequently iven more time and more material compensation to our cooks and chauffeurs and day-laborers, bricklayers, carpenters, and painters than we have to our nurses, governesses, and tutors and teachers in schools and colleges.
We entrust the building of our children’s characters and the development of their minds to people whom we, as a rule, compensate less liberally than we do the men and women who build our houses and make our day-by-day existence more comfortable and luxurious. These men and women teachers, paid from $1,200 to $5,000, and in extraordinary cases $10,000 a year, mold the future citizens of our country, and we do not treat them with the respect or consideration which their high calling deserves, nor do we reward them with the only reward which spells success according to our present standards.
One of our hard-worked businessmen said to me not long ago, “Why, these teacher fellows have a snap. Look at their long summer holidays, and you can’t tell me it’s as hard to tell a lot of youngsters about logarithms or Scott’s novels as it is to handle my board of directors at one end and my shop committee at the other.” My thought was that if he and his fellow members on the board of directors and the men on the shop committee had had the right kind of teaching his job would be easier because at both ends he would have men better able to understand the whole problem of industry and realize the necessity of cooperation.
Teachers must have leisure to prepare, to study, to journey in new fields, and to open new sources of knowledge and inspiration and experience for themselves. You cannot impart what you have not made your own. You cannot engender enthusiasm if you have lost it. Teaching is dead when the subject does not inspire enthusiasm in the teacher. Then there must be leisure to cultivate your pupils. The best teaching is often done outside of the classroom.
It always interests me how many Harvard men will speak of Professor Copeland’s “Readings.” They seem to look back on them as something particularly hallowed, and it seems to me that they have furnished inspiration to countless men whose lives have followed a hundred different paths. One cannot get to know young people in a crowd. Youth is shy and a teacher gets his best results both in the classroom and out when barriers are down, and it requires wooing before the barriers come down. But what patience and time unselfishly given to the problems and interests of individuals this means, only a good teacher knows, and he rarely tells.
When I was fifteen I came in contact with a really remarkable teacher, a strong and vital personality. All my life I have been grateful for her influence. She has been dead for many years, but to this day her presence lives with me. It was not so much the actual class work, tho I can still remember the wave of hot shame creeping over me when I had handed in a piece of shoddy work. She had great charity for mistakes, for real limitations in knowledge or experience, but if you tried to “get by” with inadequate research and preparation, or smart phrases instead of thought, you felt her scorn because she believed in you and felt you could do better and you had fallen down.
I think few of us worked under her without acquiring a conception of intellectual integrity and obligation at all times to do our best. I still remember evenings when she read to us and by her comments opened up avenues of thought. If ever in small ways I may do any good work in the world the credit will not be mine, but in part at least it will belong to the most inspiring teacher I ever knew.
A friend of mine says that in her class in high school almost every individual went out with the determination to do something in the world and make every effort to self-development. She says it was due to the contact with a teacher who lent them her books and talked them over (giving them their first appreciation of good literature), who went on picnics with them, and opened their eyes to the beauty of nature by her own keen appreciation and enjoyment.
I believe that each one of us, if we delve in our memories, can find some similar experience which will uphold my contention that a great teacher is more important than the most gorgeous building. Where no such contacts have been experienced, the most ideal surroundings will not make our school-days anything but a succession of dull and meaningless tasks.
There are many inadequate teachers today. Perhaps our standards should be higher, but they cannot be until we learn to value and understand the function of the teacher in our midst. While we have put much money in buildings and laboratories and gymnasiums, we have forgotten that they are but the shell, and will never live and create a vital spark in the minds and hearts of our youth unless some teacher furnishes the inspiration. A child responds naturally to high ideals, and we are all of us creatures of habit.