Remembering the Basics: It Begins with the Teacher

Those who teach the early grades understand the extreme weight of the responsibility they take on when they agree to teach the very young. Knowing that you are beginning the journey of cultivating virtue in a young one can be ominous and downright petrifying! I well remember the year that the kindergarten teaching position at our school opened and our head of school asked me to take the class. I said, yes, and then, no, to the job numerous times throughout the summer but finally gave in and took on the class. By saying, yes, I learned more about myself and what it takes to be a good teacher than what my students ever learned from me. I guess you could say that as far as my teaching career goes, everything I learned, I learned in kindergarten! (Or at least almost everything)

Lesson one: A successful teacher is a disciplined teacher

Being disciplined meant that I had to commit to putting in the time and effort required to make my lessons. My students and my students’ outcomes had to be my first priority. That may sound obvious, but it has some real- world consequences. It meant things like reading a book cover to cover, annotating it, and writing comprehension questions for it when I would have rather watched my favorite show. It meant going to the community library every week to find books that might instill a sense of wonder in my students or add richness to our lessons. It meant writing postcards to each student three times a summer so that they could feel a connection between their lives and my life and look forward to whatever we were going to learn in the upcoming year. It also meant that I might need to attend a local pee wee baseball game or soccer game so that each child might know that I was interested in his whole life and not just his life in my classroom. Discipline for a teacher means that you have to become a voracious learner. Not only must you learn what you must teach presently, you must learn as much as you can about each level of work that your students will encounter as they work through the levels of the trivium.

I spent time in visiting and learning in other teachers’ classrooms so that I would have a better idea of what was ahead for my students’ sake.

Lesson two: A teacher must always be prepared

John Milton Gregory (The Seven Laws of Teaching) describes this as “a teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth or art to be taught.” This means, anything that you are going to teach needs to be thoroughly read, thought out and practiced by you first. Practically that meant that I needed to read every page of every book in advance, I needed to learn every lyric to every song and chant and be the master of any information or fact I was going to teach. As Gregory wrote, “what a man does not know he cannot teach successfully.” You cannot “wing it.” You cannot open a book for the first time in front of your students. You have to think about the questions your students might ask. You have to know the lessons you are going to teach “inside and out” before you enter the classroom. Along with preparing a lesson, in the youngest grades, this also means that you have planned out where in your classroom each lesson will take place (mapped it out) and have thought out and readied all teaching armamentaria there. This allows you to teach and then release without interruption so that discovery and the joy of successful learning becomes internal for each student.

Lesson Three: Teaching must be predictable and offer consistent structure

This lesson was not so difficult for me to grasp. Being the mother of three children, early on in their lives I had learned that the best way to keep a happy home and form good habits in my children was to offer them the structure. This structure took the form of a set of negotiables and non-negotiables in our home, and I was always steady, stable and unwavering in my expectations of their meeting those. This made for an easy transition to the classroom. Beginning lessons for the very young means a lot of practicing procedures and expectations over and over until the desired behavior becomes habit. Practically that might be a young student learning to raise his hand to speak instead of blurting out, or it might be the expectation that the students will line up quietly and orderly every time they get ready to exit the classroom. For the teacher, this also means practically that a classroom schedule must be fairly regimented so that students can come to depend on “what comes next” or “what they should do next.” The structure must first be set by the teacher, and the structure is then imposed on the student.

Each subsequent year of teaching kindergarten, I gained a deeper understanding of what it meant to be disciplined, prepared, predictable and structured. All three lessons served my classroom well. My students flourished and their parents were appreciative of the changes they were seeing in their children that were spilling over into their homes and lives.

About the Author

Debra Sugyama, Executive Assistant and Educational Consultant at SCL (2009-2015)

Rejecting Disciplinary Insularity and Irrelation

It may seem normal that, with increasing specialization in our world, particular academic disciplines tend to stand alone, becoming insular and standing in irrelation to other subjects.  Christian educators must not only resist such a trend, but also commit to seek out, delight in, and communicate the connectedness, compatibility, and coherency of all true knowledge.  Insofar as some prominent academics, who are or have been vocal in the public square, have succeeded in convincing many people otherwise, faithful Christian educators should purposefully design their curricula such that the unity of knowledge is magnified and celebrated, and so that our students are prepared for living the life of faith in a sometimes hostile and polarized world.

Steve Mittwede

Steve Mittwede serves as Science Department Chair at Covenant Classical School in Fort Worth. His academic journey began at The College of William and Mary in Virginia (BS in Geology), took him south to the University of South Carolina (MS and PhD in Geology) and Columbia International University (MA in Intercultural Studies and EdS in Educational Leadership), and took on an international flair when he studied at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales--now Union School of Theology (MTh in Modern Evangelical Theology). Steve and his bride make their home on the westernmost edge of Fort Worth, but relish opportunities to spend time with four sons and their burgeoning families. He does research and publishes every chance he gets, and is especially passionate about faith-learning integration.

Only Obedience is Real

When I was a youth pastor, I had what many would call a demanding and teaching-based ministry, so all this talk of spiritual formation reminds me of similar discussions I used to have with parents. They wanted the youth group to be less like school. Now, as the leader of a school, the parents want the school to be more like youth group. This leads me to think that “spiritual formation” is not
a concern specific to Christian schools, but a trend within American Christianity.

While a youth pastor, I found myself dreaming of a time when I would not have to defend demanding discipleship or serious training of the mind, so when I took the opportunity to lead a classical Christian high school, I thought the time had arrived. Surely, I thought, these will be people who “get it.” As we all know, however, this is not necessarily the case. It seems that many of our parents still traffic in a form of latent Gnosticism: there is “real” life and there is “spiritual” life, and education is not a part of the latter.

So I find myself having to dust off the arguments and advice I used with parents in the church when they had concerns that their students weren’t “growing spiritually.”

1.It seems the city of Corinth had plenty of “spiritual” people in the church, but Paul thought it necessary to educate them: “Now concerning spiritual things, brothers, I don’t want you to be ignorant.” (1 Cor. 12:1) Paul even had to “make known”to them that saying “Jesus is accursed” wasn’t a Spirit-led endeavor. It seems that spiritual formation in the New Testament involved a great deal of instruction.

2. If instruction is spiritual formation, then some might counter that it only concerns “church” stuff and thus, the instruction that is happening in most classes at school isn’t really helping spiritual formation. I counter that Jesus claims to be “the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6) If this is indeed so, that Jesus is the truth, then what we do with the truth, we do with Jesus. Learning to recognize truth, to admire truth, to defend truth, and to follow truth thus seems a highly spiritual endeavor.

3. Many might concede these two, but when all is done, the retort may follow, “Yes, but I don’t see that it’s real to the students.” By “it” they mean Christianity and by “real” they mean…well, what do they mean? Whatever it is they mean, there is a dominant view out there that seems to argue that “making it real” happens through spiritual formation.

Which brings us back to where we started. When it comes right down to it, perhaps we should admit that Jesus never talked about spiritual formation. He did, however, talk much about obedience. In fact, he said that the measure of how real this stuff is to a person is his or her obedience: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) It seems obedience trumps spirituality, or, perhaps, obedience is spirituality. If that is true, here’s the rub: obedience is an act of the will and cannot be conjured or cajoled, whether in school or a youth group. We cannot “spiritually form” students because we cannot force obedience. What we can do, however, is to educate properly so students are better equipped to obey. Knowing the world accurately conceivably helps them to act obediently and correctly within it. And maybe then we can break down the American Christian Gnosticism that motivates the concern in the first place.

There is no “spiritual” life alongside “real” life. Spiritual life is real life lived in obedience to Jesus Christ.

Worthless, Difficult and Old

Why study Latin? All of us in classical, Christian education have asked the question. Rather than spout statistics proving that Latin comes in handy on the SAT’s, we might focus on three less practical reasons for the study of Latin. Latin contributes to our classical values because it is worthless, difficult, and old.

First, Latin is practically worthless, but I don’t mean that in quite the way it might sound. Language is the most common means of communication. Until the final, or “rhetoric” stage, however, the classical educator is not so much concerned with the student’s ability to communicate ideas, but rather with his capacity to receive them. In fact, we are convinced that the latter must precede the former.

Language is also the mechanism that drives thought, and as the scope and depth of our language shrivels, so does our capacity for deep and significant thought. The student of rhetoric cannot speak well until he has first learned to listen and to think. It is the “listening” rather than the “speaking” nature of Latin study that makes it so valuable. Because of the conversational emphasis, the study of a modern language cannot serve the same purpose. So, one learns Latin, not to speak with Cicero or with Augustine, but to sit at their feet, to receive and understand their thoughts.

Second, Latin is difficult. If language is the mechanism of thought, translation is thought itself. The student is presented with a thought contained in a puzzle; he extracts the meaning, and then reinterprets and represents the thought. This is hard work, but only in this way does the student learn to own the ideas. The earlier we foster this complex skill in our students, the easier they will translate any text at more demanding stages of their careers.

Beyond worthlessness and difficulty, Latin has the additional advantage of being old. The act of translation itself is valuable, but Latin texts are also of great intellectual value. As a student bears through the slow, difficult years of mastering Latin grammar, he has the opportunity to practice the newly acquired art of translation on the philosophy and politics of Cicero, the history of Caesar, and the poetry of Virgil. This provides an unmatched entrance into the ancient world—the world into which Christianity was born, a world which the Gospel conquered and eventually adopted.

In the end we hope that; in whatever language or media our students confront a thought—political debate, newspaper article, poetry, or advertising; their study of Latin will provide the discipline and insight necessary to discern the meaning of the message, and to articulate an appropriate response.