Patience takes into account the weaknesses of youth. Those weaknesses are many, and often not fetching, yet they exist. If students are silly and giggle without provocation, if their spirits sometimes overcome their intellectual powers, if they occasionally forget themselves and the respect due to their teachers' authority-before all this teachers must nevertheless restrain themselves, count to ten, wait for their fit of impatience to pass, and then, in the calm that usually follows, point out to them without rancor the foolishness of their behavior. Teachers are themselves foolish if they expect students to behave prudently and with discretion at all times.
Even inappropriate behavior can itself be turned to good use with restrained indignation. "Now, Nathaniel, you've interrupted the class for half the period by making fun of George Washington for standing up in his boat while crossing the Delaware. And we've had enough of it. But you're right: the painter has painted him doing something that's never a good idea to do. Why do you think the painter has done so? What impression of Washington does it leave, and why do you think the artist wanted to leave that impression?" And off goes the lesson toward a serious end.
Patience hopes for, assists the growth of, but does not anticipate maturity in students. An old adage has it that you cannot put an old head on young shoulders. But there are occasions when teachers find themselves expecting from students qualities of character and intellect that should rather be expected from those who are older. The best advice to them is: Don't. If students are immature, teachers do not help them become mature by being impatient with them. Instead, a bit of well-meaning dissembling is probably in order, by which teachers act as if they sympathize with and will tolerate their students' immaturity in return for the required amount of work and progress on their part. What cannot be corrected, as the poet Horace remarked two thousand years ago in his Odes, becomes more tolerable with patience. To which one may add that what teachers pretend to tolerate with patience may after all be corrected.
Patience suffers fools gladly. That same ancient writer also noted that it is pleasant to play the fool in the proper setting. Students, especially young ones, are not likely to understand, at least at first,
1.why classroom fun must be limited to an appropriate context-one determined by the teacher. It is teachers who must distinguish between foolishness that does not distract from learning and the kind of folly that is directly opposed to it. The latter should not be tolerated under any circumstances in a classroom. But harmless fun, the kind generated naturally by the effervescence of youth, is not likely to harm the pursuit of knowledge and may even smooth the way toward it.
2. The challenge to teachers is to channel youths' natural ebullience into the search for knowledge without dampening their curiosity and fun.
Patience must be exemplified by teachers. Much is taught by example, and patience in a teacher contributes greatly to that effect.
Where else will students find better models of fortitude, tolerance, and equanimity than their teachers? Generally we may hope that they will find such models in their parents and older relatives. Yet if not there, teachers may be the sole exemplars of forbearance that many youths meet; their teachers may be the only ones who can explain quietly the benefits of restraint or deliberation. They may be among the very few people whom students observe making use of those prudential qualities when they teach, counsel, and console. From time to time, therefore, teachers will find it appropriate to explain their own patient behavior, how they arrive at it, what they try to do when they are failing to maintain it, and the cost they have paid when they have acted without restraint or thought. Models need be neither mute nor perfect.
Patience never loses sight of the goal.
Keep your eyes on the prize, in the words of the old gospel song. In this case, the prize is students' understanding, and excellent teachers move deliberately and steadily toward it. They allow nothing to distract or deter them from doing so. They know that the journey will be long and that they may be able to help their students only part of the way. Yet their escort, encouragement, and guidance
must be unfailing while their students are in their trust. They then pass their students on to other teachers, often cheering them off to college, professional school, or career. And if they do so with sadness, it is sadness tempered with satisfaction and knowledge that they have taught their students well by making their best effort to expand the students' knowledge and understanding.
Patience gives rewards to the self.
Rarely are teachers free of the sense that they might have had greater successes with their students, that their teaching skills ought to have been better, that they should have known more or been more understanding of their students' difficulties. And they are probably always justified in thinking so, if only because there is always room for improvement. Yet blaming themselves for their students' failure to learn can also hazard their success as teachers. A depletion of self-confidence only risks anxiety and diminished effect; and displays of that, to their students or colleagues, only undermines others' trust in them and in their work. It is not that teachers are without responsibility for their deficiencies. But it helps to remember that much responsibility for their students' learning and maturing lies with others-when students are young, with their parents; when they are older, with themselves and their peers. So, also, it is always within teachers' powers to tackle their perceived deficiencies with more study, more practice, more reliance on advice from their colleagues.
In general, all teaching is an exercise in patience. Sometimes it is our students we must endure; at other times, it is ourselves, as a strict grammarian might remark, up with whom we have to put. We wish that our students would move on, and we want to move them on, too. But that desire is often more a reflection of our hopes than of our students' true situation. They struggle, they are confused, they are not prepared to move forward. So we harness our hopes to their condition.
By doing so, however, we need not surrender hope to reality. What is patience, after all, but the triumph of faith and hope over despair? When we feel hopeless about our students' foolishness or willfulness, we may recall the existential determination of one of the characters in Samuel Beckett's The Unnarnable-“I can't go on, I'll go on'-and, with tenacity, keep to our task.