TEACHERS OF PREVIOUS AGES, both in legend and in history, often had forbidding temperaments. Severity was a common mark of their personalities, and descriptions of eighteenth and nineteenth-century classrooms frequently portray schoolmasters as inflicting corporal punishment on their unfortunate students with a cane, switch, or ruler. In "The Deserted Village," Oliver Goldsmith depicted one such teacher as "a man severe . . . stern to view."
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learn'd to trace
The day's disasters in his morning face.
Few are now likely to be Goldsmith's "man severe."
1.Today's successful and admired teachers are more likely to be noted for their congeniality, good humor, and tolerance than for their harsh discipline and scowling looks. This does not mean that they are usually playful clowns-they must not be-but it does mean that the misanthropic sourness connoted by the profession of teaching in the past is rarely found now.
2.Teachers' personalities, or so conventional views have it, should be at least attractive, if not charming. After all, it was with music and the eccentric costume of a jester that the Pied Piper made all the children of Hamelin follow him.
Yet one cannot fashion personality, as one can character; teachers ought to bring to their work themselves, not some manufactured personas. The challenge of personality that confronts them is not that of making themselves pleasing to their students, as much as that may seem to be desirable, but that of drawing out of themselves the traits of character-the traits of their moral nature-that will accommodate and enhance their students' learning.
There are always a few unsuccessful teachers who manage to reach at least a few of their students despite some annoying trait of personality, such as the lack of any sense of humor or play. And there are the gifted and inspiring teachers who nonetheless fail to reach some students because, given the mysteries of the fit of human personalities, the students simply do not learn well from those particular teachers. Who is therefore to say that for one teacher a severe approach to learning, or for another a gently persuasive mode of instruction, is wrong or inappropriate? All teachers must consider how they can use the mental and moral qualities that are inherently theirs to best effect in the classroom. No exposure to methods, no practice of technique, can substitute for that.
A trap young teachers often fall into is that of assuming "teaching personalities" that are not their own. Such teachers are like unconscious actors; they are playing roles based, often unknowingly, on the favorite school teachers or college mentors of their own youth. Acting may be an important technique of successful teachers, but the adoption of roles must always be deliberate and temporary- and always for good effect. Teachers who assume permanent masks without realizing what they are doing are guilty of a kind of hypocrisy particularly offensive to the young, who show a remarkable talent for unmasking such deceptions. The classroom is not a stage, and those who feel obliged to assume different characters in order to be effective in it should probably not be teachers in the first place.
A prime example of such a teacher is Andrew Crocker- Harris, the pathetic if gentle character of Terence Rattigan's stage drama The Browning Version, who has over many years assumed a personality of such ruthless coldness that his students call him "the Hitler of the Lower Fifth" behind his back. Yet on the eve of his retirement a student reduces him to tears with the gift of a secondhand copy of Robert Browning's translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. Difficult though it may be to believe, this appears to be the first time in a forty-year career that Crocker-Harris has revealed anything of his true character in the presence of his students. Yet the playwright persuasively portrays a teacher brought to the verge of nervous breakdown by a lifetime of deliberate deception through denial of himself.
If there is an ideal character for a teacher, it is one occupying a middle position between conflicting extremes.To be kind is not to be soft or weak, and to be demanding is not to be unfair. The balance to be achieved lies with a good-natured reserve and an enthusiastically generous sharing of intellectual excitement; such a balance keeps teachers from corrupting the appropriate relationship between themselves and their students.
The personal qualities required of successful teachers are not difficult to identify. Whether they are acquired or are the gifts of nature are questions best left to geneticists to consider. Intelligent young people are often urged to consider careers in teaching by those who observe in them the traits they suppose to be required in good teachers: consideration for their peers, for instance, or kindness toward those in need of help with their studies. Those attracted to teaching careers merely by their interest in a particular subject or a sense that teaching is the only way they can be paid for indulging in it are likely to experience difficulty in the classroom, possibly failure and unhappiness, because their personalities may be quite unsuited to their work.
A teacher's age and each generation's accompanying changing traits of character are also factors in teaching. Teachers of twenty-three may have to face classes of eighteen-year-olds, who are apt to consider their young instructors as older siblings. In front of such a class, there is little point in attempting to play the graybeard. Fifteen or twenty years older, teachers may well be thought of as substitute parents. Still later, if the years have been kind, the role of a grandparent will probably be appropriate before young students. Maintaining a suitable distance between teacher and student at each of these stages in the teacher's aging requires an appropriate maturing of personality. In turn, teachers must resist the illusion that the aging process affects only the students, who seem to get younger every year!
Yet there is no single, ideal character for teachers. Human types being infinitely varied, many very different kinds of character can "work" in a classroom. Thus this element of teaching is particularly difficult to define. But it does have some generally common features.