Mind Your Metaphors
Three Ways to Reimagine the Classroom
By Travis Copeland
Conceptualizing teaching in fresh ways can help us become better teachers.
In the New Testament, St. Paul uses three exhortations to encourage the young minister, St. Timothy, as he labors at the church of Ephesus. Using the analogies of a soldier, an athlete, and a farmer, Paul reminds him how to labor well. These vocations, which at first appear extremely different from the work of ministry that Timothy is doing, offer a helpful image and encouragement to Timothy as he labors in the work of the Lord. The soldier, St. Paul writes, “does not get entangled in civilian affairs;” the athlete must “compete according to the rules” to win a crown or be victorious and, the hard-working farmer should have the “first share” of the crops. The apostle uses these images to bring to light aspects of Timothy’s ministry which would have been harder to see otherwise.
Classical education can be understood and articulated by means of similar analogies. Here are three briefly considered analogies for teaching: the roles of farmer (coincidentally), monarch, and artist. These shed a fresh light on the task, vocation, and joy of teaching, in hopes of helping others pursue teaching well.
Farming, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, is practicing a life of limits. It is to be reminded of the boundaries of life, and the limits on creatures and the created. This kind of work does not produce fruit instantly. Teachers need this reminder constantly, especially those reading challenging old books with young students. A good farmer works for the pleasure of what is bearing fruit and will bear fruit; he lives fixed between those two ends, suspended in a contentment that the work went on before him and will continue after him. He bears his role in the greater process, caring for what is before him as best he knows how while also setting that care in proportion to the broader whole, knowing that that moment will outlive him.
In the same way, a teacher must acknowledge their place in the work of teaching. A student has a before and an after. Like farming, teaching sees what has come before, for good or ill, and works with what is provided. Time cannot be undone. A teacher receives a student as they are, and knows their place in the life of the person will outlive their presence. Yet they, like the farmer, work to see them become something, always laboring toward a vision of what can be. Laboring in this contentment, a teacher, like a farmer, works fixed between what has been and what will be in the classroom.
Many teachers that I have known over the years have remarked, “I tell my students, I am a dictator, but a benevolent one.” Often, in some form, this is all too true. Not every teacher is benevolent (I can attest to this), but there is a kind of monarchy that inevitably resides in a classroom. Tyrants, of course, do not serve justice or honor the citizenry. But monarchs who are not tyrannical serve as the protectors of the people, working to see human value recognized and honored. They abhor injustice and promote the good. The welfare of the realm reflects on their kingship or queenship. They preside with authority and yet serve the common good.
In the same way, teachers lead and govern monarchically—lesson plans, assignments, and grades are not decided by majority vote among the students—but not with anger, frustration, or apathy. Teacherly authority is the ruling authority, and while transparency is important, the teacher is often the lone authority in a classroom. This means that the monarchy of teaching requires a certain gravity and a clear respect for one’s pupils. Just as a good monarch would recognize the value of every citizen, teachers too should be certain that they are responding justly to the value of every student. Benevolence, too, is a must for monarchs: a monarch who is not benevolent is a tyrant, and tyrants are unfit to govern. Not only fairness but kindness must characterize the teacher.
No two artists are wholly alike, and no two works of art are either. Moreover, few if any artists manage to execute their envisioned work perfectly—but this is not necessarily a bad thing. The late painter Bob Ross spoke about “happy accidents,” moments in which one’s own craftsmanship or the material itself ostensibly fails, but produces a beauty the artist had not planned, even at times a greater beauty than the plan would have produced.
Teaching is a human endeavor; because of this, it will necessarily contain “happy accidents.” No two classrooms are identical; each has its own character, tone, and environment. Pursuing learning together means harnessing the character of that class in the direction of virtue and beauty. The teacher, like a good artist, should embrace these differences and permit the classroom to be painted by the students. Let the paint (conversation) run keeping the general course of the class, aiming for virtue and truth. A classroom that permits these running conversations in their uniqueness will provide a space of learning and beauty in its pursuit of the good. This goodness might not be what was the original plan for the canvas, but it will contain the magnificent aim of the painter combined with the individual brush strokes of intellectual conversation, personality, and love.
Analogies only go so far. They can provide encouragement or intellectual stimulation; they can even offer us a certain peace of mind; however, they should always be kept at a necessary limit. These three analogies have offered me encouragement in my teaching. As an artist I am free to not confine the classroom to my plans, but allow the students room to direct the flow of how we pursue truth, goodness, and beauty. As a monarch, I am free to insist upon honor with love and dignity, so that my students can learn to relate properly to authority. As a farmer, I can plant in the soil of discontent or frustration, anticipating the maturation of truth-loving students. Through such lenses, teachers can see our task afresh as we pursue truth and goodness.
Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
If you enjoyed this essay, you might like some of Mr. Copeland’s other contributions to the Journal, on topics ranging from J. R. R. Tolkien’s thoughts on the “Western canon” to the contemporary importance of the Federalist Papers. And don’t miss out on our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.
Published on 26th April, 2022.