Advice from the Saints: how to teach

St. Augustine said:

We should watch the hand of the actor, not the mouth of the speaker.

St. Jerome said:

To teach others, one must have learned over a long time the art of correct behavior.

They lose the authority to teach if they undo their words by their deeds.

The modern-day proverb “practice what you preach” seems to be the summary of this advice about teaching so far.  What people do conveys a great deal of meaning compared to what people say.  When they don’t match, we tend to judge people according to their actions, despite their words.  So when we teach, we need to be sure that we have internalized our teachings to the point that they are reinforced by our habits or lifestyle.

This is not something that comes over night, but is learned “over a long time.”  As St. Jerome also said:

Only stupid people teach what they do not themselves know.

At first glance, sure, it’s obvious that you can’t teach what you don’t know.  But when you consider the first set of advice – that you need to portray the teaching, not just speak it – this quote sinks in more deeply.  It is foolish not only to try to teach things we don’t understand, but also to try to teach things we understand but don’t yet live out.  This is especially a challenge for young teachers who are fresh out of school and eager to teach what they’ve been learning.  If we haven’t put our teachings into practice, and started living them out, then we haven’t completely learned them properly yet.  It is valuable and important not to get ahead of ourselves, rather making sure to teach what we have fully comprehended in thought, word, and deed.

That’s the inward focus that the teacher needs to be attentive to.  On the other side is the outward focus: what is the relationship between teacher and learner supposed to look like?  St. Jerome, again, said:

The pastor should also be master.  In the Church, however saintly they may be, none should take the title of pastor unless they are capable of ruling those they feed.

St. Gregory said:

Let no one take on himself the office of preacher unless he loves his hearers.

These are very important sides to the teacher-learner relationship, especially in the context of church ministry.  Although this is often downplayed today, there is great wisdom in making sure that a teacher is ready to lead.  After all, when St. Paul listed some ministry gifts in Ephesians 4, he tied Pastor and Teacher together.  Teaching, feeding, and leading are closely-related ministries that are (practically speaking) impossible to separate.  Preparations to become a teacher must include preparations to become a leader of some degree.  (This doesn’t mean that every Bible Study group has to be led by the congregation’s head pastor; there are many levels of leadership that can be understood.  What’s important to recognize, though, is that even leading a local Bible Study is a part of a congregation’s leadership dynamic.)

As a result, all the advice and instruction given for elders (presbyters) and overseers (bishops) in the New Testament should be listened to very carefully by anyone who is going to be a teacher.  St. Gregory boils this down to a very helpful summary: a teacher must love his students!  And as we remember that love is not just a fluffy emotion, but a willful commitment to the well-being of the student, we’ll find that this is a serious calling and commitment indeed!  For a teacher to love the students properly, there must be prayer and attention given, and a careful concern for the accuracy of the material being taught, including the refutation of any false teaching the student might come across.

Finally, St. Jerome said:

An effective orator reaches many listeners with few words.

This is an echo of biblical wisdom, such as from Proverbs: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”  This is also confirmed in modern-day wisdom about public speaking: “less is more.”  If you can explain something in fewer words, then do it.  It’s easier for people to listen to a short speech than a long one.  If something is complicated and requires a longer explanation, that’s fine, there’s no sin in that.  The concern here is that speakers sometimes go on too long because they’re rambling and undisciplined, or worse, because they like to hear themselves talk.  If something can be taught just as effectively in a shorter amount of time, then do it.

All quotes are taken from the Early Christian anthology, Liber Scintillarum.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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