Teilhard on Teaching

classroomchaosIt’s time for the nightmares to start. Around this time of year, high school teachers–veterans and first timers–begin to have panicky dreams on the eve of opening day. Some dream about losing a stack of ungraded essay exams, others dream they can’t find their classroom and stumble through the halls under a burden of books looking for the room. Still others have the most famous anxiety dream of all: showing up to class in your pajamas or some state of undress.  Within the Society of Jesus each man much complete a two to three year period of formation called regency. During regency, many Jesuits find themselves assigned to classrooms in universities, high schools and the like. The first year of teaching is a special experience, and luckily an invincible ignorance protects rookies from all the nightmarish reality that awaits them. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the famous Jesuit paleontologist and theologian, offers a few pieces of advice that are worth repeating.

During his own period as a regent, Teilhard de Chardin was assigned to teach science in a high school in Cairo, Egypt. Luckily he wrote detailed letters to his family back in France. From these rich letters we get a behind the scenes glimpse into the life of a new teacher. In his early twenties, not yet ordained, and eager to explore the paleontological riches of Egypt, Teilhard first had figure out how to reach his band on thickheaded students. Here are some of his insights.

1. Get involved in something outside of the classroom. In addition to his duties in the classroom, Teilhard de Chardin was assigned as bus chaperone. Each morning and each afternoon he rode the bus through the streets of Cairo picking up and dropping off students from all grades in the school. The scientist in him loved using the opportunity to explore Cairo and its environs, while the teacher in him got a chance to know the students outside of the classroom. Outside of the classroom you can interact with students that you might not teach. You can build rapport, learn their likes and dislikes, see them interact with one another. All of this rich data can be used to become a better teacher.

Teilhard (far left) with his class in Cairo

Teilhard (far left) with his class in Cairo

2. Don’t smile till Christmas. While Teilhard de Chardin never actually said this, he did agree with the sentiment.  He arrived a in Cairo a few weeks before the opening of school, so he met some of the older students who worked at the school during the summer. Being not much older than they, Teilhard often joined in their games in the afternoon. As opening day grew closer, though, Teilhard realized he had become a little too familiar with the kids. He was more of friend and companion than teacher. He suspected, correctly, that it would be a different relationship required of him in the classroom. He would have to be teacher rather than friend if he was to maintain any semblance of discipline and direction in the class. Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly, just remember you aren’t their friend.

3. Take field trips. I imagine Teilhard would have been the master of the field trip. His letters show an insatiable curiosity regarding the flora, fauna, and fossils of Egypt. He was always heading out to some remote wadi with students in tow. Letters back home to his father and his brothers and sisters included drawings of strange bugs, leaves, landscapes, maps, and the like.

4. Learn alongside the students. Veteran teachers often comment that they never really understood a topic until they taught it. In fact, there is an apocryphal anecdote often repeated in Jesuit recreation rooms (called living rooms by non-Jesuits). It goes like this. Once upon a time, one young Jesuit asked an old dad (an older Jesuit) if he had ever read “Crime and Punishment.” The older Jesuit replies: “Read it?!?  I’ve never even taught it.” Often the experience of teaching something, for instance “Hamlet,” is akin to reading it for the first time. This happens because teachers, who are subject matter experts, must translate their own wealth of knowledge into graspable concepts–graspable by 14 year olds. Teilhard de Chardin remarked on the difficulty of this trick of the teaching trade.  Explaining scientific concepts that were second nature to Teilhard became confused and obtuse in his mind when standing in front of a classroom of kids.

More wisdom from Fr. Teilhard de Chardin can be found in his “Letters from Egypt 1905-1907.” They are full of enthusiasm and love for his students.


6 Responses to Teilhard on Teaching

  1. Greg Graham says:

    I enjoyed this. I will be beginning my second year of teaching next year, and I think this advice will help.

  2. joe says:

    As but a humble catechist, I can benefit greatly from these insights (some of my former students will attest the “don’t smile ’til Christmas” has been directly infused into my mind by Divine Providence.

    Thanks & AMDG,

  3. Jeff Johnson SJ says:

    Joe, Thanks for your kind words. Nothing humble about being a catechist, by the way.

  4. Agustín Maes says:

    Thanks for posting this. Insight #4 is particularly interesting–and encouraging.

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