GEORGE HERBERT PALMER
THE IDEAL TEACHER
Palmer shows a difference between teaching as a trade
and a profession. Teaching as a trade is poor and
disappointing business. A trade aims primarily at personal
gains; a profession at the exercise of powers beneficial
mankind. When teaching is entered as a profession, as a
serious and difficult fine art, there are few employments
more satisfying. All over the country thousands of men and
women are following it with a passionate devotion which
takes little account of the income received. Once engaged,
they give their best, their personal interest themselves.
Their heart is in the work, and for this no equivalent is
Possible, the real payment is the work itself.
The idea, sometimes advanced, that the professions
might be ennobled by paying them profoundly, is fantastic.
Their great attraction is their removal from sordid aims.
More money should certainly be spent on several of them.
Their members should be better protected against want,
anxiety, neglect, and bad conditions of labour. To do his best
work one needs not merely to live, but to live well.
Professional men are not so silly as to despise money; but
after all, it is interest in their work, and not the thought of
salary, which predominantly holds them.
In this paper G.H.Palmer addresses those only who are
drawn to teaching by the love of it, who regard it as the most
vital of the Fine Arts, who intend to give their lives to
mastering its subtleties and who are ready to meet some
hardships and to put up with moderate fare if they may win
its rich opportunities.
What special qualifications will the work require? The
question asked such broadly admits no precise answer, for
in reality there is no human excellence which is not useful
for us teachers.
After teaching 39 years in Harvard College, Palmer has
come to believe that there are four characteristics which
every teacher must possess. They appear fundamental.
A teacher must have an aptitude for vicariousness,
an already accumulated wealth;
an ability to invigorate life through knowledge;
a readiness to be forgotten.
Having these, any teacher is secure. Lacking them, lacking
even one, he is liable to serious failure.
The teacher’s art takes its rise in an aptitude for vicariousness.
The teacher’s task is not primarily the acquisition of
knowledge, but the importation of it,- an entirely different
matter. We have passed far on and know all about our
subject. For us it wears an altogether different look from
that which it has for beginners. It is their perplexities which
we must reproduce and-as if a rose should shut and be a bud
again-we must reassume in our developed and accustomed
souls something of the innocence of childhood. Such is the
exquisite business of the teacher to carry himself back with
all his wealth of knowledge and understand how his subject
should appear to the meager mind of one glancing at it for
the first time.
In the case when a class fails, it is usually the teacher’s
fault. It is necessary to work in that double-ended fashion
which alone can bring success; in short, to put yourself in the
weak one’s place and to bear his burden.
It is in this chief business of the artistic teacher to labour
imaginatively himself in order to diminish the labours of his
slender pupil, that most of our failures occur. Instead of
lamenting the imperviousness of our pupils, we had better
asked ourselves more frequently whether we have neatly
adjusted our teachings to the conditions of their minds.
In this profession any one who will be great must be a nimble
servant, his head full of others’ needs.
There are persons who, with all good will, can never be
teachers. They are not made in that way. Their business
is to pry into knowledge, to engage in action, to make
money, or to pursue whatever other aim their powers
dictate; but they do not readily think in terms of the other
person. They should not, then, be teachers. Till altruistic
vicariousness has become our second nature, we will not
deeply influence anybody.
Our ideal teacher will need second qualification of
an already accumulated wealth. These hungry pupils are
drawing all their nourishment from us, and have we got it
to give? They will be poor, if we are poor; rich if we are
wealthy. We are their source of supply. Supplying a
multitude, we need wealth sufficient for a multitude.
We should then be clutching at knowledge on every side.
Nothing must escape us.
The teacher must have a broad background of knowledge,
have to go over his entire subject. We cannot teach right up
to the edge of our knowledge without a fear of falling off.
The pupils discover this fear and our words are ineffective.
They feel the influence of what we do not say. One cannot
precisely explain it; but when you move freely across your
subject as if it matters little on what part of it you rest, they
get a sense of assured power which is compulsive and
fructifying. Even, then, to teach a small thing well we must
But the ideal teacher will accumulate wealth not merely
for his pupils’ sake, but for his own. To be a good teacher
one must be a good personality. For developing personal
power it is well, therefore, for each teacher to cultivate
interests unconnected with his official work.
We need not merely wealth, but already accumulated
wealth. At the moment when wealth is wanted it cannot be
acquired. It should be gathered and stored before the
A teacher needs the power to invigorate life through
We do not always notice how knowledge naturally buffets.
It is offensive stuff and makes young minds rebel. And well it
may ; for when we learn anything, we are obliged to break
up the world, inspect it piece by piece and let our minds seize
it bit by bit. The consolidating character of a teacher exhibits
the gains which come from study. We do not need to point
them out. The kindling of interest is the great function of the
teacher. If teaching leaves pupils inactive, docile, there is
something wrong with it.
Education should unfold us and truth together and to
enable it to do so the learner must never be allowed to sink
into a mere recipient. He should be called on to think, to
observe, to form his own judgments even at the risk of error
and crudity. The mere contemplation of truth is always a
deadening affair. Until the mind reacts for itself on what it
receives, its education is hardly begun. The teacher who
leads it to react may be truly called «productive», productive
of human beings.
A teacher must have a readiness to be forgotten. And what
is harder? Many a man is ready to be generous, if by it he can
win praise. If praise and recognition dear to the teacher, he
may as well stop work. Dear to him perhaps they may be,
as a human being; but as a teacher , he is called on to rise
above ordinary human conditions. A teacher does not live for
himself but for his pupils and for the truth which he imparts.
His aim is to be a colourless medium through which that truth
may shine on opening minds. He must keep himself entirely
out of the way, fixing young attention on the proffered
knowledge and not on anything so small as the one who
brings it. Let us display our subjects as lucidly as possible,
allow our pupils considerable license in apprehension, and
be content ourselves to escape observation. But the results of
what we do often awake deep affection. Few in the
community receive love more abundantly than we.
Wherever we go, we meet a smiling face. To us, the blind
affection of the pupils cling as to few beside their parents.
It is better to be loved than to be understood.
One will begin to suspect that it is impossible to be a good
teacher. Certainly it is. Each of the four qualifications I have
named is endless .Each year we creep a little nearer our goal,
only to find that a finished teacher is a contradiction in terms.
Our reach will forever exceed our grasp.
Our beautiful art (teaching), being so largely personal, will
at last be seen to connect itself with nearly all other
employments . Every mother is a teacher. Every minister. The
lawyer teaches the jury, the doctor his patient. The clever
salesman might almost be said to use teaching in dealing with
his customer, and all of us to be teachers of one another in
daily intercourse. As teaching is the most universal of the
professions, those are fortunate who are able to devote their
lives to its enriching study.
SELF-CULTIVATION IN ENGLISH
He who can explain himself may command what he wants. He who cannot is left to the poverty of individual resource; for men do what we desire only when persuaded. The persuasive and explanatory tongue is, therefore, one of the chief levers of life.
Between ourselves and our language there accordingly springs up an association peculiarly close. We are as sensitive to criticism of our speech as of your manners. The graceful speaker is a universal object of envy.
Undoubtedly, there are natural aptitudes for it as for farming, seamanship, or being a good husband. But nowhere is strait work more effective. Persistence, care, observation, ingenuity – traits which in every other occupation tend toward excellency, - tend toward here with special security.
Obviously, good English is exact English. Our words should fit our thoughts like a glove and be neither too wide nor too tight. It is important to anybody who would cultivate himself in English to make strenuous and systematic efforts to enlarge his vocabulary. We fall into the way of thinking that the wealthy words are for others and they do not belong to us. We are like those who have received a vast inheritance, but who persist in the inconveniences of hard beds, scanty food, rude clothing, who never travel, and who limit their purchases to the bleak necessities of life. Ask such people why they endure niggardly living while wealth in plenty is lying in the bank, and they can answer that they have never learned how to spend .But this is worth learning. Milton used 8 thousand words, Shakespeare 15 thousand. We have all the subjects to talk about that these early speakers had, and in addition science and politics and all the complicated living of the modern world. Why then do we hesitate to swell our words to meet our needs? There is no reason. We are simply lazy, too lazy to make ourselves comfortable. We let our vocabularies be limited and get along without the refinement of human intercourse, without refinement in our own thoughts; for thoughts are almost as dependent on words as words on thoughts.
For example, all exasperations we lump together as «aggravating» not considering whether they may not rather be displeasing, annoying, offensive, disgusting, irritating, or even maddening. Like a bad cook, we seize the frying-pen whenever we need to fry, to broil, roast or stew, and then we wonder why all our dishes taste alike while in the next house the food is appetizing.
Enlarge the vocabulary. Let any one who wants to see himself grow, resolve to adopt two new words each week. It will not be long before the endless and enchanting variety of the world will begin to reflect itself in his speech, and in his mind as well.
I know that when we use the word for the first time, we are startled. A word used three times slips off the tongue with entire naturalness. Then it is ours forever and with it some phase of life which had been lacking before. For each word presents its own point of view, discloses a special aspect of things, reports some little importance not otherwise conveyed, and so contributes its small emancipation to our tied-up minds and tongues.
But in urging the additing of new words to our present poverty-stricken stock we should not seek out strange, technical expressions which do not appear in ordinary conversation. We should contribute to each of the little companies with which our life is bound up a gently enlarging influence which may save from routine and dreary usualness. The small shocks of our increasing vocabulary will in all probability be as helpful to our friends as to ourselves.
When speaking, or writing, remember the other person. We are so full of ourselves that we do not remember the other person.
The next rule is «Lean upon the subject».
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