Plato's Symposium by Artist Anselm Feuerbach via Wikimedia Commons

Excuse Me, Teacher, What Is a Master?

The school year has begun. As a help for all our readers, we take a look at those who accept the challenge to go into the classroom, to see what arms they use in the educational battle, and what promise there is, for themselves, in a lesson.
Paola Bergamini

It has been almost two months since the bell rang for the beginning of the new school year. Education no longer occupies the front pages and news broadcasts, yet, here and there, unexpectedly, we discover inquiries, stories, and comments on the theme. Writers find the word “education” hard to deal with–perhaps it’s a bit outmoded or has too many implications. It is better to leave it all to the “instructions for use” in school regulation manuals, by-laws, and curriculum requirements.

But those who go into a classroom every morning and find those faces in front of them, afraid because it’s their first day, or already bored, or truculent, know that the school is not made just of numbers and structures. Those faces are asking, wanting–perhaps unconsciously–for something that is beyond the notions and the assignments. You can stop a moment before, and not raise your eyes, or you can commit to what someone defined “the difficult art of teaching” and accept the challenge that teaching is, above all, for those who take it up. If that’s the case–and for many it is–questions spring up behind the numbers and the problems, and once in a while they are worth tackling. What does a teacher need to set out on this adventure? What forms his person? Stated more clearly, how does one become a “Master” with a capital M? How can you come to grips with that truth written in two lines by Pasolini and rediscovered every morning by thousands of teachers: “If someone has educated you, he cannot have done it but with his being, not with his words”? We have asked this question to people who have spent years in the schools and to those recently graduated. They have many traits in common, but we have spotted in each of them those aspects that mark out a journey, the way to teaching; a kind of “identikit”–in outline–of a Master.

Dante Instead of TV
“But, Miss, are you telling me that you still study when you go home, at your age?” Fiorella, after 42 years teaching literature in technical institutes, explains: “You have to have a very good grasp of what you are teaching, but it’s not enough. Even when you have prepared the lesson in every detail, you have to be ready to reshape everything when you are in class, starting from the students’ questions. You go home and think over all they have asked you, and why. There is nothing pre-packaged.”

This is the first piece of the mosaic: passion is not enough, nor is the grasp of the subject. You have to study, continually; you need on-going formation. This gives rise to unexpected creativity, like, for example, some after-hours projects prepared with some students: a reading of Dante accompanied by music and images chosen together. Fiorella had invited two of her friends, a musician and an actor, to class, to read and explain the poetry and the music. At the end, a student asked her, “Can we do Leopardi next year?”

Fiorella explains further: “To become a Master, you have first to be a disciple. I always looked for people who could help me–not so much for their ‘sparks’ of knowledge, but rather for their passion for communication. You offer the students your own passion for life, the fascination you are living yourself. If you work in this way, you are not likely to meet with scorn or indifference, and the unexpected happens. One morning, a student told me how the evening before he had read Dante to his mother instead of watching the usual serial on the television.”

How is a Rainbow Formed?
Work, and someone to follow; to educate, you have to be educated. For Enrico, it is the same. He has been teaching Math and Physics in high school for 13 years. “You can find the same passion in getting to know reality. If you see a rainbow–once you have said, ‘That’s lovely!’–you want to know how it is formed, why it happens. The great discoveries happened like this, from wonder and observation of reality.” What triggers a reaction of this type in the students? “Human sensitivity is fundamental. If you apply yourself with your humanity, the passion is there.” In other words, it all depends on you, whether or not you accept the challenge that reality offers. “Sure, if they see this, the students wake up, they fire questions at you. The secret is to learn to learn. If you say, ‘I know, I know,’ you are finished. It’s more enjoyable to accept the challenge, but you can’t do it alone.” What do you need?

“Someone you can put questions to. Since I began teaching Physics, I have spent my free day with Giacomo, a retired teacher I met at an interview. We prepare the lessons together, starting from the students’ questions. I have even invited him to class. We meet with a few friends and colleagues to help each other.” On your own, you get lost; you need a concrete companionship to help you lift your eyes up and to focus on the point.

There is only one main point: “My first aim is to be happy in myself,” says Elizabeth, who has taught Greek and Latin for 27 years. “The teacher brings the whole of himself into class. So the first thing is to be serious with yourself, with your own life. This is the first formation.” The students note this–they can tell people who have taken life seriously and are happy, who have certainty, a cornerstone on which to build, and who offer it to you.

One morning, outside school, a boy came up to Elizabeth and said, “Miss, I forgot to say thank you.” He didn’t wait for a reply. It took a while for her to remember who he was; he had been her student 12 years before. They had argued a lot. “If you are even a little honest, this is a job you have to do; you cannot hide. I go in and I look at them. You are always challenged, you are always at the beginning, as Péguy wrote: ‘Hope is what begins every day.’ I feel like someone who still has to learn, even from my students. Every translation I give my kids I translate 30 times myself at home so as to understand, to discover nuances, or connections that might have escaped me and that someone else might grasp. You can teach the lesson in a repetitive way, but then it’s boring. I can’t bear staying in limbo. And I am very lucky because I can’t do anything without asking myself why.” During a meeting, a mother described all her anger at the fact that her son wears an earring and she doesn’t think it is right. Elizabeth thought, “I’d like to know why he wears it, not that he shouldn’t.” As children get older, Greek and Latin are certainly more interesting but, in the first years, having to learn by heart the verbs and the rules of grammar, the lessons must be rather dry. “It’s not true. We form our thoughts through words; language answers a need. It is interesting to know what the rules are, the mechanisms used so that the world can evoke a feeling, a thought, an emotion, in a language or in an author. This is knowledge, the passion for knowledge. It is hard, but without work, interest vanishes. The kids need to be accompanied in this, then each one will reach where he is meant to reach, where he can. I often think that I am paid to see them grow!

Elena comes out of class happy. For five seconds, Matteo looked her in the eye–he paid attention. Matteo is an autistic child. Elena has been a teacher for ten years and for five has been coordinator of the support teachers in primary school. “The program this morning said I had to teach them to write two words. I didn’t do it. Those five seconds are worth more than the whole dictionary. When you work with disabled children, you often run the risk of wanting to use techniques you have learned in the manuals so as not to come to terms with your own limitations.”

There is no alternative–you have to begin from yourself, but with one step more: you need to be able to perceive those factors that come before the methods, which are only instruments. Concretely, what does this mean? “For example, take this question: ‘Why should a child learn to read and write if he is not able to make contact with reality, and love it?’” Yes, it’s a pointless effort. Only in this way is the program not merely a stress, and every aspect of reality becomes a didactic element. It’s just that to communicate this you have to believe in it yourself. Children with disabilities pose a fundamental challenge expressed in different ways and sometimes difficult to understand: the need to be loved.

It’s here that the challenge is keenest, and you discover an unexpected opportunity, for yourself rather than for the kids. But it’s only if you get to this point that another surprising fact is explained.There are still people who choose to be teachers. And they choose not as a poor alternative.

Stefano decided while at the university that this was his road. After graduating, he was a support-teacher until three years ago. Then he was offered the post of literature teacher in a private high school. He goes on: “The university gives you the base, the contents, but they have to become communicable. You need a method. Nothing can be left to improvisation. Once you have the program, the books for the course, and your background texts, the first question is: What moves me? What do I find in this to inflame my students? How do I use the instruments I’ve got? Dialogue with my colleagues is important, with people who have already traveled this road. It is a point of friendship that gets you over the complaining that catches you unawares, like in the expression, ‘I’ve done everything, but he still doesn’t get it!’ All the same, it is you who are in class with those 30 faces. You still have the temptation to want to go in there and teach your perfectly prepared lesson.” But then it happens that, after your explanation of the various verb forms, a girl asks, “What are verbs for, anyway?” Rosario Mazzeo, Director of the Aurora/Bachelet Schools (primary and high schools) near Milan, Italy, has, for the past four years, been giving formation courses overseas: in Peru, Argentina, Kazakhstan, and in the Little Prince School, Nairobi, Kenya. He tells us: “The urgent need for education is everywhere. The crisis in education, the need for answers to the questions about the meaning of the work of study and of living is the same. Unfortunately, in Italy like in the rest of the world, this answer hangs on a series of rules, of common values. We speak of ‘education in citizenship,’ ‘education in values,’ and ‘education in civil society.’ The problem arises: let’s lay down rules. And teachers are formed… with rules. There is a globalization of the education question and therefore in the formation of teachers. What happened in Nairobi? “Since I began to teach, I never had the idea of telling them what they had to do. I wanted to share my experience, getting myself ready to learn. You have to start from a common hypothesis: the risk of education. And you verify it there in the field, together. It’s an enrichment for everyone. Anthony Maina, the Headmaster of the Little Prince School, comes here to visit us once a year. He takes part in the staff meetings, comes to classes, and talks with the children…” An older friend, and a real Master.