Full Minds and Clear Thoughts

By Neil Anderson, Head of School 

Early on in my public speaking life, I had the dreadful experience of standing in front of a room of people with nothing to say. I had relied on my cursory knowledge of the content and the assumption that I could fill in any necessary gaps on a whim. On this particular occasion, the plan failed, and I vowed to avoid that humiliation at all costs in the future. This has not resulted in my becoming the prototype for preparation, but I do have a firm conviction that one who asks for the attention of others in a speaking/teaching context should be worthy of that attention. Usually this demands adequate preparation.

The first of the Seven Laws of Teaching, according to John Milton Gregory, states: a teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth or art to be taught. This law is stated more specifically as a rule: know thoroughly and familiarly the lesson you wish to teach — teach from a full mind and a clear understanding.

At our winter faculty inservice, we talked about full minds and clarity in understanding. The rule is simple and obvious. Why would we teach what we don’t know? How can we teach what we don’t know? We all know it happens often in classrooms, pulpits, athletics, etc. We wing it. “Winging it” is occasionally linked to lack of time for prep and busy lives, but most often it is a product of laziness, an illness that few escape.

We often teach what we don’t know because we are lazy and didn’t carve out time for the first law of the teacher. On the opposite end of the spectrum, thoroughly knowing the content we wish to teach is no easy task. The calling of the teacher and faithfulness to this rule requires much of us, typically more than we are able to give. On any given day at our school, teachers at the grade levels we currently have need to apply this rule to several different disciplines each day. The content of each school day could warrant a ludicrous amount of preparation in order to truly become equipped with a full mind and clarity of understanding.

I bring this rule to light because it is equally applicable to our co-teachers, our parents. Just because we know how to do long division does not mean we are ready to teach it. Just because we read Macbeth in high school does not mean we are ready to take our students through it on a whim. This is a good topic for this season of resolving. Teachers and co-teachers alike: resolve not to teach what you don’t know. Resolve to teach from a full mind and a clear understanding at all times. Resolve to be a student first, then a teacher. Perfection in this task requires more than we have to give. But the chasm between perfection and slothfulness is great. Find a healthy place for yourself somewhere in between.

Amongst a host of things you could be doing in order to be faithful to the first law, the simple and practical commitment is to read ahead. You may not be able to accomplish it with every discipline, for every child, every day. You can start by tackling one subject per child. For example, if you have three children in grades 1st, 4th, and 7th, put the Story of the World 1, Saxon 6/5, and Arabian Nights on your nightstand and read ahead. If that’s all you can do, do that. Read ahead, think about the content you’re going to teach or discuss, and experience the reward of teaching with clarity.

I will be writing on more of the Seven Laws of Teaching in future posts. I recommend the book to you if you’ve not read it. The most important aspect of this first law is to remember the privilege of being a teacher. Preparation for the teacher is not drudgery, it is joy. Teaching is the desire to share what we are excited to know.