Custodians, Instructors, Teachers

From “What Makes a Teacher Great?” by Clifton Fadiman (in Enter, Conversing).

At the moment there are three orders of men at work in the American classroom: custodians, instructors, teachers.

The custodian is hired by the state to guard our children for five or six hours a day until they are ready to be thrown on the labor or marriage market. Because we are not happy with the sound of the preceding sentence, we give the custodian the name of teacher, often after he has completed courses guaranteed to prevent him from becoming one in reality. Then we are shocked to discover that the custodian’s connection with education is minimal. Quite unfairly we attack him for doing precisely the job we taxpayers have hired him to do: involve our children in busy work so that they will not add to the burden of either the traffic patrolman or the juvenile-delinquency officer. The custodian is the necessary, inevitable, and perfectly guiltless consequence of a society that prefers multiplication to the multiplication table.

The instructor, on the other hand, remains indispensable as long as a fairly large number of Americans believe that the tools of learning must be put into the hands of our young people. He is master of a specific subject, or sometimes several subjects. His job is to siphon learning out of his superior mind into the student’s inferior one. Provided he obeys the rules of decent morality and good citizenship, it is not essential that he possess qualities beyond this special ability.

Should he possess them he may turn out to be that invaluable rarity, the teacher, perhaps even the great teacher.

The custodian teaches nothing, though he may put a class through a series of exercises that have a shadowy resemblance to the educational process. The instructor teaches a subject. The teacher seems to teach a subject but is really engaged in doing a number of other things at the same time.We may define him as a human animal, specialized to think in public, to think in public before anyone, but particularly before young people who have not as yet learned to think in private. He is an exhibitionist, willing, even eager to do an important part of his living, at stated intervals, for atrocious pay, before rows of plastic intellects.

The custodian keeps the student’s body from getting into trouble. The instructor furnishes the student’s mind. The teacher moves that mind. That movement, multiplied over time and space, adds up to a sum. The sum is civilization.


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