Teaching is Shepherding

Educating can often feel like a cyclical vocation, an exercise in repetition leading only to a starting point. We can become so focused on the immanent details and deadlines and expectations for yet another year that we can’t see where we are actually trying to lead our students. And so within this wondrous and weary world we call teaching, we need a vision, a telos that calls us beyond the materials and grading and disciplinary cases. In short, we need a name. An identity wrapped in a vision for who we are, who our students are, and what we are called to do. For as we approach this new year, we come not merely as instructors teaching truth, but as shepherds shepherding souls.

Often, when people think about the task of teachers, they think in terms of someone who molds minds—a person who imparts facts into students’ brains. But within the classical tradition, education is understood entirely differently. Classical education integrates spheres of truth not merely because Truth is an integrated ideal, but because we are integrated beings. Our minds are not distinct from our hearts. As Plato says, we think with our whole soul. But as we know, our soul—our unified essential being—is broken. When Adam chose the knowledge of good and evil over the knowledge of God, the human soul became fragmented; our mind, body, and spirit were separated from each other. So we do not teach mere minds, just as we do not teach isolated truth. We shepherd souls.

Scripture tells us that we all, like sheep, have gone astray. We have each turned to our own way. God has laid the way of Wisdom, but in our folly we’ve travelled down errant roads. Do you love me? asks the Shepherd. Feed my sheep. For they have been feeding themselves counterfeit food. In our misguided love, we, like Adam, have fed ourselves false knowledge. It is little wonder then that Christ came as both Shepherd and Rabbi—for the two are linked. In order for loves to be rightly ordered and goodness to be rightly attained, truth needs to be rightly taught. And lived. I am the way, the truth, and the life, our Shepherd says, for these are three ways of saying the same thing. Christ came to shepherd by leading his sheep to the Truth, by feeding his sheep with his own body—a sacrifice given in love, for truth without love is nothing. Love binds the true and good together by its common root. And having grown up together, truth, goodness and love become a Tree of Life for all who take and eat.

As teachers, Christ has given us the glorious task of being shepherds who feed our students with the Truth that rightly orders our students’ loves. This is our vocation. We are called to shepherd our students’ souls by guiding them toward the Good, by helping them apprehend the True, and by creating a yearning in them for the Beauty of God’s love. In other words, we are called to be a vessel God uses to make our students whole: to make them men and women of integrity. To be someone of integrity isn’t merely to be someone who is just or ethical—these things flow from a heart of integrity, one that is, in Latin, an integer: whole, complete. To be someone of integrity means that our soul is integrated—unified by the bonds of love, vivified by the light of truth, moving toward the path of goodness. As Sertillanges says, “How will you manage to think rightly with a sick soul, a heart ravaged by vice, pulled this way and that by passion, dragged astray by violent or guilty love?” As teachers, we tend to those sick souls, those ravaged hearts, those sheep dragged down errant paths by violent and guilty love. We tend to them by teaching them the way of Truth that leads them back to their Tree of Life. We feed Christ’s sheep.

Thus, everything we do as teachers—as shepherds—is guided by our love for Christ and our love for our students’ souls. Love is imitation—to love our Shepherd we must imitate him. What a glorious task this is! This is our telos. This is our guiding star. When we speak, we speak in love to bring life—for our Shepherd came that we might have life. When we grade, we grade in the spirit of service and love—in the spirit of our Shepherd who washed his disciples’ feet. When we act—inside and outside the classroom—we act ethically, for Christ did all things well. In all that we do, we keep our students’ souls in mind, fragmented souls in need of repair—in need of integration.

And this is our guide when things do not go according to our plans. Every tangent and unanticipated question is a shortcut into our students’ hearts. While in our lesson plans we may try to make paths that penetrate their hearts, often Christ—the Way—creates different paths to lead us there. They are not a hindrance to our task, but a God-given aid. Often the rabbit hole leads to wonderland. Like the road less travelled, divergent paths often make all the difference.

This, too, is our guide when things become difficult, when we feel like we are in a daily battle, for the shepherd is called to fight. Christ came not to bring peace, but a sword. Our Shepherd came to fight, and so do we. We fight for our sheep’s souls against the wolves of deceit and error and sin. We fight for our students in prayer. We fight for our students by attacking with Truth the Father of Lies. We sometimes fight for our students by fighting with their own souls at war within them. We are watchmen in the night—attentive to every sign of danger. In all circumstances, both inside and outside the classroom, we are not merely teachers. We are shepherds.

So as take up the mantle of teacher, we become men and women anointed for a sacred task, to walk in the way of the Shepherd by feeding his sheep the Truth that binds their broken souls back together, so that they might walk with God as integrated souls singing together in a liturgy of love the song once sung in the Garden, when all creation was unified in a cosmic chorus. And we take comfort on this difficult journey, for as we lead our sheep back to Eden, we are guided by “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” And in this task, we too are made whole.

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