“Is the purpose of a teacher to flunk a student? Tell him what he doesn’t know? No. It is to tell him what he needs to know in such a way that he won’t forget it and won’t attempt to cram it.”

John D. Hannah, Distinguished Professor of Historical Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary.

Great education requires a tremendous amount of humility. Unfortunately, knowledge puffs up the ego, and academic environments are often breeding grounds for arrogance. You can sense this if you’re in a class that feels competitive in a bad way–when the rapport between the professor and students has devolved into hostility. Perhaps the teacher feels threatened, embarrassed, and disrespected. The temptation is to put the students in their place–to use their authority to remind the student who is in charge, who really knows, who wrote the dissertation, who earned the credential. Perhaps the student feels threatened, embarrassed, and disrespected–that the professor lacks empathy for the pressure they’re under–that they don’t understand what will happen if they lose their scholarship–that the syllabus is confusing or unfairly enforced.

I get it. I’ve sat in classes with classmates who were truly horrible. I’ve been truly horrible. I can’t imagine the disillusionment that teachers face when their high calling–their dreams of being That Teacher who Changed the Lives of Her Students–meets the reality of impregnable animosity of mean students, perhaps amplified by the students’ parents. Or, even worse than animosity, complete apathy, disregard, and distractedness.

I get it. I’ve also sat in classes with professors who were truly horrible. They missed their calling–or are trapped in a job with no other options. Their love for the students (if they ever had it) has hardened into a cold contempt.

But the vast majority of my classes were taught by competent, well-meaning teachers. And the vast majority of my classmates were persons of goodwill. Keeping the main thing the main thing on both sides is critical. Here’s where Hannah helps us.

Note: Dr. Hannah isn’t saying that you’ll never have to fail a student. He’s not saying that you’re failing as a teacher if your students cram. He’s also not saying that you’re failing if your students don’t remember everything you say. He’s fully aware that they will forget most of what you say.

Dr. Hannah is saying that he’s holding himself to a standard–one that refuses to lose sight of his ultimate goal–to enrich the lives of his students through education that lasts–learning that truly changes the way his students see the world–to reorient their value structure toward truth, goodness, and beauty. Grades are necessary, but secondary to Hannah’s prime objective. He’s constantly asking himself–How can I teach this in a way that touches not only the minds of my students–but their hearts? He’s not there to show them how much he knows as if he’s playing King of the Hill with his students. He’s there to invite them to a feast, to serve them at table, and to refuse to become hostile when his kindness is met with contempt.

Few times in my life have I eaten so well.

Teachers, hang in there. Everyday you may feel that you’re failing. You’re not. You’re doing more than the metrics can measure. Students, try to have compassion for one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Be the kind of student you would love to teach.