4 Roles of a Charlotte Mason Teacher

When we think about what a teacher should be and do, we often base it on the models we’ve seen, the teachers we’ve had. It’s a very natural thing to do, and that’s why it’s easy for us to almost automatically teach the way we were taught. That’s what we’re familiar with. That’s the way it’s done, isn’t it? We don’t think about questioning that model.

But Charlotte Mason would encourage us to take a step back and question that model. You see, whatever methods a teacher uses are based on principles. There are certain guidelines in that teacher’s mind that are directing what you see happening in the lesson times. We recently walked through a series on those principles in a Charlotte Mason approach. If you haven’t read the Core Values of Charlotte Mason posts yet, I encourage you to do so. The ideas I’m going to give you today are guided by those principles.

We often talk about what is not the teacher’s role: The teacher is not the fountain-head of all knowledge. It is not the teacher’s responsibility to make her students pay attention or to entertain them. So today, let’s talk about what the teacher’s role is. I want to give you four key words that summarize your role as the teacher. Are you ready? Here they are:

  • Indicate
  • Stimulate
  • Direct
  • Constrain

Let’s unpack each one.

Indicate

First, indicate. Indicating is all about presenting good ideas. You indicate where living ideas can be found—whether that’s a book to be read, or a map to be studied, a picture to be looked at, a nature friend to observe, a musical piece to listen to, or any of the other wonderful resources that are included in this generous curriculum that Charlotte Mason laid out.

In all of those lessons, you are indicating where the student can go to glean worthy ideas. They shouldn’t be confined to just the ideas that are in your mind. Instead, you present many sources for great ideas. Charlotte put it this way:

Treat children in this reasonable way, mind to mind; not so much the mind of the teacher to that of the child,—that would be to exercise undue influence—but the minds of a score of thinkers who meet the children, mind to mind, in their several books, the teacher performing the graceful office of presenting the one enthusiastic mind to the other.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 261

Now, you know as well as I do that not all books and art and music contain worthy ideas. It requires careful consideration to find really good resources. That’s not a task that your student can do for himself. That’s your responsibility, as the teacher, to do the research, find the best resources, present them to your child, and then get out of the way and let the child deal directly with the ideas in that source. We don’t just tell them about the book and maybe offer a snippet or two; no, we present the really good book and then step back and guide the student as he connects with the author.

That guiding would include making the decisions about how much to read in one lesson and how long to linger with an idea before moving on. It would also involve reading the books aloud to students in grades 1–3, since they can comprehend at a higher level than they can read for themselves in those younger grades. But even as you guide, you do not step between the student and the author, artist, or composer. You simply indicate, “Here is a source of worthy ideas,” and let the student get at it for himself.

Charlotte said,

Let them learn from first-hand sources of information—really good books, the best going, on the subject they are engaged upon. Let them get at the books themselves, and do not let them be flooded with a warm diluent at the lips of their teacher. The teacher’s business is to indicate, stimulate, direct and constrain to the acquirement of knowledge, but by no means to be the fountain-head and source of all knowledge in his or her own person.

School Education, p. 162

And now you understand where I got the four key words we are discussing today: indicate, stimulate, direct, and constrain. We’ve talked about “indicate.” Let’s look at the next one: stimulate.

Stimulate

If “indicate” is about presenting worthy ideas, “stimulate” is about encouraging the student to assimilate those ideas.

Now, we need to be careful of this word “stimulate,” because it’s especially easy for those models of our own school teachers to influence our thinking in this area. On the one hand, you might get a mental image of a smiling adult standing in the front of the classroom, exuding over-the-top energy and enthusiasm, using lots of colorful pictures and games and putting an emphasis on fun! Learning is fun! On the other hand, you might get a mental image of a teacher who uses competition or grades as a driving force: “Who can get the best score? Do the work to get an A in this class!”

But neither of those scenarios is what Charlotte meant by stimulating the student. In both of those scenarios, it was the teacher who was putting forth the effort and carrying the responsibility to make her students learn. But that’s not the Charlotte Mason way. 

In a Charlotte Mason approach, 

The children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort. The teachers give sympathy and occasionally elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 6

So, rather than putting on a whole dog-and-pony show to try to somehow sneak some information into your student without his realizing it, your role is to indicate where the worthy ideas are found and then stimulate, or encourage, your student to assimilate those ideas for himself. How?

You can stimulate in several ways.

Charlotte mentioned giving “sympathy.” That word refers to “understanding between people, common feelings.” You, as the teacher, have a love for knowledge and a desire to keep learning and growing, yourself. You have found a worthy author or artist or composer, and you are eager to share that person’s mind with someone else.

The business of the teacher is to put his class in the right attitude towards their book by a word or two of his own interest in the matter contained, and of his own delight in the manner of the author.

The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 248

Before the reading for the day begins, the teacher should talk a little (and get the children to talk) about the last lesson, with a few words about what is to be read, in order that the children may be animated by expectation.

Home Education, p. 232

Now, did you notice the restrictions in both of those statements? The teacher gives “a word or two” about her own interest in a new book; she talks “a little” and gets the students to talk about the previous lesson in a book; and she shares “a few words” about what is going to be read today. You’re not inundating the student with talk. You’re not giving a lecture. This goes back to that first role we discussed: indicate where the ideas are and get out of the way as much as possible. 

So you stimulate through an attitude of mental sympathy and by giving a brief introduction to the reading of the day. You also stimulate your student to put forth the effort of learning for himself by being faithful to require narrations. Children are born with a curiosity about the world around them, and they are naturally eager to learn. But it can require some effort for a student to transition to making himself pay attention to the subject of the hour rather than exploring only what he wants to and when he wants to. So you can stimulate him to learn by making it a certainty that he will be required to narrate every time.

The natural provision for the appropriation and assimilation of Knowledge is adequate and no stimulus is required; but some moral control is necessary to secure the act of attention; a child receives this in the certainty that he will be required to recount what he has read.

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 18, 19

So rather than the dog-and-pony show, you stimulate through mental sympathy, brief introductions, and requiring narrations. 

Let’s take a minute to briefly address that other scenario that came to mind when we first starting discussing this idea of “stimulating” the student. Remember that teacher who made grades and competition the main stimulation, the driving force behind learning? In a Charlotte Mason approach, that’s not how we stimulate. Rather, we are careful to keep the main thing the main thing: love of knowledge for its own sake. Why? Because when competition and grades are the main reason for learning, it is those prizes that are held up as the most important thing. The learning is devalued and becomes only a way to reach what is perceived as more valuable: the prize or the grade. And when prizes and grades become the main motivation for learning, the student will have no motivation to continue learning once he is out of school. His mind will stagnant. Charlotte summarized it like this:

The teacher who proposes marks [or grades] and places [as in First Place or Second Place] as worthy aims will get work certainly but he will get no healthy love of knowledge for its own sake and no provision against the ennui of later days.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 91

Ennui means “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation.” So the teacher sets the student up for success in future life by stimulating, not with grades and prizes, but with a shared eagerness to learn and the certainty of required narrations.

OK, so you indicate where to find good ideas and you stimulate, or encourage, your student to assimilate those ideas, to make them his own.

Direct

Your third responsibility as a teacher is to direct. Directing is about shining the spotlight. It is directing your student’s attention toward a particular idea or habit. You’re not saying, “This is the only idea or habit you should focus on”; you’re simply shining the spotlight on one and saying, “Be sure to notice this one along with the others you’re forming a relation with.”

So rather than your student’s wandering around in the midst of a sea of great ideas, you are acting as a guide and pointing out some specific worthy ideas and habits that it would be good to give attention to.

What does that pointing out look like? Well, it means that you will occasionally explain something, or enlarge on an idea, or sum up and help your student organize all that he has learned during a lesson or a series of lessons. Now, let me direct you to something: The key is in that word “occasionally.”

Charlotte Mason-style lessons are not a talk-fest by the teacher. You want your student to do as much of the mental work as possible for himself. But you can occasionally direct his attention to a specific idea. 

You can also direct his attention to a specific habit. Now, this doesn’t mean that you will lecture him on that habit; rather, directing toward good habits means that you will require and reinforce the discipline of good habits during school lessons as well as in home life. Charlotte explained:

What he wants of his teacher is moral and mental discipline, sympathy and direction.

School Education, p. 170

The habits of mental activity and of application are trained by the very means employed to cultivate that of attention. The child may plod diligently through his work who might be trained to rapid mental effort. The teacher herself must be alert, must expect instant answers, quick thought, rapid work. The tortoise will lag behind the hare, but the tortoise must be trained to move, every day, a trifle quicker. Aim steadily at securing quickness of apprehension and execution, and that goes far towards getting it.

Home Education, p. 149

So those practices and that expectation of steady, if slow, growth are how you direct your student toward good habits. But along with that, you also need to help your student avoid bad habits.

For example, in reading lessons, 

The child who has been taught to read with care and deliberation until he has mastered the words of a limited vocabulary, usually does the rest for himself. The attention of his teachers should be fixed on two points—that he acquires the habit of reading, and that he does not fall into slipshod habits of reading.

Home Education, p. 226

Constrain

And that brings us to the fourth responsibility of a teacher: to constrain. The whole goal of constraining is to maintain an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. In order to do that, you constrain your student, as needed, to prevent bad habits of thinking and behaving.

That might mean, as mentioned previously, keeping watch to make sure your student is not developing slipshod habits of reading. It could also mean making sure narrations and discussions don’t get off track and end up clear over on some random topic that has nothing to do with the reading. Evidently, that was a challenge in Charlotte’s day too. She wrote,

As for understanding what they read, the children will be full of bright, intelligent remarks and questions, and will take this part of the lesson into their own hands; indeed, the teacher will have to be on her guard not to let them carry her away from the subject.

Home Education, p. 206

Constraining might involve helping your child to grow in the habit of prompt obedience. That can play a big role in the atmosphere of your lesson times. Charlotte explained,

No doubt it is pleasing that children should behave naturally, should get up and wander about, should sit still or frolic as they have a mind to, but they too, must ‘learn obedience’; and it is no small element in their happiness and ours that obedience is both delightful and reposeful.

It is the part of the teacher to secure willing obedience, not so much to himself as to the laws of the school and the claims of the matter in hand. If a boy have a passage to read, he obeys the call of that immediate duty, reads the passage with attention and is happy in doing so.

A Philosophy of Education, p. 70

I’m sure you will find many other opportunities to constrain your student so he doesn’t set up bad habits that can disrupt lesson times and hinder his opportunities to learn. But keep the previous key word in mind too: direct. Even as you constrain your student from heading down the wrong path, you direct him toward the good path.

Putting the Roles Together

So it might be helpful to think of your responsibility as a teacher in two sets of words:

indicate and stimulate

and

direct and constrain.

You indicate and stimulate—you present the sources of great ideas and encourage your student to learn for himself.

And you direct and constrain—you spotlight good habits and ideas for him to pursue while keeping watch to constrain him from bad ones.

Habits and ideas. Ideas and habits. Charlotte is so consistent! Those are the two responsibilities you have as a parent:

We know that to form in his child right habits of thinking and behaving is a parent’s chief duty … To nourish a child daily with loving, right, and noble ideas we believe to be the parent’s next duty.

Parents and Children, p. 228

And those are the same responsibilities you have as a teacher: indicate and stimulate toward good ideas, and direct and constrain toward good habits.

Next time we’ll discuss how to prepare for lessons, so you will be able to indicate, stimulate, direct, and constrain with freedom.

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