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The Heart of the Craft: Suggestions from a Craftsman

An interview with Dennis Staffelbach

“I think it’s absolutely, completely disingenuous for people to call themselves teachers if they don’t care about their students. You really do have to care.”

Much of K-12 classical education is learned by apprenticeship, and the craft of teaching often takes years to develop. That is why we honor the craftsmen among us. We recently spoke with a 25-year classroom veteran from Trinity School at Greenlawn, Mr. Dennis Staffelbach, who said, in no uncertain terms, “I think it’s absolutely, completely disingenuous for people to call themselves teachers if they don’t care about their students. You really do have to care.” As Dennis explains, such caring involves competence in the subject, empathy for the students, and the ongoing quest for goodness.

The teachers in our audience would like to know some of the secrets of good pedagogy. For example, how does one come to develop the art of conducting a seminar?
Primarily, I think the instructors have to know and understand the historical significance of what they’re doing. They must understand why it’s important and love learning about it, and want to continue learning about it because it’s important, and, finally, they must have the real desire to communicate that to young people—not just to pass on this interesting stuff, but because it’s important.

Teachers really have to understand, you can’t go in faking why it’s important to study the French Revolution (or whatever the topic). You have to understand why it’s so important. The students then, in my experience, will figure that out, almost immediately. They’ll walk into the classroom, into the seminar, and it’s as though they’re not in a classroom, in a sense. They’re in a discussion about ideas that really are important—to them, not just the teacher.

Based on your experiences in the classroom, do you have any suggestions for how novices should approach the great books?
I think it’s absolutely, completely, disingenuous for people to call themselves teachers if they don’t care about their students. You really do have to care, which means seeing each of them as individuals who have gone through 15 years of life, which is every bit as important as our 50 years of life. They’re individuals by now, and the second thing is to respect that. Their feelings about a girlfriend or boyfriend, their feelings about this text, their feelings about the economy, are every bit as important as ours.

I think it’s a bad idea for teachers to bring in an attitude of “I have gone through this life, and I’m here to tell you…” What you want to do is take their life and inform them about the world using an understanding of their experiences.

I’ll give you an example. Last week, I was teaching sophomore boys how to write a Shakespearean sonnet—14 lines in iambic pentameter, a real sonnet. I told them to write about something that’s important—that’s all. I prefaced it by saying that Shakespeare had written about old age, time, and love. “So, what’s your experience of that?” I asked them. So, what’s really important to a 15-year old boy? And, if he’s honest, sometimes he’s going to say “soccer.”

Sure enough, the next week I got this amazing poem about walking out onto the pitch, as this one young man called it, under the lights. At the end of this poem, which is just about soccer, my heart was pounding. Wow! For that boy, writing a sonnet became really important, and I was able to help him, in that I understood what was really important to him. It’s not just a game, it’s how he is choosing to spend his time.

Do you have any tricks of the trade you’d suggest for those of us looking to improve our game?
I actually have one. This is what I do. I have a copy of Crime and Punishment (or whatever the assigned text), and I read it, and I look up words, and I underline things, and I make annotations. Then, after three years, I toss that copy and grab a brand-new book—and I don’t look back. No underlining, no notes in the margins, no nothing. Every three years. After the third year, I start over.

You know? I actually have some of these books, and one summer I did look at them, just to see, and it was interesting. It said more about me than anything. That’s where I had come from.

How would you recommend parents get involve in their children’s education with great books?
I would suggest that parents look at the book list and pick a book that they’d like to talk about with their child—maybe read it ahead of time, and maybe read it along with him or her. Have discussions around the dinner table, and make sure that your child sees you reading. You are taking your incredibly valuable free time, and you are reading his or her book. And you’re communicating that what they are studying is important and relevant—and not just because Mr. Staffelbach says so. It is objectively important.


Dennis H. Staffelbach previously served as an assistant attorney general in Arizona. Since 1994, he has served on the humanities faculty at Trinity School at Greenlawn (Indiana).

Artwork: The Oath of the Horatii (1784-1785), oil on canvas, by Jacques-Louis David, located at Louvre Museum (Paris, France)

Since 1992, “The Nation’s Report Card” has informed us that barely a third of the country’s school age children are becoming proficient readers. For nearly 30 years, policy makers have responded to these discouraging findings with a handful of solutions—namely, more explicit standards and assessments, along with various teaching techniques.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is one of the greatest and most original American poets, whose verse has provided generations with the short lines of slant rhyme that tease the reader out of thought.

As a child, I loved school and wanted to be a teacher: I was drawn to children with special needs, babysat a little boy with Down syndrome, worked every summer at a camp with children from the inner city, and later majored in special education.

Seminar discussion, the classroom model most Great Books and Socratic practitioners aspire to, is highly under-informed.

Much of K-12 classical education is learned by apprenticeship, and the craft of teaching often takes years to develop. That is why we honor the craftsmen among us.

“Experience” is an important word for Lewis. He’s drawing that from the root meaning of experiment. It’s striking that this is a book about the application of ideas that he developed in The Abolition of Man (1943); about 20 years later, he wrote An Experiment in Criticism.

Virtue is the flagship publication of the Great Hearts Institute. It disseminates stories, ideas, research and experiences in classical education to readers across the nation, helping them pursue the classical ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

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