What Did Confucius Consider A Good Teacher?

Helena Wan wrote her doctoral thesis, “The Educational Thought of Confucius, in 1980. It’s a good read.

The Concept of Teacher

The broadest definition of “teacher” attempted by Confucius was: Any man could be the teacher of another–by virtue of his moral character, which seemed to be the necessary professional qualification required of a teacher.

As to professional training, Confucius made very little specification.

This might have stemmed from the fact that Confucius never had a regular teacher in his youth.

Perhaps a more valid reason might be that Confucius was not convinced that mere professional training qualifies one to become a teacher. A teacher needs to be a living exemplar of virtue. The training that is required of him would be in the form of self-cultivation.

Confucius would not approve of today’s focus on education degrees.

He would perhaps slyly observe that while “Power” (regulators, principals) does not try to measure teacher virtue, kids notice for sure that some teachers are worth emulating. That has never changed.

To Confucius, the teacher must possess certain qualities that are considered desirable and necessary.

1. First of all, he must have a sincere concern for the proper education of the young.

Most American teachers today would say they have a sincere concern.

2. He should be a sincere seeker after knowledge, constantly learning as well as teaching, understanding that learning and teaching complement each other and are the basis for new knowledge.

The teacher does that by reviewing old knowledge and acquiring new knowledge. Confucius himself researched the books of antiquity in order to obtain new knowledge. He was a devout scholar of the Book of Poetry, the Book of History, and the I Ching, sifting the knowledge therein, drawing conclusions, extrapolating and formulating new ideas accordingly.

Some teachers would concede that they do not spend much time seeking new knowledge.

The internet has sadly massively cut back in time people spend reading books.

3. He should help his students to “complete their nature,” or to develop fully the natural genuineness latent in their nature.

This is overtly rejected at the secondary level, but embraced perhaps by many early elementary teachers.

4. The teacher should be a broad-minded individual, democratic in spirit, who would not refuse to teach anyone who wants to learn from him.

I wonder how Confucius would grapple with students who want “extra help” (1:1 tutoring after school is over). Can a teacher refuse?

5. As a professional, a teacher needs to understand that men by nature are essentially equal, so that in his teaching, he should not be biased by the social background of his pupils. He needs to share the democratic belief that all men have a right to education. Only in believing in this equal right as well as the equalizing power of education can he truly perform his role as teacher.

This is a big concern of today’s education establishment.

6. On the other hand, the teacher must recognize individual differences. Socially, men are basically equal, but intellectually, men are endowed differently. Teaching needs therefore to adjust to individual differences. Teaching is not to fit the learners in a common mold, but to develop each pupil’s talents, abilities and inclinations, so that the learner, in fully developing his own personality, might bring to maturity and perfection the natural endowments with which he is gifted.

Many teachers today would point out this is really a question of time. To develop each student differently takes lots of prep time – the varying problem sets, multiple readings, etc.

7. In order to observe clearly the aspirations, hopes and fears of his pupils, their individual strengths and weaknesses, the teacher needs to relate to his pupils and establish a good rapport with them. Never must a teacher allow his pupils to treat him with deference, nor should the relationship between pupil and teacher be one of arbitrary tyranny on the part of the teacher. There should be, instead, a mutual respect existing between teacher and pupil: the pupil respecting the teacher for his moral integrity and wisdom, and the master respecting the young for their potentials.

I’m skeptical that Confucius would buy into Restorative Justice. He would notice today’s pupils often treating teachers “with deference.”

8. Though possessing book knowledge, the teacher is not a dispenser of knowledge, for fear of cramming the growing mind with material it cannot fully digest, and in doing so, would extinguish the spark of desire for inquiry and motivation for learning and discovery.

Ted Sizer.

9. Instead, the teacher would exercise the mind by giving it a broad background of the various branches of studies and culture, and directing its reading, so that the mind will be able to choose its proper path. Gradually, the mind will be able to discern what is good and true, or evil and false, what is useful or useless.

E.D. Hirsch

10. The teacher, rather than treating the learner simply as a receptacle of knowledge, should recognize him as an active participant in the search for truth. The task of the teacher, is therefore, to guide the mind of the young to appreciate what is good, true and noble, to carefully guide the learner along a proper path, knowing that gradually, by his careful guidance and by the learner’s own effort, the latter will eventually reach the goal of a fully developed human being.

The role of the teacher, therefore, is to teach pupils to think for themselves, to find for themselves solutions to problems and to make the necessary effort to conquer difficulties, and only as a last resort would he show them the way. In other words, the teacher directs and guides, encourages and stimulates thinking, instead of handing out information and providing solutions.

The concept of teaching as derived from the actual practice of Confucius, was revolutionary in the sense that teaching at the time was predominantly a handing down of a body of knowledge, skills or etiquette from one generation to another, preparing the young members of noble families for hereditary rule. Confucius taught sons of commoners.

He also taught pupils, not subject matter, or a certain kind of expertise.

The image of the teacher as a model for men created by Confucius proved to be a lasting one throughout the centuries that followed.