Article Library:
NAPCIS Newsletter Fall 2004

The Classroom: Virtue’s Workshop
Part One - The Foundation

A real teacher is he who knows how to enrich the mind with thoughts,
to illuminate it, and instill virtues in the disciple's heart.

--St. Bonaventure, De reductione artium, no. 18

The entire work of the education of the young can be summed up in the goal of training children in virtue. Virtues are the habits that perfect man, whether young or old, so that he can pursue the good with ease, and attain the happiness which most befits his nature. There are three interrelated yet distinct aspects of man that are each perfected by a unique class of virtues.

Man’s intellect, a spiritual faculty(1), is perfected by the intellectual virtues, where truth is attained and resides habitually in the soul.

Man’s free will, another spiritual faculty, is perfected by the higher moral virtues which incline him to pursue the good in all things.

Man’s body, from whence arise the emotions or passions, is regulated by the lower moral virtues, which order these bodily motions according to right reason, and keep man directed toward the higher goods in which he will find his true happiness.

It is important for the educator to keep these three aspects of man and their corresponding virtues in mind in all the work he does with the children entrusted to him each year. Everything from course syllabi, daily lesson plans and pedagogical techniques, to classroom rules, procedures and routines should focus upon the specific virtues that accompany these things. To help us understand this key to Catholic education, let us think of the classroom as virtue’s workshop.

Build the Foundation First

Especially in the very young, but also with adolescents, conquering the passions and emotions (these are essentially interchangeable terms) is the first priority. For like a towering building where the lofty heights rest firmly upon the solid foundation and well-built lower portions, so too, in man can the intellect and free will be perfected only if the emotions are in order. The intellectual and higher moral virtues require the peace that can only be attained through the lower moral virtues.

These building-block moral virtues bring resilience, strength, proportion and order to the motions of the body known as the passions. Just as the body is subject to the physical local motions of fidgeting, breathing and walking, so too is it subject to the physical motions of passion like anger, fear, joy and sorrow. The passions are good things bestowed upon the corporeal nature of man, but like all things of the material world, they are designed to serve the higher, spiritual dimension of creation.

As we know from our faith, and confirmed through our daily experience, since the Fall of Man and even despite the work of Redemption today, the passions rebel against the spirit and seek to dominate it instead of submitting to the mind of man.

Pope Pius XI explained all these things brilliantly in his encyclical letter on Christian education, Divini illius Magistri, when the Holy Father defines the human person who is the subject of education. Paragraph 58 reads,

In fact it must never be forgotten that the subject of Christian education is man whole and entire, soul united to body in unity of nature, with all his faculties natural and supernatural, such as right reason and revelation show him to be; man, therefore, fallen from his original estate, but redeemed by Christ and restored to the supernatural condition of adopted son of God, though without the preternatural privileges of bodily immortality or perfect control of appetite. There remain therefore, in human nature the effects of original sin, the chief of which are weakness of will and disorderly inclinations.

Thus in man, and especially in the young, there is a real battle to get him off the ground, so to speak, to raise him up beyond the confines of his bodily, emotive and fallen nature. Without the Fall, the material portion of man, his body and its emotions, would serve as the right foundation for his actions, all of them ordered to the perfection of his spirit. After Adam, the body and its passions are still a foundation for man’s actions, but they now serve as a weighty anchor to restrain and limit his spirit both prior to and even during his formation at home, school and church.

In the human body there are two general forms of passion that arise in different situations, which being subject to disorder needs tidying. These are the tendency to desire the easily obtainable pleasures that arise from what we traditionally call the concupiscible appetite, on the one hand, and the inclination to flee from the arduous work and threats that come our way, from what we traditionally call the irascible appetite, on the other. Both of these require the training and discipline of the virtues in order to be mastered. These lower moral virtues will restore the passions from the present natural state of disorder to their proper place in the life of man as handmaid to right moral action.

Tempering Concupiscence and Fortifying the Irascible

Do we not all labor to overcome the tendency to moral decadence suggested by the manifold pleasures enticing us in so many ways these days? In the classroom, do not many young children come to us ready for recess and snack-time as well as eager to color another picture and talk with a neighbor more than they are motivated to focus on fulfilling their morning tasks and routines, or willing to recollect themselves for the next grammar lesson? These distracting interests, which appeal to the concupiscible appetite of our bodies, need to be tamed by the will, through the virtue of temperance and its various forms. Meanwhile, the work involved in successfully completing a demanding academic unit requires the strengthening of our body’s irascible appetite, which ought to pursue and not shirk from the arduous goods in life, through the virtue of fortitude and its forms.

The First Step: Classroom Management – Procedures, Routines and Rules

The well-run classroom and its effective teacher can easily promote these virtues both directly and indirectly. We shall consider initially the first step to virtue which is the indirect or preparatory path to temperance and fortitude. In later issues we will examine directly the virtues that perfect the appetites and higher faculties in man.

To begin with, the good teacher both prepares the classroom environment and fosters student expectations to insure the acquisition of virtue and success in academic work. At the same time he never invites nor indulges distractions from these goals. Staying on track by remaining on-topic in the lesson, along with students completing daily procedures and routines on time, will prevent the bad habit of disorder and confusion from forming at school.

It is in particular the formulation of classroom procedures, along with the insistence on their consistent fulfillment on the part of the student through his making them routine, that the ground will be prepared for building the foundational moral virtues that direct the concupiscible and irascible appetites. Virtue is a good habit that inclines man to act well easily. Classroom routines are the first good habits necessary for student mastery at school. More than bulletin board designs or seating arrangements, routines that follow clearly understood procedures create the environment in which the student can master his passions and later form the higher moral and intellectual virtues as well. Furthermore, they make the classroom an easy place to be and to learn.

Procedures need to be formulated for every activity and situation that students will experience each day. In most instances, these procedures should be clearly posted in the classroom. Consider designing procedures for all activities from the moment the student enters the classroom until he is dismissed.

Forming the good habit of disciplined routines in students requires three things: explanation of the procedures, initial practice of them to form the budding routines, and ongoing review of the routines over time to keep these basic classroom virtues strong. Obviously, one routine ought to be presented at a time, though in the first days of the school year, they should all be covered and practiced, especially before any one of them would need to come into play. For instance, the routine for passing in papers needs to be rehearsed before the first assignment comes in. What to do when a pencil breaks should be practiced before written work commences with the lower grades.

Seeing that violations of order may come, the good teacher will be prepared to review procedures when they are not followed. He will also have an effective discipline plan with rules posted and their consequences in place for misbehavior. Rewards may be designed for habits of obedience, and penalties written that fit the behavior they stand to correct. Also, the effective educator will not allow the class to be disrupted any more than it already has been with a violation of the rules.

Good teachers teach through misbehaviors, and handle them quietly and promptly on the side (a two-paragraph paper on such-and-such, or a fifteen minute detention, etc.). This way the misbehaving student neither gets away with the misdeed, by promptly receiving the consequence he earned, nor does he get away with redirecting the class’s attention, by the teacher retaining control and direction of the lesson. More importantly, remaining focused and on track during the violation of rules creates no opportunity for the misbehavior to take root and form a bad habit. Virtue, its growth and conservation is the result of good classroom management.

One outstanding reference for teachers regarding the creation of effective classroom management techniques is Harry Wong’s book, The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher (Mountain View, CA, 1998;

We have introduced here the various aspects of the student and the corresponding types of virtue that perfect the whole person. We have also laid the groundwork considerations concerning the first habits to master in students, namely those promoted by good classroom management techniques. Next time we will examine the particular lower moral virtues that perfect the bodily appetites of man, before treating of the higher moral and intellectual virtues to which all education is directed.

(1) Please note that the term “spiritual” does not mean supernatural as is often confused. “Spiritual” refers to the immaterial nature of the higher creatures, namely: angels and men. (return)

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