By Ricki Lee Silverman
You hear it even in the better faculty lounges: “If we reach just one student, then we have done our jobs.” BALDERDASH! as the Fat Lady would say. The best teachers are those who reach all of their students. No matter how you define a teacher, the bottom line remains the same: a teacher’s job is to convey knowledge to the students. And while Hogwarts is a magical, fictional school, J.K. Rowling fills it with students and teachers who are familiar to us from our own school days. Fiction, it’s been said, is a lie that tells the truth better than the truth does. In that regard, Hogwarts is a microcosm that provides an opportunity to explore the macrocosm of Muggle teaching styles.
“I taught them the concept, but they didn’t learn it.” This comment, too, is frequently heard in lounges and planning rooms of Muggle schools. Once again, I disagree. Students can only receive knowledge through the conduit of the teacher. The teacher, therefore, must be an expert not only in the subject matter but also in communicating with students. And who are the students? We can think of them in five categories: the Hermiones, the Harrys, the Rons, the Nevilles and the Dracos.
We’ll dispense with the Draco-style student first since he is only a student in the most superficial sense. Yes, he attends classes, but he has no real interest in learning. Instead, he uses the methods of a true Slytherin to satisfy his ambitions. In his second year of school, he buys his way onto the Quidditch team by having has father purchase new brooms for all the team members. 1 In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, he attempts to win a bottle of Felix Felicis from Professor Slughorn by dropping the name of his grandfather, Abraxas Malfoy. 2 Slughorn, however, is not as impressed by the Malfoy name as the previous Potions master appeared to be. Cronyism had always worked in Severus Snape’s dungeon where Draco became accustomed to preferential treatment. By Half-Blood Prince, however, Draco has distanced himself from Snape. And he makes his attitude about school clear while still on the Hogwarts Express. He says of Professor Slughorn, “What is he, when you come down to it? Just some stupid teacher…. I mean, I might not even be at Hogwarts next year, what’s it matter to me if some fat old has-been likes me or not?” 3 When a student is as disrespectful and uninterested as Draco is, even the most gifted teacher has trouble reaching him. Dracos are the students who resist learning anything from anybody.
At the other extreme of the educational spectrum, we find students like Hermione. In her first year, she memorizes all of her textbooks before even stepping onto the train. 4 In her second year at Hogwarts, she concocts the highly advanced Polyjuice Potion without the help of a teacher. 5 By the third year, she is taking so many classes that she needs a time turner in order to attend them all. 6 In her fifth year of school, she impresses even the brightest Ravenclaw students with her ability to perform a Protean Charm on coins for Dumbledore’s Army. 7 Constantly reading and retaining all that she reads (“You can’t Apparate or Disapparate inside Hogwarts!” 8) Hermione is so intelligent and motivated that she really doesn’t need a teacher at all. But don’t tell that to Hermione. She has so much respect for academic learning that she even signs up for Muggle Studies though, as a Muggle herself, she clearly doesn’t need it. Hermiones are students who can learn anything from anyone.
Harry is a fairly good student, too, though he doesn’t share Hermione’s relentless pursuit of book learning. In the Muggle school he attended before going to Hogwarts, “his marks weren’t bad.” 9 Students like Harry generally learn easily with teachers who are competent and fair. They are less likely to succeed if the teacher seems biased or fraudulent. Harry also represents the kind of student whose best skills only appear when great need spurs them on. We first see Harry’s phenomenal determination when he sets out to repel the Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Despite repeated failure, Harry never stops practicing the Patronus Charm, which he does eventually use to save himself, Hermione and Sirius. 10 Likewise, in the Triwizard Tournament, pressure in the form of a Hungarian Horntail impels Harry to master the Summoning Charm. “ ‘Well, now we know what to do next time I can’t manage a spell,’ Harry said… ‘threaten me with a dragon.’ ” 11 Harry represents the type of student who needs motivation in order to learn.
Ron, on the other hand, represents the student who doesn’t bring much to the classroom. Like many Muggle students, he sees school mainly as an opportunity to have fun, play sports and meet girls. Always looking for a shortcut or a helping hand from Hermione, Ron is more interested in goofing off than in getting ahead. Overshadowed by his brighter older brothers, Ron does not see himself as a good student, nor has growing up in the tumultuous Weasley household encouraged him to read or introspect. In fact, if Ron were a real student rather than a fictional one, he would be the type to ignore the Harry Potter books and wait for the movies to come out. Even in his personal life, Ron needs to be hit over the head before the light bulb comes on. “Hermione, Neville’s right– you are a girl,” 12 he says when desperately seeking a date for the Yule Ball. He misses the sarcasm in her voice when she replies, “Oh well spotted.” 13 Something truly impressive and entertaining has to happen in a classroom to grab the attention of students like Ron.
The Nevilles of the world have the most to gain from a good teacher. Traumatized by the torture of his parents and browbeaten by his overbearing grandmother, Neville is in no emotional condition to learn. Like many of today’s real students, personal problems loom so large for him that learning can seldom take place. Neville seems to lack the courage for which Gryffindor students are known. He is intimidated by most of his teachers and from the beginning shows a fear of common wizarding tasks, such as learning how to fly on a broomstick. Most people dismiss Neville as a clumsy, forgetful boy. Romilda Vane, for example, tells Harry that he needn’t sit with him on the Hogwarts Express, “indicating Neville’s bottom, which was sticking out from under the seat again as he groped around for [his toad] Trevor.” 14 Neville is also handicapped by a lack of proper learning tools. For the first five books, he must use his father’s old wand, even though Mr. Ollivander has told Harry that, “you will never get such good results with another wizard’s wand.” 15 Only a teacher of great sensitivity and exceptional generosity can reach out to students like Neville and unlock the abilities buried within.
These student types enter Hogwarts with the same hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses as any Muggle student. Some will be remain largely untouched by their teachers. Others will be assisted in fulfilling their clear potential. And some, or perhaps just that elusive “one” that teachers seek to reach, will be utterly transformed. But teaching is a special kind of magic, a kind that not even witches and wizards can always conjure. A truly magical teacher knows the subject matter, knows how to teach, knows how to make learning interesting, and truly cares about kids. Sadly, that leaves out all but a special few.
Even Hermione has trouble learning from some teachers – the ones who don’t know anything. Gilderoy Lockhart tops that list. He makes students buy a long list of books, but they are not instructive texts. They are egotistical autobiographies of his exploits, falsified ones at that! When Ginny Weasley lies in the Chamber of Secrets and needs a real hero to save her, she is fortunate that Harry rises to the occasion when Lockhart cannot. Dolores Jane Umbridge is as incompetent as Lockhart, but her motives are quite different. While Lockhart sought fame and popularity, Umbridge is a government employee on a mission of disinformation. The Ministry of Magic sent her to Hogwarts to quash the idea that Lord Voldemort has risen and needs to be stopped. Basing her class strictly on theory, she drums in the falsehood that there is no need for practical Defense Against the Dark Arts because there are no Dark wizards to fear. Harry, the student who needs meaning and motivation in his studies, objects to her lies. She retaliates by forcing him to carve “I must not tell lies” into his own flesh. 16 Umbridge represents the teacher who has no love or knowledge of her subject and who, if she had no power to punish would have no power at all. There are too many Dolores Jane Umbridges in our schools – and I wish a herd of centaurs on them all.
Even teachers who know their subject can’t always communicate that knowledge to students. For example, Hermione is the only student who can stay awake during History of Magic. In the character of Professor Binns, J.K. Rowling pokes fun at the kind of teacher who, despite extensive knowledge, is so dull that his students snore and drool and dream in class rather than learn. As in the Muggle world, his subject is inherently juicy, but becomes dry and, well, ghostly, due to dull teaching methods. Even Ron, who requires entertainment in order to learn and who normally sleeps in Professor Binns’s class, wakes up to the magic of history when his family visits the pyramids of Egypt. On the other hand, one could never describe as dull the action-packed classes of Rubeus Hagrid, the Care of Magical Creatures instructor. Hagrid possesses encyclopedic knowledge of his subject and a real passion for “interestin’ creatures.” Yet he does not have the gift of teaching any more than Professor Binns does. His classes are disorganized and downright scary at times. Only Harry’s bravery and stalwart devotion to Hagrid make him accept the challenge of approaching Buckbeak the hippogriff. 17 And only Ron, who doesn’t like to work, appreciates Hagrid’s final exam, which consists solely of keeping flobberworms alive for an hour. 18
A special sub-category exists for teachers who know their subject but cannot teach it: the Divination instructors. It has been proven that Sybill Trelawney, at least on occasion, performs as a true Seer. And it may be that Firenze can read the future by gazing at planets and stars. But these are not teachable skills. Only a centaur like Firenze can read the night sky. And only those who possess the “Inner Eye” can perform Divination in Professor Trelawney’s manner. Hermione, our star learner, packs up and leaves Trelawney’s class because she realizes that the business of reading tea leaves and crystal balls does not count as real knowledge. That Parvati claims vaguely to have seen “loads of stuff” 19 in their Divination exam underscores how “woolly” the subject is. Professor Quirrell might need his own category, too. Perhaps he did know something of Defense Against the Dark Arts – he certainly had a way with trolls 20 – but as a servant of Lord Voldemort, he masqueraded at Hogwarts as an incompetent coward.
Finally, we approach the minimum requirement for good teachers: knowledge of the subject and the ability to impart it in a coherent manner. Teachers in this category are highly qualified experts, they set clear goals and expectations of their students, and they provide thorough instruction on the methods students need to accomplish these goals. It is probably no accident that all of the teachers who fall into this category teach subjects requiring hands-on learning. Even a lackluster student like Ron can succeed in classes where successful completion of projects or skills is the goal. He may not pronounce “Wingardium Leviosa” to Hermione’s satisfaction, but he does master Professor Flitwick’s charm in time to save her from a mountain troll. 21 Harder, yet still learnable, is the subject of Transfiguration as taught by Professor Minerva McGonagall. Harry realizes right away she is “not someone to cross.” 22 Strict yet fair, she teaches a subject where things can go seriously wrong for lackadaisical students. Her demands are reasonable in light of the consequences. Professor Sprout’s class is lively enough for students like Ron to enjoy. She and her subject, Herbology, are even non-threatening enough to allow someone like Neville to succeed. Professor Sprout is no pushover, but she is a genial, somewhat “dumpy” witch with dirt under her fingernails and a rather frowzy appearance. 23 Neville may see her as something of a mother substitute, since his own mom was tortured into insanity by Death Eaters and cannot recognize him. 24
And what of the Potions masters? Like their colleagues above, Professors Severus Snape and Horace Slughorn are experts who set clear goals and provide adequate instruction. In most ways, they fit the category of qualified teachers, but they share a serious flaw, though in different degrees. They are snobs. Professor Slughorn dotes on those he deems to have star potential, whether through talent or connections, and Professor Snape clearly prefers Slytherin students to the rest. But while Slughorn merely overlooks many students (after teaching Ron for six months, he still calls him “Ralph” on his birthday25), Snape is actively vindictive. Not only does he go easy on the undeserving Draco but he also deals unfairly with the Gryffindors. He shames or ignores Hermione’s talent. He intentionally sets up Harry for failure. And he terrorizes poor Neville with his insults and bullying.
Only Fred and George Weasley provide real fireworks at Hogwarts, but Hogwarts’ expert teachers sometimes come close. Each has taught exciting lessons that can even engage students like Ron. Professor Slughorn taught a fascinating class that featured a love potion and the luck-producing Felix Felicis. 26 Professor Sprout taught students to repot Mandrakes,27 and their success in this project assured the revival of the basilisk’s victims. They even found squeezing disgusting bubotuber pus to be “oddly satisfying.” 28 Professor McGonagall wowed her students by transfiguring her desk into a pig 29 and herself into a cat. 30
Highest on the list of exciting teachers, however, are the Defense Against the Dark Arts professors: Mad-Eye Moody and Remus Lupin – teachers who also appear to care deeply about their students. Mad-Eye Moody is an especially fascinating and disturbing case since it turns out that he is not, in fact, the retired Auror from the Ministry of Magic. He is a Death Eater named Barty Crouch, Jr. pretending to be Moody in order to lure Harry into Lord Voldemort’s trap. He succeeds in this dastardly deed, but along the way he also performs some truly amazing teaching. The whole school buzzes with excitement when he starts his lessons. He treats students as mature people who can handle the truth about the Unforgivable Curses and wisely advises them to be constantly vigilant. He even gives on-the-spot demonstrations of all three Unforgivable Curses. Mystifyingly, he also helps Harry resist one of them, the Imperius Curse,31 which allows him to stand up to Crouch’s own master, Lord Voldemort. 32 Moody/Crouch even appears to be truly kind to Neville, complimenting him on his Herbology skill and lending him a book about plants. 33 But here is the disturbing part: he was only using Neville to fulfill his plot against Harry. It is a terrifying truth that, in the Muggle world as well as the magical, some of the most dangerous people have the ability to pose as the kindest. On the other hand, a teacher who is truly as good and kind as he appears is Professor Lupin. He coolly deflects Peeves’s insults with a hex that sends a wad of gum up the poltergeist’s nose. 34 More importantly, he helps students face and overcome their worst fears with his lesson about Boggarts. Rather than listen to Snape’s warning about Nevillle’s incompetence, he singles him out as a student capable of banishing the Boggart.35 Most important of all, he gives Harry private lessons in conjuring a Patronus to ward off Dementors, a skill that later saves his life.
Any good education will provide a student with knowledge; however, only a very special education will provide wisdom. To acquire wisdom in school, one needs more than a teacher. One needs a mentor such as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Harry acquires skill from many of his professors and from Quidditch captain Oliver Wood. But Harry needs more than that. With the prophecy hanging over his head and Lord Voldemort bent on his destruction, he more than any student has motivation to learn all he can about as much as he can. Dumbledore not only provides an abundance of factual knowledge for Harry to use, but also counsels Harry at key moments in his life, providing moral and emotional clarity to the events. “Why so miserable, Harry?” he asks at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “You helped uncover the truth. You saved an innocent man from a terrible fate.” 36 Harry would not have articulated his rescue of Sirius in such a direct, succinct manner. And when Harry struggles with the confusion he feels upon mistaking himself for his father, Dumbledore has the right words again:
“You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself most plainly when you have need of him. How else could you produce that particular Patronus? Prongs rode again last night.” 37
This speech highlights some of Dumbledore’s many-layered talents. He has unique knowledge of past and present friendships and family relationships. He knows about Animagi (he was a Transfiguration teacher himself 38) and can see a correlation between a Patronus and an Animagus. He understands the deep longing Harry has to be connected to his deceased loved ones. As early as the first book, when Dumbledore explains the protection his mother’s loving sacrifice created,39 Harry has been learning about love from this most loving and giving of all his teachers.
It is not until Professor Dumbledore dies that Harry understands just how much he has learned from this remarkable man – and how much more he will notHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. His very existence is owed to the fact that a Muggle-born witch was able to attend Hogwarts and fall in love with a pure-blood wizard. Likewise, Harry could not have Hermione as a friend if the Headmaster had not insisted on allowing Muggle-borns to attend Hogwarts. Harry saw Dumbledore reward Neville in their first year for standing up to his friends and award him the points that won Gryffindor the house cup. 40 He heard Dumbledore explain why Ron saw himself “standing alone, the best of all of them” 41 when he looked at the Mirror of Erised. And he heard Dumbledore use his dying breath to reach out to Draco Malfoy, still intent on finding the good in everyone. Dumbledore was not just good to Harry; he was good to every one of his students.
Friedrich Nietzsche points out that “one repays a teacher poorly if one remains only a student.” 42 I am confident that in Book Seven Harry will fulfill Dumbledore’s highest expectations. In fact, it would not be too great a stretch to imagine that, when Harry’s own adventures end, he may follow in his mentor’s footsteps. He had, in fact, already become Neville’s teacher in their fifth year, watching as the clumsy boy “worked relentlessly [in Dumbledore’s Army…] improving so fast it was quite unnerving.” 43 Perhaps Harry is the Chosen One who will utterly transform Neville’s life. Few people understood why a wizard as great as Dumbledore would choose the seemingly modest profession of teaching. But Dumbledore knew – and maybe Harry will discover, too – that teaching is a special kind of magic.
1. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 111.
2. Ibid., Half Blood Prince, 189.
3. Ibid., 151.
4. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 105.
5. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 215.
6. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 395.
7. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 398.
8. Ibid., 500.
9. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 49.
10. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 411.
11. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 346-47.
12. Ibid., 400.
14. Ibid., Half Blood Prince, 138.
15. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 84.
16. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 266.
17. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 115.
18. Ibid., 317
19. Ibid., 322.
20. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 289.
21. Ibid., 176.
22. Ibid., 133.
23. Ibid., 89.
24. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 603.
25. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 397.
26. Ibid., 184-88.
27. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 91.
28. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 195.
29. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 134.
30. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 108.
31. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 231-32.
32. Ibid., 661-62.
33. Ibid., 219-20.
34. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 131.
35. Ibid., 132-139.
36. Ibid., 425.
37. Ibid., 427-28.
38. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 312
39. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 299.
40. Ibid., 306.
41. Ibid., 213.
42. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Chapter 22.
43. Rowling. Order of the Phoenix, 553.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book For All and No One. Washington D.C.: Gateway Editions, 1957.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
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