Are Teachers Parents or Pedagogues?

Teachers have it tough. Most are encouraged to maintain relationships with hundreds of students each year. We are taught by experts and told by our principals to connect with kids personally, but authorities rarely explain what they mean—what kind of relationships they expect. Given that many students get little guidance at home, and teachers typically have love to give, most of us have assumed a parenting relationship. The resulting burnout may be why more teachers today have left the profession than ever before. Are we our students’ parents, or are we their pedagogues? In this article, I’ll consider how teachers are unlike parents, but how teachers can partner with parents. First I’ll address a common Christian conviction that only confuses our question: that teaching is discipling.

Many Christian leaders believe discipleship is the sanctified system toward all growth and development, but shouldn’t school teaching be an exception? Discipleship is spiritual parenting. Parents, for example, want their children to watch their lives and imitate their ways. School teachers, on the other hand, want their students to make choices.

Following rabbinical tradition, Jesus sought out students to leave their lives and watch his. Initially, that’s all his followers did—before they were sent out, they were simply “with him” (Mark 3:14). Later, Paul, always accommodating to other cultures, would move away from rabbinical discipleship to a parenting model that would better connect with Gentile audiences. In fact, after Acts, the word “disciple” all but disappears from Scripture. Instead, Paul “fathers” his churches, writing, “Though you have countless guides [paidagōgous] in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:15–16 ESV). To Jesus’s “watch my life,” Paul adds, “imitate my ways.” Discipleship, or spiritual parenting, is somewhat routine, and it can be restrictive. It demands, “Do as I do without questioning.” I doubt this is what education experts or school principals have in mind.

In the school teaching context, it may actually be Paul’s “countless guides” who best represent the appropriate relationship between teachers and students. School teachers are more paidagōgous (pedagogues) than parents. In ancient Greece, these “guardians” or “custodians” were hired to accompany children to and from school, to superintend their education. They pointed the way, as it were, toward wisdom.

Pedagogues Present Choices and Warn of Consequences

School teachers aren’t parents; they’re pedagogues. Both impart wisdom, but they do it in different ways. The current confusion is understandable as early on in this country, before industrialization, much of life was lived at home. Lessons were learned from fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers. School only finished what the family started. Teachers mainly taught academics. Today, however, teachers are more often outsourced as substitute parents, made responsible, not only for reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also for social and emotional learning. The complexity of contemporary life has relocated living away from the home and into other social institutions. Family, for the most part, no longer functions as the educator of children and adolescents; schools now prepare students for life. 

Students today are stuck. Many are paralyzed because they won’t choose. They are being told by the world that truth is relative, that all is acceptable. It doesn’t take them long to realize that where life is random and without rules it becomes impossible to choose one action over another. Choices, they rightly conclude, are ultimately meaningless. Students believe themselves to be free, but they are really only free in the sense that they could choose anything, and they’ve realized that to be able to do anything is to be able to do nothing. In a relative world of randomness, nothing really matters.

Teachers get students going.

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Adam Lancaster (DEdMin) is a professional artist and art educator from Dallas, TX. When not in the studio or in the classroom, he’s in the community advocating art through the Visual Art League of Lewisville, the Visual Art Society of Texas, and the Portrait Society of America. Lancaster also enjoys writing at the intersection of art, culture, religion, and education; his most recent article, “’Macmurray on Art and Artificial Intelligence,” has appeared in John Macmurray Philosophical Fellowship Newsletter. To connect with Lancaster, or to read blog posts or view his art, visit