“The teacher is always right.”
I had so far enjoyed the book on motherhood from which this statement came, but this sentence stopped me in my tracks.
The well-meaning author made the point that children are not perfect and need discipline and correction. Sometimes that correction comes through the attention of a teacher or other authority, and a wise parent will not immediately side with her child against the authority. Parents need to consult child and teacher, get the whole story, and then weigh a response.
But a teacher is not always right. No one is always right. We do need to respect authorities and teach our children to do the same. But respect does not require that we assume infallibility. In this #metoo era, it’s dangerous to teach a child to follow an authority without question. Teachers, coaches, group leaders, authorities of every kind have been found to take advantage of the ones they should have protected. Sadly, the #churchtoo movement reveals that even spiritual authorities cannot be wholly trusted without reserve.
Even if an authority’s flaws do not extend to actual abuse, innate human sinfulness is going to lead to misunderstandings and mistakes. A child is going to feel that she has no recourse even to her closest allies and protectors if “the teacher is always right” is the mantra of the home.
I feel the better approach teaches children that, yes, we are under authorities (Romans 13:1-7), but there are right ways to respond when an authority is wrong. God gave them to us for our good (verse 4), and we’re to respect them (verse 7) and obey them unless they require of us something contrary to God’s Word (Acts 4:1-20). The emperor in power at the time of Paul’s writing of Romans was Nero, so these truths apply even when an authority is not a paragon of virtue. But precisely because they’re only human, they are going to occasionally misunderstand or act in a flawed way.
We are the same: we misunderstand people and act in flawed ways. How do we want to be treated when that happens? We hope people would give us the benefit of the doubt, and confront us kindly and gently if confrontation is needed.
Sometimes in a disagreement, we have to admit we’re in the wrong. Sometimes a parent has to help a child see that, yes, the authority is right. Untold damage is done when a child is made to think that everything revolves around him and he should always get his way.
Sometimes we overlook wrong against us. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 1:4, ESV) and “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (Proverbs 10:12, ESV). If we all called each other out for every little thing – well, life would be pretty miserable. The Bible speaks often of forbearing one another. One pastor used to call that “just good old-fashioned putting up with one another.” Ephesians 4:2 goes a step farther, telling us to bear with one another in love.
But sometimes we confront those who have wronged us. Matthew 18 details the steps to take in an offense between two equals, going first to the offender but then bringing others into it if the offender will not listen. If the offended one is a child, it’s best for the parents to confront the authority (assuming that the situation has been discussed and explored and it is determined that the authority is in the wrong.) Biblical confrontation is restorative, not a drawing of battle lines.
Always we forgive those who have wronged us. We forgive the way we want to be forgiven when we wrong others (Luke 11:4). We forgive because we have been forgiven (Matthew 18:21-35). We don’t complain or hold grudges or secret resentments (James 5:9).
Forgiveness, however, does not mean that no action is taken. It also does not assume that trust is restored or a close relationship will follow. If abuse of any kind is involved or even suspected, protection of the child should be the first order of business. Abuse needs to be dealt with as a crime and not overlooked.
I don’t think the author of the book I mentioned meant to suggest that authorities are infallible and that students have no recourse against injustice. I think his remark about teachers always being right was offhand and not fully thought through. I understand his intent to warn against assuming that the child is always right. One of our friends during her first year of teaching at an elementary school connected with a Christian university had a horrible time with parents always assuming the teacher was in the wrong. Perhaps the fact that the teacher had been a student at the university, the professor parents still assumed a measure of authority over her or the attitude that she wasn’t up to their level of experience and was therefore wrong. I’m sure all teachers have horror stories of students who could not be taught or corrected because of a parent’s attitude. Parents have an instinctive “Mama bear” protectiveness that can often assume the best of the child and the worst of others. But we need to help our children face their own faults and take steps to confess and correct them.
Yet, while we don’t automatically assume authorities are wrong, we also don’t automatically assume they are right, either. Our children need to always know that they are free and welcome to talk to us about anything. They need to know we’re in their corner and will stand up for them. We need patience and wisdom to help them sort out what happened and what the proper response should be.