The relationship between student and teacher, if it is to be maximally productive, must reflect certain attitudes and commitments of each to the other. Specifically, three elements must exist in a student’s relationship to a teacher:
First, the student must respect his or her teacher and hold him in the highest esteem, for this is a necessary prerequisite to accepting his advice. Regarding someone who is only giving factual information, and not assuming the role of mentor, this condition becomes less critical. In relation to a spiritual advisor, however, the student needs to feel deference and admiration, for this creates a willingness and desire to receive the teacher’s instruction, even though this instruction may be uncomfortable and disconcerting at times.
Secondly, the student must trust the teacher’s concern. The student must believe that the teacher always has his or her best interests in mind. If the student would sense some ulterior motive, some self interest, or even carelessness in the teacher’s instruction, he or she would not be able to surrender whole heartedly to the teacher’s advice, and this would make the entire exchange meaningless.
Finally, the student must commit himself or herself to following the instruction with utmost discipline, for only then can the intended effect be realized. Just as a doctor’s orders must be followed precisely, since failure to do so could cause more harm than good, so a teacher’s “prescription” must be obeyed with equal conscientiousness and deference to his superior knowledge and authority.
The teacher also has three levels of responsibility to his students in relation to giving advice:
The first is fulfillment of the prerequisite of getting to know his students individually, to probe the innermost depths of their hearts as well as examining the outer details of their lives. As the teacher’s familiarity grows, so the potency of his advice deepens proportionately.
Secondly, the teacher must express love and affection toward his students. It is this affection that dissolves the students’ natural tendency to resist being told what to do. Thus, the advice can penetrate more deeply and effectively.
Finally, the teacher must take time to reflect upon his students’ progress, refining and adjusting his vision of how best to influence them toward positive change. This is an ongoing requirement because students quickly “outgrow” old advice, and the categories of what is beautiful and what is ugly change with each new stage of growth.
More than any of the other seven skills, this fourth skill of customizing advice is a direct function of the teacher’s love for his students. The care with which he sifts through various options, seeking that which will satisfy and beautify, is truly an act of love. The measure of a teacher’s affection is reflected in his concern for his students’ “appearance”–that their personalities be balanced and well proportioned, that they feel at peace with themselves and their environment, that they utilize their talents and fulfill their potential. If the teacher’s instructions come from such a place of loving endearment, then he will save his students much wasted effort in their journey toward self fulfillment and service of God. In contrast, the advice of a teacher who lacks such particularized concern will be less potent. His cliches and generalizations evidence his own immaturity and narrow mindedness, factors which make his instruction more arbitrary and, necessarily, less penetrating.