The teaching and education situation was very different in the ancient world. Virtually all teachers were men. Rarely did women, especially high ranking women, take on any profession. A women’s job in life was to look after the home, control her slaves, support her husband and entertain his guests. Lower status women had no choice but to work for their living or starve, of course, but they weren’t educated so could never become teachers. 

As well, virtually all students were boys. It seems that girls mostly weren’t considered worth educating. If they were it was privately. Of course, there were exceptions. Some girls were very well educated and a very few Roman women became teachers and doctors, but it was very rare.

Teachers earned only what their students were willing to pay. Some teachers did quite well but it seems that many lived on the edge of starvation and bankruptcy. No-one ever got rich being a teacher.

There were no government schools nor education for the masses. There were no equal opportunities for education in ancient Greece or Rome. Education was a privilege of the rich.

Teachers millennia ago, in the times of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, had many of the same types of problems as teachers in the 21st century. From their accounts of their lives and work, and it’s problems, it seems that over the many centuries little has changed in a teacher’s life.

Politics and Politicians

Socrates, the philosopher, was accused by  politicians, afraid of his influence as a teacher, of corrupting the young men of Athens. He was tried, found guilty and ordered to drink the poison hemlock. His real crime? He taught his students to think for themselves and not to believe everything the politicians said as being true. He taught them critical thinking, something that the politicians didn’t like, and still don’t, as it will reveal their lies and falsity. Nothing’s changed there!

Socrates died, still teaching his students, using his own death and betrayal as a lesson in life and standing up for one’s principles. Socrates died because he was a good teacher and was brought down by politicians who wanted to control his teaching to their own ends. Socrates refused to be told how and what to teach. He was willing to die for his principles.

Modern teachers rarely, in our democracy, are killed for refusing to give in to the manipulations of politicians, they are more likely to just lose their jobs. Some politicians see education as simply a way to control the population and they try to force teachers into teaching according to their ideas. Fortunately, in this country, teachers are still able to fight back against being manipulated in that way. In some countries they aren’t so lucky and do indeed suffer for their principles. 

Student Aggression

A story appears in some Ancient Greek writing of a group of students who rose up against their own teacher. They trashed his classroom, destroyed his books and teaching aids, and beat him up severely. Why? No particular reason, but mainly because they were bored and didn’t want to learn. They wanted to be out living the ‘good life’ in the stews and taverns of Athens not stuck inside reading books and listening to their teacher drone on about philosophy and history.

Interfering Parents

The poet Horace complained about interfering parents. He said that their interfering with his teaching and criticising him and his methods was making it difficult to teach his students. He said that teaching should be left to those who knew how to do it and had learnt the best ways of doing it, not to interfering busy-bodies who had never taught a class and had no idea how to do it. Politicians and parents please take note.

Underpaid and Unappreciated

A decree by the Senate of Imperial Rome decreed, in the second century of the Common Era, that the prizes given to gladiators fighting in the Coliseum should be reduced. Under the new system a gladiator who put up a good fight in the arena might win a prize for a single bout which exceeded the amount that a teacher would earn in a year. If he survived. Indeed, some gladiators are known to have survived long enough to become very rich and retire to live the good life.

Teachers in Ancient Greece and Rome didn’t earn much. Many of them relied on presents of food and other necessities of life from their students to make their way. To some this was a philosophical position, they valued material things very little, being more interested in the things of the mind and giving their students a good education, but it was also a matter about which they had little choice. It was the lot of a teacher. In the ancient world no-one ever got rich being a teacher.

It appears that teachers were not very well paid then as well. It is obvious that they were not very well appreciated nor admired by the general populace who were willing to see gladiators who fought each other to the death in the arena become rich while teachers were often on the edge of starvation. It is another case of a ‘media personality’ being paid very much more than a teacher. Nothing new there, either.

A Teacher’s Life

It is obvious that, in the ancient world, only a truly dedicated person would want to become a teacher. They were threatened and derided by politicians, subject to abuse and violence from their students, disturbed and annoyed by interfering parents and were underpaid and underappreciated.

Doesn’t all this sound very familiar?