What Fire Emblem: Three Houses Gets Right (And Wrong) About Teaching
Like a lot of people who graduate with a degree in English, I assumed the rest of my career would be dedicated to teaching. As it turns out, that was not the case. However, I did teach freshman English courses at multiple colleges for three years and (mostly) loved the experience.
When Nintendo announced Fire Emblem: Three Houses, I was excited, not just because it looked like Fire Emblem was tapping into the ethos of Harry Potter with its Hogwarts-like setting and focus, but also because I was interested in how a video game would try to simulate something as varied and fraught as teaching. Now that I've played 20 or so hours of the game, I've gotten my answer: The game does a pretty job of capturing the highs of teaching and some of the complexities of the teacher-student relationship, but skips over a lot of the bummers and lightning-rod conversations in that profession.
Please understand this article isn't necessarily intended to be a harsh critique or attack on Fire Emblem, a fantasy game, for not adhering to the reality of teaching. Instead, this piece exists because life is long, largely meaningless, and we all need amusements to pass the time.
With that in mind, let's get to it.
What Fire Emblem Gets Right About Teaching
Students Will Doubt You Until You Prove Yourself
A classic staple of the Teacher-Inspires-Youth genre of film (Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, School of Rock) is students don't usually trust their teacher on the first day. So it is in Fire Emblem, with the majority of your house doubting your capabilities because (a) you're more or less the same age as them and (b) students tend to be resentful of authority figures.
As far as cliches and tropes go, this one is more true to life. At least within the U.S. system of education, teachers rarely teach a class that's the same age as them. At Kennesaw State University, part of my scholarship included two classes each semester of freshman English that I was solely responsible for with minimal oversight. The other graduate assistant teachers and I were four-to-six years older than the students, and that's about as close as the age gap gets, though admittedly there may be exceptions I'm not certain about.
The skepticism from students on the first day is a real thing, especially for freshmen college students. Many of them will often push a teacher's buttons for validation or out of rebellion with jokes or casual disrespect, like talking while the teacher is trying to carry out their lesson. In my (and others) experience, the brunt of skepticism usually comes to an end when you do two things:
1. Kick someone out of the class for making trouble, or effectively shame them for their behavior in front of their classmates to show that, yes, you are capable of punishing them.
2. Demonstrate that you can somehow tailor whatever you're teaching to their interests.
It’s Necessary To Help Them Find Their Way
Students are often in a state of uncertainty in both a general sense as well as their lessons. Part of being a teacher is serving as that guiding light for them when they're grappling with the subject at hand or trying to figure out an avenue of learning they need to take. In my case, that could mean something as simple as giving my student an article or clip to watch that would help them with their assignment to more substantial guidance, such as conversations on how to approach constructing arguments.
Fire Emblem succinctly capture this part of the teaching experience by occasionally giving you conversations with your students relating to the skill classes they're pursuing. For example, Ignatz might be on the path to become a sniper since you're instructing him on archery. He might come to you and ask if he should focus on studying swordplay in order to become an assassin or thief instead. It's a nice, simple mechanic that fits stats-raising and class-building in the context of teaching in a surprisingly accurate fashion.
There Is Never Enough Time
If you've been playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses, then you know there's never enough time for you to do what you want each month. You have to make tough calls about how to spend your limited time. Do you attend seminars? Carry out quests in the monastery and have meals with your students to build up your relationship with them? Or should you head to the battlefield to help them build real-world experience? Maybe you should do none of that. Perhaps it's best for you and your students to rest over the weekend to build up morale.
If you are (or have been) a high school/college student, you can probably relate to how little time the game gives you to do all its offerings. How many times have you had to make tough calls about hanging out with friends or pursuing something fun versus writing a paper under a looming deadline?
Trust me, it's the same experience on the other side of the fence. Devising lesson plans, taking meetings with students, and grading papers devours time like nobody's business. There were mornings where I started grading papers and I wouldn't be finished even as midnight drew near, often unable to maintain much of a social life because of the mountain of work on my desk.
The Foundation Of Knowledge Is Failure
Sometimes in Fire Emblem, your students fail. They'll screw up their lesson, earn no XP, and then feel guilty for not understanding why this has happened. You'll often get a chance to either console or criticize them. Misunderstand your student's personality and pick the wrong option, and they'll just feel worse. However, the right response will restore their morale, giving them another chance to grasp the lesson.
There are different methods to teaching, of course, but my personal belief (and the belief of many other educators) is that teaching is a constant back and forth relationship with your pupils. Often, you need to learn who your students are, what they need to learn to succeed in whatever you're teaching, and how they respond to feedback.
The aforementioned lesson failure in Fire Emblem as well as exams (where students are given a percentage of passing that depends on their efficiency in relevant skills) do a great job in hammering home something teachers in real-life feel all the time: your students are real people with real ambitions, and you want them to succeed. Sometimes they won't. That's a hard thing to witness, especially when they're genuinely trying to learn a lesson.
Luckily, in both real life and in Fire Emblem, teachers often have the power to reassure and guide them toward a second attempt at learning whatever lesson is at hand. Sometimes that success is all the better for the student because of the effort it took to get there.
What Fire Emblem Gets Wrong About Teaching
You Aren't Your Students' Friend
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, your students aren't just students; they're also your friends. That intimacy is almost a required quality for Fire Emblem at this point given that some of the most crushing moments on the battlefield (if you're playing with permadeath on) are made more poignant by the friendships you're building throughout the game. It just wouldn't be Fire Emblem if you weren't close with the cast of characters.
However, in real life, the idea of friendship between a teacher and a student is frowned up and often prohibited by teachers as well the institutions of education that house them. You can be invested in your students' success and want the best for them both in and out of your classroom, but they aren't your friend. Being too close to one student can have consequences for how the rest of the class perceives their education is being handled and is inappropriate in the context of teaching someone since that kind of relationship can interfere with the education process.
That said, teachers befriending former students months or years down the line is pretty common.
Lesson Plans Are A Thing
One of the biggest questions I had about Three Houses' teaching mechanics is how it would handle lesson plans and some of the more meticulous aspects of preparing to teach students. The answer: it doesn't bother. Your lectures and lessons in the game are essentially just you tweaking with stats. In all honesty, it's probably better that way. I can't really envision a way of making sitting behind a desk, fiddling with rubrics and devising in-classroom strategies and homework an enticing gameplay mechanic.
Creating lesson plans can be a fun process depending on how free form your class is and how much control you have over the curriculum, but most of the time they're just sort of a dull, necessary part of teaching.
Every Student Doesn't Start In The Same Place
For RPG gameplay reasons, every student in Three Houses (at least in The Golden Deer House, the best house, obviously) starts on more or less the same footing. Fire Emblem's students have different proficiencies and gifts, as real-life students do, but they're all equally capable in terms of being able to take part in your lesson because of how free-form and individual-focused it is. The instruction segments in Three Houses are more akin to one-on-one tutoring than actual classroom teaching.
In the real world, the odds of getting a classroom where everyone is on equal footing when it comes to tackling the subject matter at hand are astronomically low, especially if you're teaching a general class focused on a required multi-discipline skill like writing or foundational math. This is because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and they come to the subject matter with a different amount of experience than their peers. A student who has the makings of a brilliant essayist might flounder when learning a language or remembering formulas. That's just a fact of life and one of the obstacles both teachers and students often work together to try and overcome.
Fire Emblem, somewhat disappointingly (but understandably) skips over that imbalance in favor of streamlined gameplay.
Warning: necessary spoilers about how Fire Emblem: Three Houses handles romance in its endgame below.
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, you cannot date your students. You can, however, flirt with them. Later on, five years after you've finished instructing them, you can choose to marry one of your former students (though you don't have to). Compared to previous Fire Emblems, romance is much less of a focus in this entry, but at the end of the day, yes, your protagonist can marry one of their former students.
If friendships between teachers and students are frowned upon, I don't think you have to try hard to figure out how academia and the public at large (correctly, I'd say) feels about romantic relationships between students and teachers. Most universities actively discourage the practice, with a large number of schools prohibiting it – and for good reason.
A teacher, simply by being a teacher, holds power over a student. Not only is a romantic relationship unfair to other students of the class as an overt and uncomfortable display of favoritism, but the uneven power dynamic can also lead to systems and choices that encourage harassment and preferential treatment.
So what about relationships with former students? The institutional and cultural disapproval is certainly still there but generally speaking, universities don't have rules in place to regulate or punish teachers' romantic relationships with former students.
Again: Three Houses is a work of fantasy and doesn't necessarily need to abide by the rules of reality. However, personally speaking, the fact that a romance with a former student is treated with the light touch of a rom-com does make me uncomfortable given the real-world stigma attached to that sort of relationship. At the very least, it's pretty distracting and kind of an icky bummer.
The System Doesn't Care About You
In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Garreg Mach Monastery is a tight-knit community supported by a seemingly endless wealth where everything you need to perform your job is at your fingertips. You don't ever have to worry about not having the resources you need to teach your students the lessons they need to learn. The only thing you ever have to worry about is making poor choices in battle or managing your time.
In reality, budget cuts continue to slash away and threaten the meager funds that instructors and facility managers have at their disposal to educate students. A common and true story you'll hear is of teachers having to use personal funds from their already small salaries to pay for necessary classroom items like pencils and bulletin boards.
In a game filled with dragons and magic, perhaps the biggest, most soul-crushing fantasy at the heart of Three Houses is the idea education is valued in any way whatsoever by the powers that be. Bummer.