In a letter of 22 February 1824 to the Reverend John Tucker, written four years before he became headmaster at Rugby, Thomas Arnold's comments about his attitude towards his students at Lakeham and his activities on behalf of the poor explains a good deal why people so revered him as an educational leader and moral and spiritual reformer. First, Arnold, who believed a teacher should be very close to his students, explains:
My pupils all come up into the drawing-room a little before tea, and stay for some time, some reading, others talking, playing chess or backgammon, looking at pictures, &c. — a great improvement if it lasts; and if this fair beginning continues, I care not a straw for the labour of the half year, for it is not labour but vexation which hurts a man, and I find my comfort depends more and more on their good and bad conduct. They are an awful [i.e. awesome] charge, but still to me a very interesting one, and one which I could cheerfully pursue till my health or faculties fail me. 
This letter makes clear several points about the famous educator's attitude toward his students, the first of which is how much his "comfort depends more and more on their good and bad conduct" and the second of which is how much time he willingly devoted to that improvement. Third, unlike many Evangelicals inside and outside the church of England with a puritanic streak, Arnold did not try to improve his students by having them read religious tracts or leading them to intense religious experiences, such as religious conversion. No, this very devout man was happy to begin the process of improvement with religiously neutral activities, such as games, as long as it kept them out of trouble. As one of the assistant-masters at Ruby points out near the end of Tom Brown's Schooldays, Arnold carries out reform with tact and patience. "That's the way that all the Doctor's reforms have been carried out when he has been left to himself — quietly and naturally, putting a good thing in the place of a bad, and letting the bad die out; no wavering, and no hurry — the best thing that could be done for the time being, and patience for the rest" [Part II, Chapter 8, "Tom Brown's Last Match"].
In the same letter to Tucker — in fact, in the very next sentence — Arnold shows that he holds adults, particularly himself, to a higher standard, for he explains to his friend,
I have now taken up the care of the Workhouse, i. e., as far as going there once a week, to read prayers and give a sort of lecture upon some part of the Bible. I wanted to see more of the poor people, and I found that, unless I devoted a regular time to it, I should never do it, for the hunger for exercise on the part of myself and my horses, used to send me out riding as soon as my work was done; whereas now I give up Thursday to the village, and it will be my own fault if it does not do me more good than the exercise would. 
Here Arnold adds another touch to his self-portrait, for we learn not only of his practical devotion to helping the poor but also his willingness to sacrifice his own pleasures and that some of those pleasures involved a great "hunger" for athletic activities. This letter, so packed with important information about Arnold, doesn't end here. He goes on to relate how a vacation visit to Scotland got "rid of some of his prejudices" (75), his pleasure in renewing his "acquaintance with the English lakes, and with Wordsworth" (75), and his happiness that Parliamentary action was ending slavery in the West Indies (76).
Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., late head-master of Rugby school, and regius professor of modern history in the University of Oxford. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: B. Fellowes, 1845.
Last modified 7 July 2006