What’s a Teacher?

Odd question from someone who has been earning a living by filling the role the title is all about. It was partially prompted by today’s post on the “Jesus Creed” blog page, and partially stirred by a class I led last evening. The blog post cites Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur’s discovery that lectures are largely ineffective in raising the level of understanding of students. That’s old news for anyone familiar with education research–or for anyone doing the lecturing and daring enough to truly assess its impact. Oh, a good lecturer may entertain or otherwise impress his or her students; but is it effective teaching? That might just be a different question.

Yet virtually all of us of a certain age (if you fit it, you’ll know it) have expectations that are well ingrained when it comes to the “delivery” of information, which we assume to be the equivalent of teaching. Mazur started with the same assumption, and it guided his work for years. If I am a teacher, maybe I had better refresh my thoughts on what I’m supposed to do. So I looked at the definition of teaching (on the Merriam-Webster app on my iPhone, of course–at least it wasn’t Wikipedia), where I encountered a few options, beginning with, “to cause to know something.” Goodness, I gave up the pretension of being the first cause of anything other than my occasional stupidity a long time ago. Let’s keep trying. “To cause to know how.” Not much better; same problem in thinking we can cause this sort of result, much as we’d like to. Similarly, “to cause to know the disagreeable consequences of some action.” Well, we do have grade books.

But then there are more agreeable options:”to accustom to some action or attitude;” or, “to guide the studies of,” “to instruct by precept, example, or experience.” By extension, a teacher would then be someone who does these things—accustoms, guides, and instructs. That seems far more to be the case with all of those most of us recall as teachers. We remember these verbs and think of instances of their display when we think of our teachers; we do not think of their lectures. We may recall that they were particularly engaging when they did lecture, but probably not what they said. They may even have been perfectly awful at the podium, but provided guidance nonetheless.

I mention this because of a class in which we were discussing the nature and purpose of mankind as implied in the second chapter of Genesis. What we noted (and I do mean the plural here) was that humans, as the image-bearing creature of God (icons) were set in the world to go about the task of creating, exploring, developing, growing, healing, naming, describing, etc. The eureka moment came in recognizing that each of these activities is a godly activity, and that to know how to do each and every creative task well, we need to know the one in whose image we are made, and who created us for this purpose. In other words, everybody needs good theology.

I can’t tell him many lectures I’ve given in attempts to impress upon students this very simple truth of our common need for theology; and I always had high hopes for the results (teachers are an optimistic lot). It occurred to me later, however, that God is the pattern of the teacher as well as of any other endeavor. And He gave few lectures, but was always there to accustom, guide, and instruct. After all these years, I think I’m getting the idea.

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4 thoughts on “What’s a Teacher?

  1. Since you put the ball above the net….. what does that then say about preaching? That old vestigial reformation organ?

    I certainly thought that your seminar format was better than your teaching format (not that it was bad), but graduate degree seminar on an elective subject is different than mandate sixth grade public school classroom. Is there a thread in pedagogy here?

    This week I was talking to Dr. Dorsey about my Junior High Girl’s class, twelve vestals sacrificed to the madness of Marty. Girls who never talked as I was briefed.

    In the end I couldn’t stop them from talking. Per our conversation some years ago, pretty much zero knowledge of the canonical narratives. So i used a familiar one, Huram-Abi the King of Tyre’s artificer in that well visited book 1 Chronicles. They never heard of Solomon, didn’t know what the Temple was etc,. I told Dr. Dorsey about my description to them of all of this, and he said he was going to amend my transcripts all to F’s. lol!

    I asked them what would they do if they knew Jesus was going to come to their room tomorrow (one day’s) notice, and then if they had three months. What would they do to their room, how would they prepare?

    At the end of the class one girl asked me if she could summarize, I said sure, her summary of the whole sweep of this was “if i am patient doing the ordinary then I will be able to do the extraordinary, and one example of extraordinary is to raise a child well.” I told her she was the official summarizer for the future.

    I struggle with the evangelical church’s view of teaching/preaching/pedagogy including my own church “keep it simple so they can understand, no three syllable words, don’t stretch them, no unknown words.”

    Keep it ordinary forever.

    You’ll get what you expect, that would be my thread.

    I highly recommend “Waiting For Superman” as a documentary on public education and expectation.

    • I knew this was coming–and whom it would come from.

      Simple answer is that preaching is not (at least it should not be) lecturing. Preaching is proclamation, geared to have the Spirit and listener enagage in a “conversation” of their own as the Word is brought to life. I will not yield on preaching because it is too clearly commended as God’s chosen “foolishness” to reach the world. If we turn it into a lecture we are culpable therefore.

      • One to many, no questions is a lecture, that is preaching 2012 in evangelicalism. You actually did a modest amount of that on any day in the seminary as part of teaching, but that is not all by any means. And as cranky as you are as I told your wife that you treat us like sons and daughters.

        I am not tossing the category of preaching, just what is it is on the table. Did Jesus preach? If he did does it really map to what we do today? I watch nt wright do these 2 minute videos, is that preaching? Few verses are ever quoted, yet I feel that I always get closer to knowing after them.

        When the woman at Starbucks pours her coffee on her laptop and my son and I quietly pray for her, buy her another coffee, and when she leaves tell her we will pray for her presentation she told us she must give.

        Are we preaching?

  2. Thanks, Ken. Very, very good stuff here. My thinking… Whether preaching or teaching… the methodologies employed, at least by me, are determined primarily by the number of participants and the kind of classroom… the assumptions one brings to the task seem to be the critical factor. Are the participants empty vessels to be filled with knowledge? Or experienced individuals who already know things and are interested in connecting what the have learned to the learning of others? Are they passive recipients of information? Or are they active learners who are willing to engage in the difficult task of creating or integrating knowledge? Are they primarily auditory learners? Or are they wanting…even if they don’t realize it yet… to utilize all of their senses in the learning process? Are they looking toward one person to unlock all of this for them? Or do they see each other as simultaneously fellow learners and fellow teachers? It is the latter of these choices that has characterized the mission of those in adult learning theory for the past generation… and it’s time we give them more heed, not only for more effective teaching and learning, but also for better character development among those of us who dare to teach. :)

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