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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