Wednesday, May 28, 2014

being a better teacher

Is the PPP teaching method old fashioned?
Image from

I spend a lot of time learning. As a result, I also spend quite a bit of time teaching what I am learning. It is a natural cycle, I believe. As one who teaches in many different settings (casual, formal, sacred and secular), I am frequently thinking about what is called a teaching philosophy. This is a statement which sets forth one's basic values, priorities, and methods for helping people to encounter, embrace, and hopefully embody something new. Most of my teaching philosophy operates at an unconscious level as I make choices based on my goals in a teaching/learning situation, but I regularly pause to consider questions such as which method will be most effective and what material do I present and what do I leave out. 

This week I came across a quote from biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman and it made me stop and think back on my experience to see if it was true. Good writing makes one do that. It also made me take another look at my teaching philosophy to see if I reflect the value of encounter. In principle, I believe I do, but this was a great reminder about where to put my emphasis as a teacher. Though Brueggeman is speaking mostly about a church context, I believe what he says applies to other settings as well. Go ahead, Walter:

If you ask almost any adult about the impact of church school on his or her growth, he or she will not tell you about books or curriculum or Bible stories or anything like that. The central memory is of the teacher, learning is meeting. That poses problems for the characteristically American way of thinking about education for competence even in the church. Meeting never made anybody competent. Surely we need competence, unless we mean to dismantle much of our made world. But our business is not competence. It is meeting. We are learning slowly and late that education for competence without education as meeting promises us deadly values and scary options. And anyway, one can't become "competent" in morality or in Bible stories. But one can have life-changing meetings that open one to new kinds of existence. 

Pretty good stuff, right? I love the idea of learning is meeting. In a course I taught this past winter at the university, I designed it so that students would "meet" at least 13 different figures in the history of Christian Spirituality (and I used that exact terminology). My hope was that at least one of these historical figures would be someone the students found interesting or someone they could identify with in some way. I knew that once they met someone and became curious about their life, the student would be drawn into that world and begin to learn about the subject beyond a surface level.

But wait, Mr. Brueggeman has more to say:

Our penchant for control and predictability, our commitment to quantity, our pursuit of stability and security - all this gives us a sense of priority and an agenda that is concerned to reduce the element of surprise and newness in our lives. And when newness and surprise fail, there is not likely to be graciousness, healing, or joy. Enough critics have made the point that when experiences of surprise and newness are silenced in our lives, there is no amazement, and where this is no amazement, there cannot be the full coming to health, wholeness, and maturity.

Thanks, Walter. I love the connection he makes between amazement and wholeness. We are not built for comfort, but for wonder. We are not built primarily for competence but for maturity. We are not meant to control but to experience newness and wonder every day of our lives. We are learners who learn by meeting. What do people learn when they meet you? I hope and pray that people learn about wonder, joy, graciousness, transformation, love, and grace when they meet me. And when they don't, I take a deep breath, embrace confession and forgiveness on both ends, and hope and pray that I never stop learning how to be a better teacher.

Quote from Walter Brueggeman, Living Toward a Vision (New York: United Church Press, 1987), 167-71.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

Interesting stuff. I recently took a course in Spiritual Direction, where the focus is on our personal connections with God. Then last time I taught in church I found myself reading over my material and asking myself - where do I, and where do they, connect with God in this? Where is the heart connection in what I am saying? It is like looking for the opportunity to meet him in this.