On good teaching

October 9, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Well, it’s fall, or as it’s known in my psyche: school season. By now, school, university, and Sunday School are well underway in all their educational glory (as in this photo, found here), and I’ve not only been doing some learning and teaching, but also thinking about the significance of these ubiquitous activities. As the child of two teachers and someone who wants to be a professor myself one day, it’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit.

It would be easy to assume that theology, being such an inspired discipline, would be immune to the kinds of petty squabbles and harsh teaching tactics which plague other university disciplines. Well, no such luck, I’m afraid. Though many of the professors I’ve had have been wonderful teachers, these kinds of problems make their way into theology departments, too – almost as if for some of the professors, the material they’re teaching has no bearing on how they teach or how they view and treat their students. But, as someone who believes that faith should guide all aspects of our lives, and who applies the Mennonite peace tradition to daily life, this just doesn’t sit right with me. As I see it, teaching shouldn’t involve abusing your power over others. So I’ve come up with a little list of things I’d like to avoid repeating in my own attempts at teaching:

1. Don’t try to shame students into learning.

Oh, when the competitiveness of academia really gets going, so does the shaming! Some professors are obviously still convinced that humiliating students and highlighting any and all mistakes they might make are the best ways to impart their (clearly superior) knowledge to their students. For starters, this creates a profoundly disrespectful, ego-centred atmosphere in the classroom, and if this article is right, it places added pressures on students already feeling stressed or even depressed by their university experience. The best teachers and profs I’ve had are those who have encouraged me while challenging me, valued my ideas and contributions, and fostered the same tone among students during class discussions. In an ecumenical context such as the one I’m in now, this is crucial, since with half a dozen denominations represented around the table, there clearly won’t be just one “right” answer to any given question!

2. Don’t be threatened by difficult questions.

This one’s related to the previous one. For those profs who enjoy having absolute power over a classroom full of students, any deviation from his or her lecture or class agenda is seen as a threat instead of a novel contribution. I remember a few times when a prof has, disappointingly, dismissed a question because he or she clearly found it too difficult. But it’s very strange, especially in university, if students are passed over like this precisely at those moments when they put all those critical- and independent-thinking skills into practice! After all, even a certain teacher named Jesus was willing on at least one occasion to be corrected by one of his followers, reacting to her words with encouragement, not disdain (Mark 7:24-30; Matt. 15:21-28).

3. Don’t underestimate your students.

Again, this is the corollary of the point above (okay, okay, all of my points are related). If students are coming up with difficult questions, it may be a sign that a prof is oversimplifying the material, based on the assumption that his or her students can’t handle the complexity of the issue at hand. As I see it, this is yet another way of being condescending toward one’s students, or of not taking the time to figure out what their thoughts and concerns are. Part of being a good teacher, as I stated above, is to challenge students in an encouraging kind of way, to push them gently beyond what they know; in short, to broaden their minds and stretch them to, well, learn new things. So I’m not saying that I’d like my classes to be love-ins where anything anyone comes up with is declared great; that’s just dishonest. I’m saying that learning doesn’t have to be a traumatic experience – and it’s up to good teachers to both inform and affirm, challenge and encourage.

Though I’m speaking about a university context, I think these ideas are relevant elsewhere, too, especially in the church, which is, after all, the place where most of us learn about theology. Incidentally, I also think there are lessons here on how to be a good student, since students can also get caught up in the competitiveness of the university, and attempt to use their knowledge against other students or even profs. And though I’ve only touched briefly on it, I find it fascinating to think about Jesus as a teacher, something which isn’t so strange given that many of his disciples called him Rabbi, which means teacher. So, I leave you with these questions to ponder: what other aspects of good teaching might be found in the biblical narratives about Jesus’ ministry? And what do they tell us about the multiple ways we teach and learn as part of our lives of faith?

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