Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Learning to Teach

I want to become a good teacher. I mean, a really good teacher.

I’ve had some great teachers myself. So I know what they can mean to a person. I want to do what they did as well as I can. In some ways, I’ll never equal the best of them. But in other ways, I’m convinced, I can do as much or more.

Something else I’ve become convinced of is the simple fact that although good teaching begins with mastery of the field of study, it doesn’t end there. Someone once said of Yogi Berra, “He knows more about baseball than anyone else; it’s too bad he can’t tell anyone else.”

I want to know and be able to tell. In my experience on the receiving end of instruction, mastery of a subject does not necessarily translate into great teaching. It helps, of course. But it’s no guarantee. Some of my greatest teachers would have been considered lightweights at professional meetings. Other people were presenting the academic papers and publishing the articles. But my best teachers knew how to bring what they learned to the classroom. That knowledge did not seem to depend on the relative merit of their academic credentials or publishing careers.

What I probably need to focus on is not more knowledge (although that wouldn’t hurt, and I have plenty of room for improvement there). Instead, what I want to do is to refine my method. Better yet, I want be refined as a person who knows how to really teach.

So, towards that end one of my current questions is, How can students be led to care about, be interested in, and think with a biblical text? One way, of course, is for them to become involved with the text it in some way. That idea is the genesis of what follows.

I was preparing to give an overview of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Taking my cue from something that Luke Johnson says in his book “The Writings of the New Testament,” I came up with a short assignment that served as the beginning of the class session. Each student was given a copy of what follows:

Imagine for a minute that one of your close friends, a guy named George, has been duped. He’s young, perfectly healthy, and has no problems breathing. But a medical-equipment salesman, with all the fervor of a fiery preacher, has sold him a respirator. “It’s the only way to really breathe, George!” the salesman had told him.

Of course, you realize that there are people who really need a respirator; sometimes people depend on them to live. George doesn’t begin to fall into that category. But whenever he’s at home, he connects himself to his respirator. He doesn’t like to leave it, but he will venture out of the house now and then, only if he takes his oxygen bottle. (The oxygen bottle was sold to him by another salesman who heard about George and pegged him for a sucker).

All of this is completely ridiculous. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. But it is tragic. It’s ruining George’s life. You have decided that enough is enough. Although you know longer live in the same state as George, you want to do what you can to help him. So you decide to write him a letter. What would you write?

Once the students wrote for about 5 minutes, I let them volunteer to read their letters to George. Some of them were pretty funny. And we had a lively discussion about the kinds of things George needed to hear.

I have no idea if the exercise helped the students to better understand Paul and the Galatians and the “judaizers” and the rhetoric of the letter. I hope it did, and I certainly don’t think it hurt. If things like this can help, then I want to come up with other interesting ideas and methods for leading people to encounter the texts for themselves, and not merely hear about the texts from me.

I’m writing up this little report to ask for your feedback on any or all of it. This teacher wants to learn. What do you think? What can you tell me?


kendanley said...

Dear George:
Where were you when I was promoting a business opporunity moving magnetic health and wellness products that would make us both healthy and wealthy?

James said...

I think it sounds like a great idea, nothing quite so educational as relating something biblical to something we can more tangibly relate, too.

Poor George, he must be marked by every travelling salesperson out there. I wonder if he might interested in this really great bridge I know is for sale.