Good Teaching is...
- 2006 31 Jul
In his classic work on education To Know as We are Known, Parker J. Palmer re-tells the story of Abba Felix. Abba Felix was one of the fourth-century desert fathers. As was the custom of the time, some brothers went to see Abba Felix in the desert and "begged him to say a word to them."
I see a similar picture in my mind of a group of young people climbing up a mountain to see a holy man and asking about the meaning of life. However, in this story instead of giving the young men an answer, Abba Felix is silent. The young men wait but after a while Abba Felix breaks the silence and answers their question with one of his own. "You wish to hear a word?"
"Yes, Abba," the young men said.
"There are no more words nowadays," Abba Felix replies.
He then goes on to explain that in the past when the old men spoke a word, that word was listened to. People did what the old men and women said. But now since the young men "ask without doing, the old men do not find anything to say." Hearing this reply the brothers groaned, and said "Pray for us Abba."1
Several things about teaching come to my mind after hearing this story...
Good teaching doesn't always give an answer
At least not a single answer. This is perhaps why narrative is such a great teacher. Stories aren't always clean. Many Bible stories are messy. They don't have a clean outcome, they end abruptly, and most of them don't say a word about how we are to interpret or apply them. When we tell these stories to children we tend to clean them up a bit, and we should. However, for our youth and college students we need to re-tell these stories and not leave out the messy parts. Life is messy; it doesn't always end nicely. Fairy tales do, but not life. We need to allow the stories of scripture to speak for themselves, and we must resist the temptation to give only one meaning or interpretation to the story. This lack of single meaning doesn't only apply to biblical stories. Look at the story of Abba Felix. It leaves one with almost as many questions as answers.
Good teaching is comfortable with tension
My students get so uptight when someone asks me a tough question. I love the tension. I get excited when something I've said is challenged, especially when I perceive that the person asking the question is honestly seeking. Answering tough questions can be stressful. A lot hangs on the answer; however, good teaching doesn't have to have all the answers (Yes, you read that right - good teaching is not about having all the right answers!). Good teaching requires leaders and a people who are comfortable with a certain amount of anxiety. Being comfortable with tension frees us from always having to be right. There is mystery and wonder associated with our faith, and for too long youth workers have been more "Bible Answer Men" than fellow travelers on the highway of faith.
In speaking of our knowledge of God, John Chrysostom said, "Whatever knowledge we may have, it is still imperfect. How is it that some people claim to have a full and precise knowledge of God? Where God is concerned, we cannot even say just how wrong our perception of Him is."2
Good teaching happens in a safe place
Our youth groups, Bible studies, and small groups need to be places where students feel safe. Not only physically safe - although that is important - but we need to create teaching environments that are emotional harbors which allow our youth to express themselves in non-judgmental or hyper-critical ways.
Good teaching occurs in community
"The authority of scripture derives its intelligibility from the existence of a community that knows its life depends on faithful remembering of God's care of His creation thought the calling of Israel and the life of Jesus."3
Discipleship is truly a communal activity. For too long we have made it an activity of an individual. As much as conservative America hates to admit it, Hillary Clinton is right - it does indeed take a village.
Good teaching creates a place where Truth is practiced
To teach, Parker Palmer says, is to "create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced."4 Good teaching pays attention to truth. I'm not just talking about propositional truth, but personal/relational Truth as well. Propositional truth is important. Good teachers pay close attention to propositional truth. However, personal/relational truth is what good Christian teaching should be after. Our goal is not to fill our students' minds with information, but to create an environment where they can meet and have an encounter with Jesus Christ.
In Finding God at Harvard, Kelly Monroe writes about the Harvard shield. Anyone who has ever seen a Harvard T-shirt, ball cap or notebook has seen that shield. The shield has a Latin word on it, VERITAS. VERITAS is Harvard's Motto. VERITAS is Latin for truth. In 1646 when the motto was adopted, Truth was understood to be not simply facts and figures, VERITAS was also a person. That person was Jesus.5 Good teaching not only passes on propositional truth but creates a place where students can meet and have relationship with the Truth, Jesus!
1 Parker J. Palmer. To Know as We are Known: A Spirituality of Education.
(Harper: San Francisco 1993) pg. 41
2 John Chrysostom. Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 20.3
(NPNS 1 12:112)
3 Stanley Hauerwas. A Community of Character
(University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame 1981) pg. 53
4 Parker pg. 69
5 Kelly Monroe. Finding God at Harvard.
(Zondervan: Grand Rapids 1976) pg 14