The Key Trait of Successful Teachers

We all find ourselves in teaching situations, from the more structured platforms of the podium or pulpit to the more casual contexts of Bible study or even conversation. So how do we model Christ in our teaching? Is there a Christian way to teach?

Whenever Christian is used as an adjective, misconceptions arise. For instance, Tom Scovel, in his article “What is a Christian Language Teacher?” tells of a cobbler in John Calvin's congregation who, when identified as a Christian, was sarcastically asked if he made Christian shoes. The cobbler replied that no, he didn't make Christian shoes, but rather, made shoes well.

Similarly, in order to be a good teacher, you don't have to be a Christian. But you must model Christian principles. For Christianity is not just a religion, or some compartmentalized facet of existence. Rather, it testifies to reality itself, the true nature of all that exists. So when we teach according to Christ's example, we teach more effectively. As such, we shouldn't be surprised when sincere secular sources echo biblical assertions. For instance, in the book What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain concludes after much observation, research, and analysis that humility is crucial to good teaching. He found that unsuccessful teachers trade this trait for arrogance and pride. They desire to be “the star of the show,” working to impress students with their expertise and knowledge, all the while instilling in students a sense of insecurity at their own informational deficit. Ultimately this constructs a hierarchy of subservience with the teacher on the top and the students on the bottom, a comprehensive contrast to the model of Christ but quite in line with that of Pharisees.

This approach suffers one of the greatest miseries of pride, crippling the faculty for joy. For such pride desires nothing in and of itself, but only the admiration that possessing some coveted thing will bring. Teachers of this sort forfeit the love of learning for the love of being learned. They cannot impart love of the subject matter to the students entrusted to their care, for they themselves have lost it.

On the other hand, here is Bain's composite picture of successful professor:

With that trust and openness came an unabashed and frequently expressed sense of awe and curiosity about life, and that too affected the relationships that emerged. It appeared most frequently and prominently in people who had a sense of humility about themselves and their own learning. They might realize what they knew and even that their own knowledge was far greater than that of their students, but they also understood how much they didn't know and that in the great scheme of things their own accomplishments placed them relatively close to their students.

A professor who teaches well approaches students with humility and vulnerability, realizing that man-made merits pale in comparison to the great reality. Bain's description resonates well with the method of seminary professor Howard Hendricks, who states that, “I, as a teacher, am primarily a learner, a student among students.” A good teacher must always be learning, a process best facilitated by a natural wonder and reverence for the world around us. Christian teachers, in particular, are called to cultivate an awe of creation, as all the universe was made through Christ and, even now, he sustains each aspect of its very existence (Col. 1:16-17). In contrast to prideful professors, Christ delights in the knowledge of his creation, and he willingly forfeited his superlative status to walk among us in it. Philippians 2:5-7 exhorts us to follow his example:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

In his book Teaching to Change Lives, Hendricks recalls an encounter with one of his own professors who models well the humble service of Christ. The professor's habit of studying both early in the morning and late into the night piqued Hendricks's curiosity. When he asked his professor about this practice, the professor replied, “Son, I would rather have my students drink from a running stream than a stagnant pool.” In the same way that Scovel's account conjures up images of the faithful cobbler searching out the best materials for his shoemaking, this story brings to mind scenes of the committed professor searching through libraries for the finest information to present to his students.

Therefore, out of reverence for Christ, let us also teach in a Christian way. That is to say, let us teach in a way that corresponds with the true nature of the universe made and sustained by Jesus Christ. Reality mandates that pride destroys and humility strengthens. Anyone who recognizes this law can certainly be a good teacher, but Christians should be be the very best teachers. For only Christ can grant us the true humility necessary to count our students more significant than ourselves, preoccupying us with his glory rather than our own.

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