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Lessons from teaching: In the world

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I get on really well with my students. As I was describing my interactions with them to a friend and colleague a few weeks back, he told me I seemed to be “one of the lads”: jokes are exchanged gladly (so long, of course, as they are not distracting from learning for too long!); I try and share their interests, and they return the favour: some have even started to follow Stoke City!

Of course, even when trying to build a very close rapport with my students, I remain at all times their teacher. I am called on to both teach them mathematics and to bring order to the classroom. Depending on the class, balancing a relaxed atmosphere and effective teaching may be a difficult line to walk: if the students don’t have the maturity to understand that having a “nice” teacher does not excuse them from both behaving and doing the required work, things are going to go sour quickly. Either I would have to put my foot down (which is extremely difficult to do after a time of relative laxity), or the class would descend into mayhem, and I would no longer have any authority. Thankfully, this year, I had really great students who could get on both with me and my horrible puns, and with their work.

Building a good rapport is both enjoyable and a worthy end in itself; but it is also extremely important for other reasons. Firstly, it makes the lessons far more enjoyable – for teacher and students alike! Secondly, it supports learning and lets students feel they can come forward and ask questions without feeling out of place.

lft-intheworld

Photo: Wikimedia user Dmvward, under CC license

As Christians, we have heard on a variety of occasions that we should be “in the world, but not of the world”. Yet it seems like liberals insist on being in the world and are criticised for following its whims; while conservatives insist on being not of the world, on living lives without associating with improper behaviours, etc. Of course, these are wild exaggerations. Not everyone is either a frantic liberal or a stuck-up conservative; most fall somewhere in the middle.

But rather than being “in the world, but not of the world”, we tend to go from one to the other: intensely “in the world” on a Thursday evening and “not of the world” on a Sunday morning; or conversely. Alternatively, we are “in the world” when it comes to stewardship of the world, but “not of the world” when it comes to approaches to sexuality (or, again, conversely). But we rarely comprehend it, let alone live it out. And this is where the analogy from teaching comes in:

  • Not being of the world is, at its core, a matter of identity. Being the teacher in all circumstances, even through the jokes. Being Christian at our innermost, regardless of what we discuss or what we do. That identity appears in all our interactions.
  • That identity stems from authority – an authority we must be confident in. Teachers know that students will exploit the slightest hesitation – and once that happens, we have pretty much lost the classroom, and must hide behind an authority we do not hold.
  • That authority comes from without. Behind every teacher, the school institution and the parents are there to support and when necessary discipline the students. We have to remember that we are not going it alone, that we are in fact sent out to be salt for the world, and that we are equipped and supported in our endeavours.
  • Being in the world does not mean looking down on it from lofty mountain tops. It does not mean simply going to soup cafés (although that is worthy on other accounts!), it does not mean Bible-bashing the downcast. It means investing a true interest in the things they are interested in. It means true empathy with all.
  • Still, being in the world does not imply partaking in all its dubious activities. Engaging with people does not turn us into yes men! Rather, we ought to remain on our guard and make sure we are not using “being in the world” as an excuse for simply doing whatever we want.

“In the world, not of the world” does not mean detachment. It does not mean workplace evangelism – because our faith goes beyond evangelism! It means living out Christian lives, truly caring for those around us and getting to really know them, their lives and their dreams.

Lessons from teaching: fairness

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So I’ve now been teaching for a few months. I know, scary thought, right? And it is a steep learning curve, for sure – both in terms of actual teaching strategies and in terms of learning about human nature: children are much more direct and speak from the heart more easily than grown-ups. Here are a few things I gleaned while teaching.

lft-fairness

Photo: Wikimedia user Dmvward, under CC license

1. The potter/clay argument will only be grudgingly accepted. As a teacher, I am given full authority to give detention or extra work, etc.; and that authority is (mostly) accepted, but there are still claims that I’m being unfair.

2. Complete fairness requires complete knowledge. If I don’t know who was talking, or who threw a paper ball at me (oh, but I will find out), I am in no position to hand out detention for it. But what this also means is that I cannot be the judge of someone else’s fairness without having the same information that they have.

3. Rules are a good support for behavioural improvement. If students aren’t aware that they’re not meant to throw pens to each other, they will most likely do it at some point.

4. Equally, the absence of explicit rules is no excuse for all forms of misbehaviour: there is an intimate knowledge that some forms of behaviour (e.g., fighting, talking out loud, etc.) are not acceptable. Not being told about the specifics of these rules does not mean there should be no consequence to physical violence in the classroom.

5. As a figure of authority, I am expected to intervene and be the judge in all situations – even those I have nothing to do with (a previously allegedly stolen pen, for instance). There is a natural yearning for judgement

6. Forgiveness is an alien concept to the human mind. Especially when it concerns others. Students often think others should be punished (though they don’t always go to the lengths of telling on them) – after all, why should they put in the effort if others can cruise by? Yet even when it’s about themselves, rather than thinking they are forgiven, students think that they are being let off or that they just got lucky. While it is sometimes the case that I didn’t catch them misbehaving, there are clear cases of deliberate forgiveness.

7. People had rather everyone were punished than everyone be left off the hook. Some of my students have told me I was being too nice, including to them! Does that mean we are all deeply aware of our fallen nature?

5 ways we can learn from children

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This is the first guest post on this blog! It’s written by my friend Dorian. He is a kids worker at a North London church and studying Applied Theology with Moorlands college. In his spare time he enjoys recreational mathematics (don’t we all?), and usually mixes up American and British spelling. If you’d like to contribute a guest post, get in touch at contact@edsslipper.net

Theologians have given lots of different opinions about what Jesus meant when he said “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it“. Most of them have talked about the importance of imitating certain childlike qualities; and interestingly, they usually talk about the importance of imitating the qualities that society of the day finds desirable in a child.

chalkboard

Rather than debating over which child-like qualities Jesus might have been talking about, I suggest actually learning from the children themselves. Here are five ways I’d suggest we can do so:

1. Learning as you teach children.

In order to pass on knowledge, you must first know what you wish to pass on! I’ve found that teaching in Kids church is a great way to to really learn yourself. The preparation needed to speak on a passage in a way that is both meaningful and simple enough for kids to understand is a challenging and rewarding way to learn.

Ok, so technically this isn’t learning directly from children, but it is seeking to learn as you teach. which brings us to:

2. Learning from the questions children ask

A good teacher lets their pupils ask questions, and children are great at asking. Children don’t have as much of a developed world-view as adults, so they are much quicker to notice discrepancies between teachings and actions, and ask questions that adults are afraid to ask.

Check out the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17: all of Israel was encamped against the Philistine army, but were too terrified to move against them. David, acting as a delivery boy for his brothers spots what’s going on, and asks the question “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” David, the youngest son of Jesse, had seen how the way the Israelite army was behaving, i.e. cowering in fear, was contrary to their belief that God himself went before the army to guarantee their victory.

By their questions children can have a prophetic voice, challenging the practices of the church, and pointing out where teachings don’t match up with actions, often because adults have become desensitized to the message.

Don’t be afraid of the questions children ask, but be willing to be challenged, and be willing to seek answers and learn.

3. Listening to their faith

Children often have a simple, yet powerful faith that adults can learn from. Check out 2 Kings 5. A important general was plagued by leprosy, and it was the passing comment of his wife’s Israelite servant girl that eventually led to his healing. This girl’s simple faith statement: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” was listened to and acted upon, which ended up influencing the fate of entire nations, and bringing this general to know the Lord.

Children aren’t afraid to say what they know to be true. Neither should we be.

4. Learn from their mistakes

The Bible frequently calls believers in Christ “children of God”, and in a lot of ways our behaviour toward God is very childish.

One time when I was working in an orphanage, two girls had been taken out of their families and placed in our care. They had been in the children’s home for a very short time, when one night, during a thunderstorm they ran away. Thankfully the next morning they were found, though shivering cold and soaked to the bone.

I was quick to judge these girls, wondering why on earth they would run away from a place of safety and protection, into the darkness and a town they didn’t know, and during a thunderstorm no less! But the more I reflected on this incident, the more I began to see my relationship with God in a new light. How many times have I run away from Him, seeking my own way rather than the safety and protection He provides? These girls showed me how important it is to trust God, even when I don’t know what’s going on, and reminded me to repent for the times I have tried to live life by my own rules rather than His.

5. Learn from how children receive grace

The flip side of the story I just told, is how the two girls came accept the orphanage as their home. Even though they messed up big-time when they ran away, they realized that they were forgiven, and then sought with open arms to receive all the orphanage gave them. An adult who has been given a meal would want to repay this, either with money at restaurant, or by a gift or with reciprocity if invited round to a friend’s for dinner. But children usually aren’t able to repay what is given to them.

We could never repay our parents, or whoever in our childhood were the important adult figures were, for all the time effort and love they poured into raising us. And we could never repay our heavenly Father for the gifts he has lavished on us, especially not Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Instead, we are asked to freely receive his abundant grace, and live as best we can to the way he taught us. Children can show us how to accept a gift freely given.

If you want to know what Jesus meant we he said we should receive the Kingdom of God like a child, then I encourage you to spend time with children! Volunteering to help with Kid’s Church (or Sunday School, Kidz Klub, or whatever it’s called at your church) is one really great way to grow in your faith. Just remember that as much as you go to teach and serve, you also go to learn how to receive God’s Kingdom as a child.

A calling to the obvious

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Calling to “the ministry” seems fairly narrow from the outside. But think of a “vocation to teach”, for instance. Yes, it is already a specific calling, but from the inside, there is a very wide range of practices included in teaching.

For instance: what level are you called to teach? Will you teach Special Needs? What will you teach? Where? And far more importantly, why do you want to teach?

The job descriptions limit these questions in no small way. Depending on where you are employed, you will end up a maths teacher in charge of 11-12 year-old students, in a school where pastoral care is entirely the prerogative of someone else. I ended up teaching* measure theory to 3rd year undergrads. As part of this job, there is an amount of things I am required to do. It wouldn’t do to let anyone leave the room without a firm grasp on what is countable or not.

But the mistake, spelled out clearly in all books on ministry that I have read, would be to try and fit my calling into a job description. When I was teaching measure theory, I saw my mission as going further than simply getting the kids (yes, 3rd year undergrads are kids) to know how the axiom of choice leads to the existence of non-measurable sets (and, later, to Banach-Tarski paradox). Some see their mission as awakening the kids to the beauty of maths; I saw mine as allowing them to grow at their own pace, and feel at home with these beautiful concepts. And to get them through exams.

The Devil’s Staircase (I knew I could mix maths and theology somehow) – source: Wikipedia user Gargan, reused under CC license

Yet even as I write these words, I am restricting what my vocation was (in the context of undergrad teaching) to an outcome. To “doing” something. But it was far more than that, it was more than a job. It was, very much, creating ties with my students, allowing them to be themselves with me; and that was something that felt very natural (even though not every teacher is doing it).

That’s the issue I get when trying to articulate my calling to ordained ministry. I start by looking at the parts of ordained ministry that are in the job description (attending PCC meetings, giving sermons, leading and presiding worship, pastoral care, etc.). Yes, all that will be part of what I’ll be called to do; but it shouldn’t be my starting point in articulating my ministry. It should be what my calling later slots into.

Where it gets tricky, is that what I am called to is very deeply rooted in me. So much so that it feels natural, to the point that it seems wrong to spell it out. It feels wrong because, surely, everybody would agree with it, and it barely needs pointing out. So how do I identify the nature of my calling? Through conversation. Through discerning what is shared with everyone from what belongs to my calling.

Last Thursday, I engaged in conversation on whether helping the poor should include teaching them how to use the help – whether, to cut a long conversation short, financial support could be given to people without at the same time teaching them that grocery shopping should come before large screen TVs. I was passionately on the side that support should be unconditional (but that the offer to help should also include, as an option, that teaching). Because of many reasons, but mostly because I am passionate about letting people “come as they are”, and about allowing them to grow at their own pace, in an environment that welcomes them.

See, I thought that everybody would see the value in this approach. Because I thought it was self-evident, because I ended up hanging out with people who share this value.  And I thought failures to allow people  to come as they are, especially in the Christian context, were down to practical contingencies, to our fallen nature, and to limits to our own efforts. I was, clearly, wrong in that.

But talking with others about these things, on a side issue, has allowed me to identify this as a key aspect of my calling. Now I can start to reverse the discernment process from trying to see what aspects of the job fit with who I am, to seeing how these aspects of my calling (these things that feel self-evident to me) can be grown in the job descriptions; and why ordained ministry resonates with that and why I then have that calling.

Do you want to learn about measure theory? Let me know! :)

What are you called to? (we all have a calling, whether in the ministry or not!)

How do you discern your calling?

*I’m using teaching in a loose sense. I  was leading example classes/seminars.

A culture of consequences

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Many times, I’ve heard people in a position of authority incentivise obedience by explaining what would happen if rules weren’t followed.
Many times, I’ve seen adverts against fraud (either on trains, or tax fraud) focus on the risks that are taken.
A few times, I’ve talked to deliberate fare dodgers who told me that, given the frequency of inspections, they were better off paying the fine when they got caught than if they always paid their fare.

Deal with the consequences?

Image credit: psgreen01 reused under CC license

Living with the consequences of our actions is something we are all taught from a very young age.
Recompenses are built into a societal model where one gets what they deserve, and where that’s what’s right.
The Bible does not speak of right, or of entitlements. It only speaks of duties and of facts.
Receiving the love of God is not conditional on following a set of rules.

No, we did not deserve grace; nor do we deserve salvation, but by keeping on pointing this out, we are perpetuating a culture of deserving rather than one that puts love and duties first without thinking of the recompense.

We need to decouple rights and duties, in order to move away from a model where duties are only filled in order to guarantee those rights.
We need to make sure love comes first.

How do you deal with wrongdoings?
How can we teach what’s right without associating it with the consequences of disobedience? Should we?

Can we still marvel at grace in the same way if we lose sight of our own undeserving nature?