Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Teaching Christianly"

I've served as an adjunct instructor at Dordt College for the past five years, teaching a course in elementary and middle school science methods for education majors. A few semesters back, our classroom conversation turned to whether or not there is such a thing as "Christian teaching." Ever the philosopher, I was intrigued by the fact that my students were the ones who brought up the topic.

One student in particular was affronted by the idea--as if there was such a thing as a "Christian" way to teach! He asked, "Is there a "Christian" way to do anything? Is there a "Christian" way to smoke a cigarette?" (Good question, that.) That got the rest of the class thinking pretty critically about what we really mean by "Christian teaching" or "Christian education." Class consensus was that there is such a thing as "teaching Christianly," but no one could really articulate exactly what that meant.

We clearly said what it isn't:
- It's not just having devotions, chapel, Bible class and the like.
- It's not just quoting scripture every few minutes.
- It's not just taking prayer breaks throughout the school day.
- It's not just using a sprinkling of "God talk" in every lesson you present.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong or un-Christian about these things; in fact, we agreed that we would expect many of these things to happen in Christian schools.

Then, my insightful student who had stirred the pot so perfectly asked the Magic Question: "Can you 'teach Christianly' in a public school?" (Ooooo! I love it! Magic Questions = Messy Questions!) I turned the question back to the class.

Again, there was clear consensus that you can, in fact, "teach Christianly," even in a public school setting, but no one was entirely clear how that might happen.

After quite a lot of debate and discussion, I suggested we might think of it as a matter of perspective: perhaps "teaching Christianly" has more to do with our intent, our approach, our heart. If we are striving to be Christlike in our approach to classroom management, to unit and lesson planning, to interacting with students/parents/colleagues/administrators, to instructional strategies, to assessment and evaluation instruments, to our entire teaching practice, perhaps this is what "teaching Christianly" might look like.*

Our class was ready to take a break, so I let them head out to process these ideas some more for themselves. After the rest of the class had left, my concerned student came up to talk a little more about "Christian Education." He said he had been thinking about this topic a lot over the past year, and he had come to prefer the idea of "Christians in Education."

I just about fell over!

What a perfect way to think about our role as Christians who are also educators! We are Christians in Education. I thanked my student for helping me clarify my own thinking! (Personal belief: if teachers ever stop learning, we had better be ready to look for a new job.)

So that's one big part what I'm thinking about as I look forward to my new role as an Instructor of Education--helping my students think through big questions like: What does it look like to try to "teach Christianly?" How does our identity in Christ affect how we approach our task as educators? What will it mean for us to be Christians in Education?

*In full disclosure, this is not an idea I have fully developed myself; I had the joy of learning from Dr. John Van Dyk in my undergraduate and graduate studies, and his work has had a profound influence on my own thinking about authentically, distinctively Christian teaching. See his books, Letters to Lisa and The Craft of Christian Teaching: A Classroom Journey for his thoughts on what this might look like.

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