Friday, April 29, 2016

On Teaching "Christianly"

It is the end of the semester, and I have students beginning the review process for their final exams. In Intro to Education, this means reflecting on all that they have read and discussed and studied in light of our essential question for the course: "What does it mean to teach 'Christianly?'"

This is a novel concept for some students. Most all of my students would self-identify as Christians, and most all of them are planning on becoming teachers. So they might well wonder, "Why does Mulder make such a big deal about this 'teaching Christianly' stuff?" And I do make a big deal about it in class. While I don't specifically ask that question each week when we meet up, I allude to it often, and I strive to both challenge their thinking through the things we read and discuss as well as model a distinctively Christian approach to teaching when they see me at work in class.

Welcome to Intro to Ed. Image by Dave Mulder [CC BY-SA 2.0]

I don't do this perfectly, of course. I'm still figuring out how to teach Christianly myself. I've been thinking about this for some time now, and I even shared my thoughts about teaching (and living) "Christianly" on this spring. But I am far enough down this path that I am convinced this is the right way to work out my own discipleship within my teaching practice, and I am trying to demonstrate it for my students.

Sometimes I think they are even starting to "get it." :-)

However, I shared with them in our last class that their final exam is going to be just one question...our essential question for the course. I will ask them to write an essay in response to the question, "What does it mean to teach Christianly?" and they should plan to cite sources they have read throughout the semester in the way they frame an answer to that question. Oh, the questions that I've had about this! Most of them are very pragmatic questions about how many sources they should reference, and what they need to include in their paper.

But I have one student--I just love this--who asked if we could talk more about this. In her email to me she wrote: 
Hi Prof. Mulder,
I have been thinking about the Education 101 final paper, and am having doubts about what it is to "teach christianly." To me, it seems that Van Dyk is trying to create such a divide between "secular" and "christian" teaching; however, he writes of "if Christ is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all" (p. 5), so with that logic (and God's omnipresence), then I would argue that there could not be a classroom that is void of God. If God is everywhere, then wouldn't He be in everything, so shouldn't we be able to find Him in the most unexpected places, including in the classrooms and practices of teachers that Van Dyk would call "secular?" 
What do you think? Are these counter-arguments at least a little bit legitimate? I would appreciate any insight(s) you may have regarding the aforementioned matters.

Oh. Man.

I am so glad that she is thinking so deeply about this, and striving to understand. "Van Dyk" here refers to our major text for the class: Letters to Lisa: Conversations with a Christian Teacher by John Van Dyk, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy of Education at Dordt College. He is one of my mentors, who had a hand in shaping so very much of how I think about my role as a Christian educator, and I think so highly of his work.

So, of course, we had a meeting. We talked more about this. She asked great questions: "How would your classroom look different from the teacher down the hall who wasn't trying to "teach Christianly," but was still teaching well? Couldn't you find the same things happening in their classroom as you would in your own?"

Yes, yes you could.

But the reason you would be doing them...that would be very, very different. And I think that difference is essentially important!

I am not sure that our discussion over a half-hour made all the difference for her in how she thinks about teaching Christianly. I know I need to keep thinking about how I can best articulate this idea for my students--how can I help them see what I'm trying to do? How do I make my planning, assessment, and instructional decisions clear to them? How do I express what I'm striving for in my interactions with students and colleagues? How am I practicing loving God and loving others in a very real, practical way?

Honestly, I'm glad she's asking these hard questions as a freshman already. I don't think I was at the point she was, wrestling with how faith impacts practice until I was already in my second or third year as a professional teacher!

This gives me hope, but it also was a good reminder for me that I have to be ready to answer hard questions...and to admit that I don't have this all figured out just yet.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Dave. The student's question are refreshing and encouraging. Tim and I recently talked about the need for our department to have this same kind of frank discussion. Anyway, I often wonder when pushed to really think about this if the "essential difference" is in the why rather than in the what. I don't want to think that it's just WHY, but is that the most significant difference? If so, then the saying "good teaching is good teaching" is probably true. But deep down, I don't think it is. You've got me thinking!

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Ed. I know--I want there to be a significant, tangible difference if I'm truly "teaching Christianly" too, but I haven't figured that out just yet. I'm currently thinking that this has to be the Spirit's work, and not mine; I will be as intentional as possible about *why* I'm doing the things I'm doing...but I also know that without the Spirit at work, my efforts won't really get very far... (Like, at all...)

      We need to keep talking about this, and with our colleagues too!

  2. Here's a quote from John Calvin I found recently in his commentary on 1 Corinthians that may help add to the discussion. In the introduction he says, "The first step towards serving Christ is to lose sight of ourselves, and think only of the Lord's glory and the salvation of men. Farther, no one will ever be qualified for teaching that has not first himself tasted the influence of the gospel, so as to speak not so much with the mouth, as with the dispositions of the heart."

    In teaching Christianly, I think that it has to do much more with the dispositions of the heart than anything else, and I think that Calvin beautifully captures that truth here. The prayer of Christian teachers, in any setting, should be to have the Lord shape the dispositions of their heart in order to best serve the students they teach. In this case, a teacher's discipleship (the reorientation of the heart to love God fundamentally and become the kind of people that live cruciformed lives) will always affect their Christian teaching. Praying the Lord grows us more daily, not just to teach properly, but to live and love rightly to the glory of God and His kingdom.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Cole! I loved reading your reflection on Calvin's thoughts--and I agree with you about heart orientation...that is the central idea for me too!