Friday, August 8, 2008

What makes a great teacher?

The gears in my tiny noetic apparatus have been spinning... While apocalypticism, hermeneutics, classical Hebrew prophecy, and of course the infamous Son of Man have been weighing deeply upon my mind, I would like to share and query with you regarding something more practical.

I just finished the best class I've ever had. This professor exemplified everything a student could possibly desire, simply masterful pedagogy, engagement with the data, moving through the material in a timely and insightful way, all I can say is WOW. Now I know for sure that someone is actually doing education the way I aspire to, critically, unapologetically honest with the data, and willing to follow the evidence where ever it leads.

What makes a great teacher? Is it charisma? Is it brilliance? How do we measure brilliance? I know one or two of the top tier people in their niche areas, but does that make them the best teachers? In fact, some of the people who write incredible books have pitiful classroom etiquette; conversely, I know of at least one professor who has published extensively in a variety of modalities from popular level to monographs and yet is also likely one of the top teachers in terms of in-class engagement.

As of today my thoughts are:
The Best Teachers/Academics are (in biblical studies):
  1. Individuals committed to analyzing the data from all vantage points fairly. That means being willing to genuinely entertain, critique, and valuate each argument on its own merits (regardless of the religious implications). The best example of the mentality not to have (an anecdotal quote no less) is one that "my beliefs are battle-tested, unshakable..." (yes, I actually read that somewhere). All this signals is fundamentalism, which at base is no different that hardened liberalism which refuses to entertain anything remotely orthodox (whatever orthodox means).
  2. Committed to the highest quality scholarship and desirous not "to put the cookies on the lower shelf" (I hate that expression). Students should be taken deeper, pushed further than they can go, stretched farther than they can stretch---this in my estimation is real learning.
  3. Intentionally push viewpoints contrary to the normative student body's theological orientation. If you don't teach people to think, they will wind up losing their faith because no one had the nerve to be honest. If, in the face of the data, they choose to walk away from faith---so be it. Nothing is more aggravating that the tired rhetoric of pseudo-"pastoral" protection by educators who choose not to entertain the hard questions. When professors are known only to tow the party line and fail to engage the difficult questions honestly (often admitting there are not clear and certain answers that are comforting) then they fail their students and their vocation. Students see through the mirage and coming from a lifetime student, it is almost impossible to have respect for someone being paid to educate who views their vocation as some sort of "ministry of encouragement" wanting only to "teach people what to believe."
  4. Kind, merciful, and just. Justice is grading critically, but fairly. However, I have little compassion for those students who always have some emergency or excuse. Who has time for that crap? Life or death, sure I understand. But good teachers are firm, yet just.
  5. Are committed to guiding their students both in life and most importantly in their future vocation. If that means training a student to be more academic, teaching them how to write better, or pointing them in correct directions for doctoral and other work then so be it. These are teachers who care about their students enough to 1) be honest with them about the state and limitations of knowledge and 2) to pour into their lives something of the character, values, and insights the educator has pertaining to academics.
I have only seen education like this modeled in a handful of individuals in my life. That statement is itself a travesty. What do you think

Enough of my hobby horse, lets talk prophecy.

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