What makes a good teacher?

Every teacher or community leader knows how hard it is to "love the people" all the time; how hard it is to try one more time to explain something already laboured over earlier. Yet still we try again, starting each time anew. This is the vocation, the calling of the teacher-leader.
April 11th, 2008

There is a lot of wisdom in an old Chinese poem that community developer John Perkins likes to quote:

Go to the people
Live among them
Learn from them
Love them
Start with what you know
Build on what they have:
But of the best leaders
When their task is done
The people will remark
"We have done it ourselves."

—from Lao Tzu, in Beyond Charity

No doubt this poem has its own sound and look in Chinese characters, as it does when recited by Perkins, a black American Christian leader and teacher. While not the most poetic of poems in English, it alludes to truths that are crucial for us, today. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is the apparent paradox of the leader's coming to work with people for awhile and yet when his task is finished the people say: "We have done it ourselves." After puzzling over this seeming paradox for a time it occurred to me that an analogy could be drawn between this and the mystery of how God gets us to want and to believe what He wants us to. The true Teacher does not let go, but keeps coming back, "hounding" us by explaining the same thing in many different ways, wooing, persuading, and importuning for many a season until we have changed. When we finally take the lesson to heart, we often say, "I decided, I choose,"—"We have done it ourselves" . . . and we have. The moral challenge for human teachers is to try to do this by honouring, not manipulating people. God is honest and we can be that way too. He is honourable and respectful, not deceitful in His "methods."

"The true Teacher does not let go, but keeps coming back, "hounding" us by explaining the same thing in many different ways, wooing, persuading, and importuning for many a season until we have changed."
—Roger Henderson
Student debate

"Live among them, Learn from them." What better way to learn from people than to live with them? What you learn from them should influence what you do and say. This will enable people to identify with what you say and do since they recognize it as their own. It's no longer foreign; it's not something "given" to them by "the stranger." When we use something received from students, this draws us closer together. It is a way of honouring them. But the poem says more.

Much of it seeks to diminish pride. It can be difficult for a teacher not to feel superior, deserving of a better place to live, deserving of greater respect and recognition than students. Christ did not always like being called teacher (Matthew 23:6-12). I'm not sure why, but it may have had something to do with the separation and pride the position brings. Being open to our students, to learn from them, is a check on pride.

Living among people can also be humbling. Sometimes we do not feel secure enough in ourselves to do this, but it could teach us to see the world more as students do, and help us to talk about it in ways they will understand. It also enables them to see we are as them—that they too could become teachers or leaders. Living with people expresses care for them and a willingness to sacrifice.

Every teacher or community leader knows how hard it is to "love the people" all the time; how hard it is to try one more time to explain something already laboured over earlier. Yet still we try again, starting each time anew. This is the vocation, the calling of the teacher-leader. We should periodically renew our acceptance of this calling. If you have lost all love for people, better look for other work. Loving them is what keeps you hunting for ways to enable them to learn and to grow. Loving keeps you determined not to "loose" a single one of them.

As a rule, teach what you know. Don't do something that just looks good when someone else does it. Don't follow other people's patterns and ways. Do your work in your way, your own way. Do what comes naturally to you, what you are comfortable with and feel confident about. Speak from the heart—that is, with conviction. Start with what you believe and know. But this is only the start. Add as you go along, use what you gain from experience. Take the tips and cues you pick up from working with your students—learn from them, let them teach you. Take to heart what they say, listen to them. Look for ways to incorporate their ideas into your approach. Don't hesitate to reprove or correct them—this tells them you are taking them seriously.

If "modernism" is the belief that the latest is the greatest, and every problem must be solved by a method, then it is modernism—the Enlightenment mind—that excludes "building on what the people have" and already know. The grounds for respecting the wisdom of tradition are gone in modernism. North and South, new and old are opposed in it. Most Western teachers are blind to the value of traditional ways of doing things. The wisdom gained through the experience of ages is despised. Hence, there is little respect for people, and nothing acknowledged to be built upon. The Enlightenment mind wants to sweep away everything which is old and tried and replace it with the fruit of scientific abstraction, based on the "values" of control, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency.

"We must not forget the difficult things: the challenge to love and to live among the students and our people. We should not underestimate this challenge. But neither should we shrink from it."

It is said that what makes a good leader is a willingness to follow. But there is no sure-fire formula for being a leader. Thinking about it a lot may help. Perkins never tires of asking how we can encourage leadership. What makes a young person care about the well being of people, the community, or the world around her? What makes a student want to care or take responsibility for his neighbor, his own environment, or for changing the oil in the tractor or car? The mystery of good teachers or leaders is that they succeed in helping people themselves to want something which is good and right. This is not teaching as the transmission of information, or the memorization of facts. This is not merely mastering "the material" or even gaining an understanding of a subject. It is a change, a maturing of the person, a type of mentality, catalyzing a series of changes in that person. The teacher has worked with "the people." Laboured with them. Coaxed them. Challenged them. Pursued them and waited some more. The teacher is a midwife. We are usually not even the one who plants the seed but merely those who coax, encourage, and oversee the birth of something in students.

The line in the poem, "build on what they have," is a key. It means we are acknowledging that others have things of value that we appeal to. But it also guarantees that there will be something in what we do together that people will recognize as theirs. It means that we will be working together.

Finally we have to both coax and wait for people to initiate. This is very hard. Waiting is not what a leader or teacher wants to do. We want to get on with the job, but if you do not coax and wait, you do not allow or "enable" students to identify and solve their own problems. Instead, they will always merely solve "your" problems. Surely, that is not the goal. Otherwise, how can people ever say, "We have done it ourselves"? When our task is completed, will we not be the ones who accomplished it and not people? If we really learned from them, honoured them, their heritage and insights, built on what they have, tried to love, coax and wait for them, then the truth of the paradox can be realized. This is the divine way. This is how Christ walked with people.

How many of the things in this poem can we really expect to achieve? That is also a difficult question. Perhaps we can succeed in only a few at a time, but like everything, we can work at them, work to prepare ourselves for some of the big changes and sacrifices asked of teachers. Recall the "frightening" words in the Epistle of James: "Not many of you should become teachers." With the modern mind, we say just the opposite: "Let as many people as possible become teachers." If we still dare to answer this call, let us do so with a realistic sense of what is at stake—dimensions we have not even touched on. We must not forget the difficult things: the challenge to love and to live among the students and our people. We should not underestimate this challenge. But neither should we shrink from it. Christ our Lord goes before us in every good work.

 

Roger Henderson has been "taking philosophy" in Iowa for nine years now, at Dordt College. Currently he is Associate Professor of Philosophy.

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