The Teacher as Host
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.
Proverbs 22:6 (NIV)
I have mostly fond memories of my first year of teaching in school. Like many new teachers, I was teaching my high school students all the good things I had learned in college. I enjoyed the students and they seemed to like me as a teacher. But there was one girl whose silence in class I interpreted as disrespect and indifference. She sat in the back row day after day and wouldn’t say a word. In my wounded pride, I kept after her to compel her to participate, only to have her eventually dissolve into tears. I had assumed the worst about her silence, and I failed to see that fear, not disrespect, was what gripped her. As a result, she did not feel welcome in my class.
The classroom is a community of the young who live and work together with their teacher. How well does the community fare? Some classrooms are shaped by love, others dominated by fear. Much has to do with the attitude of the teacher. Does she take into account the capabilities of the students? Does he train them in the “way they should go?” Teachers with a heart for students will not want to treat them as objects to be controlled, but as subjects worthy of respect as God’s image bearers.
Recently, I asked several former Christian school students for recollections of their high school teachers. “What made your teachers memorable, positively or negatively,” I asked. Here are several of the responses: “I enjoyed Coach Smith because I connected with him outside of the classroom.” “Mrs. Jones was approachable in the hallway and showed an interest in what I was up to.” “Students will think of the teacher as a robot until he shows them otherwise.” “Ms. Spring’s clarity was good for me because I knew what was happening in class would be useful. If she had been muddled in her teaching, I would have been passive and wasted my time.”
In each case, the students assumed that it was up to their teachers to create a positive student-teacher relationship. If the teacher isn’t approachable, students conclude he is indifferent to their needs. If the teacher isn’t clear, students stop listening.
Parker Palmer posed a similar question to a group of teachers: “What is the biggest obstacle to teaching,” he asked. “My students” was the reply he heard the most. When he asked why, the teachers said the students were “silent, sullen, withdrawn… have little capacity for conversation, [and] have short attention spans.” In each case, the teachers pointed to student deficiencies to explain their lack of success as teachers. If the students weren’t listening, the teachers assumed a lack of respect and interest.
Palmer explains that students are marginalized people in society. The message they often receive in school is that their ideas don’t count for much. As a result, they learn to stay quiet. “Their silence,” notes Palmer, “is born not of stupidity or banality but of a desire to protect themselves and to survive.”
Who should bridge the gap between the two worlds of the teacher and the students?
The answer is always the teacher. It is the teacher who serves as host in the classroom, with the students as her guests. It is the teacher’s privilege to show them hospitality. Again Palmer: “Hospitality in the classroom requires not only that we treat our students with civility and compassion but also that we invite our students and their insights into the conversation. The good host is not merely polite to the guest – the good host assumes that the guest has stories to tell.”
The teacher who invites student stories is in for a good time. These students feel welcome to engage in learning without fear of embarrassment. I think that’s the way learning should go.
O Jesus, you are the master teacher who called the little ones to come unto you. Give wisdom and strength to those who take up their labors with the little and not so little ones today. Cause them to be gracious hosts in their classrooms, and as hosts may they welcome, protect, prod, and challenge those in their care. O Holy Spirit, when teachers find their strength waning, and they wonder whether have anything left to say, please surround them with your love so that they may be refreshed in their labors. O creator God, you who called good what you have made, you who love arithmetic and adverbs, remind the teachers of their calling to love what you love, and to communicate that love to those in their care. Amen.