Learning to Teach Others at One’s Worst

I have been teaching seminary classes off and on for a few years now (back as far as 2009… 2008 if one includes student teaching). With a ThD now, I have been seeking to be a better teacher in seminary. Typically, I get pretty good reviews in classes… partly because I typically have been teaching classes I enjoy and feel comfortable with subject-wise.

However, this year, I have expessed willingness to teach classes that are not part of my comfort zone. I was asked to teach “Principles of Church Growth and Church Multiplication.” Not really  my favorite subject. Although I have been involved in a couple of church planting efforts, and a number of others indirectly, I don’t consider myself a church planter. Additionally, I have real problems with much of what is called the “Church Growth Movement.” I may be more positive about the “Church Health” wing of the movement, but that is not enough to make it a topic I appreciate.


education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I noticed that there was a larger number of seminarians in my class goofing around in class. I could feel that this class wasn’t really coming together like I was used to. The only other time I had that problem was a Missions History class I taught several years ago. So I did the same thing I did with that class.

I asked students to critique me and the class generally. I encouraged the students to be negative… don’t just give positive things (as some from Southeast Asia are prone to do). I got back a number of comments that formed a trend. Here they are:

  1. I don’t make much eye contact with the students.
  2. I often spoonfeed information to the students
  3. I talk too fast
  4. I pump out material too much material and don’t encourage enough group discussion.
  5. I do a lot of “Ummmssss”
  6. I backtrack on myself, saying one thing and then stepping back and changing the perspective, and saying that it is really the students job to decide for themselves. <Not claiming my professorial authority.>
  7. Sometimes being late or appearing unprepared.
  8. Only take attendance sporadically.

Looking over these comments, decided to see what commonality there are.

First,  what comments would I throw out. I think I have to throw out #6. The comment is sound… it is something I do. But it is something I do, and hope to continue doing. I am frustrated by the tendency in Seminary of a professor acting like his/her opinion is the only one. That is not an authority I wish to claim. However, perhaps leaving an issue open, without inviting open discussion may not be useful. Perhaps moving towards a more Socratic approach would be better for expressing uncertainty without appearing to lack authority. Something to think about.

Second, what comments confuse me a bit. Comment #2 does confuse me. The comment itself is sound… I do sometimes spoonfeed especially when it comes to exams. I tell them what they need to know on the exam and quiz them accordingly. What confuses me is that historically, that was what students at this seminary wanted. I am wondering whether the culture is changing. It confuses me, but I appreciate the comment. Maybe I should expect more from the students… many of whom are excellent.

Third, what comments may have interconnecting causes. I can see two related sets:

1.  Not making eye contact and pumping out information. I am an introvert by nature. I can talk to a group of 1000 people without feeling much nervousness. But I get quite nervous with most one-on-one conversations. I have never liked making eye contact. In the Philippines that is generally not a big deal since eye contact is not a big thing. However, I suspect I have allowed myself to do that even more in this term. Eye contact makes communication personal, and that is uncomfortable to me. Also, as long as I am pumping out information, this leaves little time for questions… and questions are also more personal. Again, I think my tendencies in this area were probably exacerbated by the fact that ithe class is not a strong area of mine academically. The added discomfort combined with my temperament made things worse.

2.  Talking fast, using “ummsss” and pumping out information (with little discussion) also points to another issue. I have a tendency to focus on cognitive training… passing on of knowledge. I am an analytic learner and so like information. I never really cared that much for discussion times that sometimes could devolve into pooling ignorance. So I like to fill up the lectures with lots of information. As such I talk fast and only occasionally encourage discussion. The Ummmsss come partly from me talking fast. Admittedly, my talking fast is partly from being originally a New Yorker. However, if I intentionally had less to say, I should be able to control my speed.

Fourth, What’s left? Tardiness and preparation, and Taking attendance. Tardiness (yes I was a bit late on occasion) had several causes… some of which I have little control over… 8:30am is a difficult time for me… especially on Wednesdays. Still, that could be fixed. Preparation? Actually, I did prepare rather well for my classes. I feel that it was more my manner of presentation that gave the impression of lack of preparation… especially when I go into “stream of consciousness” mode. I did have one or two technology failures… maybe trying things out the night before would reduce this. Taking attendance. At seminary one is expected to show up for class so attendance is normally taken. I often take attendance, but skip sometimes. This is a pet peeve of mine. If a student spent good money of their own (or the money of others to be trained… what possible reason could that person have for not showing up every time (if at all possible)? I don’t get it. But I have to face the fact that some see the world differently than I.

So what do I do next term? Next term I am teaching Cultural Anthropology. This is one of my favorite courses, and one I am quite comfortable with. That helps, but I still should make some changes:

  • Give less information in class. Happily, I consider cultural anthropology to be more of a cognitive paradigm than an academic field of study so less information should work quite well.
  • Find a good textbook. I have a lot of trouble finding textsbook I like. But if I can find a good textbook, I can emphasize and test on these reading more than on my lectures. If I can’t find a good textbook, I will just have to assign chapters from several books (lot of good cultural anthropology books but few to none that cover the gamut of the subject well.)
  • More student participation. More discussions, more student presentations.
  • Set my standards higher for tests. Let them master the subject and be prepared for whatever I throw at them academically.
  • I will still keep my opinions as opinions… but I will try to express my opinions in a way that demonstrates their value rather giving the impression of being demeaned.
  • Take attendance every time and grade accordingly.

In truth, I enjoyed teaching the class. It forced me to restudy and learn important topics in missions that I sometimes ignore. I also enjoyed learning things in my teaching that need improvement. It is fun learning from things when they come together great. But one does tend to learn more from struggles. I gave a lecture on “Intro to Failure” this term where I noted that failure is when one does not learn from one’s mistakes. I made a few mistakes (and did a number things right as far as that goes).


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