Today is the first day back in the office after a summer of activity, rest, and refreshment. Year 24 of teaching. (I was a teaching assistant during my seminary days, and I’ve been teaching fulltime since the fall of 2000.) Every year means refocusing, fine-tuning, tightening both philosophy and technique.
Every faculty member at my institution has expressed a personal philosophy of education, which he includes in his annual portfolio. What follows is mine.
My educational philosophy grows out of two broader, over-arching philosophies: my life mission and the mission of the institution where I serve.
My life mission is to glorify God by edifying His people and helping prepare others to serve Him. It finds its foundation in Paul’s statement to his Corinthian friends: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all things to the glory of God” (1Cor 10.31; my translation). It finds its specific application in Paul’s words to another group of friends, this time in Ephesus: “[Christ] gave [gifted people to the church] … in order to equip the saints for the work of service, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4.12). Like my fellow believers, by God’s good plan and providence, I am where I am, and have the gifts that I have, in order to use those gifts to build up members of the body of Christ. There is no greater mission. And as a fringe benefit, God is a good and gracious Master.
By that same providence, I find myself in the corner of the vineyard that calls itself Bob Jones University. By contracting to teach here, I have agreed to its mission, which is to build Christ-like character in students through the medium of liberal arts higher education. That means that I have a dual focus as I teach: to teach my students the Scripture itself, by which God, over the years ahead, will change them from the inside out, to make them more like Christ (Acts 20.32; 2 Cor 3.18); and to give my students the tools to teach themselves and others the ideas of Scripture (which is my subject area), so that they in turn may present it clearly to those who are seeking and may serve other believers with its truths.
That’s a big job, impossible without divine enablement. Thus I need to begin in reliance on God Himself, nurturing my relationship with Him, praying for direction and empowerment each day, recognizing and embracing each day’s circumstances and challenges as divine appointments. Since I will give account to Him one day for my stewardship (Rom 14.12), I need to prepare myself for each day’s responsibilities, first, and in general, by keeping my academic and spiritual qualifications sharp, and then by evaluating carefully each day’s objectives and planning how best to reach them.
Since the same divine appointment has placed each specific group of students before me, I recognize them as the Bible describes them: made in the image of God (Gen 1.26-27), and therefore worthy of my best effort, regardless of their individual academic abilities or personal character flaws. My goal is to meet each student where he is, and to bring him, by God’s grace, as far as I can down the path of Christ-like character and preparation for skillful service. The Scripture also tells me that my students, like me, are broken images, with sinful natures and evil tendencies (Rom 3.23). That means that I have to encourage them to progress down that path even when they are—often—not inclined in that direction. I may use positive motivation, such as encouragement or praise, or I may need to use what the student may view as a more negative experience, such as exhortation, academic penalty, or even careful criticism. While I never assume that students will naturally do the right thing, I try to approach them positively first, resorting to harder measures only as the softer ones prove insufficient.
My classroom technique is an outgrowth of my own nature. (I believe that had I been born two decades later, I would have been diagnosed with ADHD as a child.) As a student, I needed to be interested in what I was seeing in order to engage it. As I teach I am constantly driven to present material that is both at a reachable level and enjoyable. That means that I first need to couch the material in terms that communicate to the students directly and clearly, and then in a way that is engaging and attractive. I use everyday language, and I define useful jargon as I present it. Since my courses typically need to cover a lot of relatively technical material, I find that I have to use lecture predominantly, but I try to make it engaging by using a lot of humor and demonstrating my own interest in the subject. I’ve learned that a light in the eyes goes a long way.
I find that I cannot reach these goals effectively without at least encouraging my students to interact with me beyond the formal classroom environment. I regularly eat lunch with students in the University Dining Common; I hold scheduled office hours each day; I meet each week with a prayer group in the men’s residence halls; and when I pass students in the hallways or out on the campus, I make a point to catch the eye of each one who will look up, and offer a friendly greeting. (When I’m walking, my cell phone is in my pocket, where it belongs.) When I notice that a student has an uncharacteristic look, I’ll seek an opportunity to take him aside and ask if there’s anything I can help with.
God gifts His people to serve Him, and each one has something he can do well. I find that when I’m in the classroom, I am most at ease; that’s where I fit. (Well, or in Africa with a team of students—but that’s teaching too.) There’s nothing else I would rather do; I don’t talk about “hump day” or yearn for the weekend, and I don’t eagerly count the days until I retire. By God’s grace, I’d like to die with my boots on—teach the last class, deliver the last lecture, turn in my grades, and step through to God’s plan on the other side.