As my students and I approached the end of the semester, I found myself longing to offer them a sense of closure. I wanted to give them, as a parting gift, a semester that was whole and complete—neatly packaged knowledge they could carry with them into the world at large. In the last days of class, however, I remembered that to do so would be no gift, but an unkindness; it would be to rob them of great good and cheapen the grandeur of their learning.
You see, Christ did not offer pretty conclusions. He left and gave us the Spirit. I am convinced that in his teaching and in his leaving, Christ modeled for us the labors of a Christian educator. If you’ve been reading The Examined Life this year, you’ve heard this theme subtly repeating itself. Our surest guide on the journey from shadows to substance is Christ, because Christ has not ascended into holy places which are shadows of the world to come, he has entered into heaven itself. As leaders, teachers, and learners, it is that heaven for which we long, and it is that journey we desire to model for our students.
This year’s articles for educators have endeavored to point us towards Christ’s example of teaching, revealing, enabling, and leaving. They have questioned with urgency and sincerity what we must do to embody Christ in our leading and teaching, and how we can best empower our students to carry out the life of Christ themselves.
As we come to the conclusion of this year of exploration and anticipate the year to come, I’d like to remind us of what it looks like to be and make disciples.
Jesus’ disciples expected him to bring about a revolution. Instead, he told them stories.
Christ demonstrates that we are to work within the world in which we inhere—loving it to its betterment—without destroying it. For teachers, this means that we should seek reform without revolution (an idea suggested by Lindsay Marshall’s “The Mentor Model of Education”, Hayden Butler’s “Teaching Students or Subjects”, and John Mark Reynolds, “Whither and Whence”).
Because we educators are in positions of leadership, we have institutional standards to which we must conform. For many of us those standards are inadequate, but we don’t have the option of completely overturning them. Instead we must gently and gracefully raise the bar from within. Perhaps we won’t overthrow a Roman occupation, but we can heal on the Sabbath.
Practically, this means we can create a culture that inspires learning and growth even within a system that resists us. Think mustard seed. Think incarnation. Every classroom, youth group, or teaching space is a community with its own coherent culture, its own values and assumptions. As leaders, we can model a culture of exploration, wonder, and love, and challenge our students to be good citizens within it (c.f. Zach Weichbrodt’s spectacular article on propaganda or Rebecca Fort’s earnest inquiry into how we can help students grow in goodness). The state standards may not say much about honesty or inquiry or a love of beauty, but all of these virtues can be principles of conduct within our own teaching space. And if these values are right and good and true they won’t be contained by the walls of an institution, they will flourish and grow–like a mustard seed.
This narrative assumes, however, that we are leaders winsome enough to inspire a love of virtue in our students. We may feel inadequate to the task, and in many ways we’re right to feel so. None of us is perfectly virtuous. Fortunately, even this imperfection can make us better teachers. Why? Because the best teachers are learners too.
No education is complete, ever. Rather, learning can and ought to be big, complex, and continuous. It’s essential that we as educators remember this, because it means that we too ought to continue learning. If we live simply to fulfill a role—teacher, pastor, parent—we become flat, mere shadows of ourselves. When we continue to grow and learn; when we demonstrate the ways that the world is loveable; when we ask questions to which we don’t know the answers; when we grow in virtue, we invite our students to see us as real and dynamic. Wonderfully, our own dynamism is often persuasive.
Perhaps the purest example I’ve seen of this was Joseph Fiktarz’s moving article about how his ministry changed after his own awakening to beauty and wonder as invitations to the pursuit of truth. Good teaching, Joey demonstrates, is pursuing truth and having the presence of mind, and the kindness, and the love to take others with you.
I like to think that Jesus’ ministry was—at heart—a continued act of revelation. His every word and act pointed to the fact the he was indeed the Christ—the Anointed One—for whom the world was waiting. Around Easter, Jennifer Snell gently reminded us that left to ourselves we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, don’t really get it. Our feeble understanding of the events of Easter morning points to our need to have Christ reveal himself to us.
How, then, can we participate in the revealing nature of Christ’s ministry when we ourselves are still contending with shadows?
Revelation is an act of identifying and uncovering reality. It’s pointing to what is real and saying: Look! This is what is! As educators, we can work to uncover the reality of the world we’re enabling our students to discover, but also the reality of the particular students in the room with us. Wheatstone encourages a mentoring model of education because it demands that we recognize the particularities—the loves, hurts, virtues, and vices—of our students. At the end of my last semester, one mother thanked me for helping her son to discover his love of poetry. “Thank you”, she said, “for actually seeing him.”
A revealing, Christ-like education requires more than self-discovery from its disciples, however. It demands that we place ourselves in the context of our world. Our articles have focused on the coming of Christ because his advent (both his birth in Bethlehem and his return in the days to come) colors everything we know about the world in which we live—see Chad Glazener’s stunning article on Maranatha Ministry. Christ entered our world to redeem it, and it’s about time we paid attention to it: it’s dynamic, huge, inviting, and beautiful.
If this is the case, the revealing nature of our educational ministry should make all of us see that better. (See Jenn Snell's "The Best Beauty Schools.") It should also make us see the ways in which our culture fails to bear forth the beauty of a world that inclines towards resurrection. As Matthew Anderson argued last fall, the call to reality demands that we examine the assumptions implicit in the culture we consume. If we are educators concerned with revelation, we should be asking our students to question the world around them, and we should be doing the same ourselves. We must both gesture to what is, and invite desire for what will be.
In the last days before his ascension, Jesus took his disciples into the upper room where he breathed on them and promised that he would send a helper. Not long after, that helper descended in tongues of flame: the Holy Spirit. Post-Pentecost, we live with the Spirit indwelling and empowering us to act out the gifts we have been given. In my mind, each class I teach has the potential to be a miniature Pentecost—a moment of enablement.
As an educator I don’t want to hear my students say impressive and articulate things, I want them to learn to ask good questions and think well. Often, this means holding back the answers I would like to offer because my students are simply not ready for them. How many times did Jesus have to explain that his own death was imminent? It wasn’t until a resurrected Christ taught his disciples how to think well about scripture that they recognized who he was, and it wasn’t until he sent them the Spirit that they were able to go and make disciples elsewhere.
Giving knowledge to our students as a complete package makes them dependent upon us. It’s a type of tyranny that reshapes students in our own image instead of Christ’s, and it’s contrary to his example. Instead, education should grant our students freedom to learn on their own. I suspect that Christ taught in parables for this very reason. It required his disciples to inquire, interpret, and pursue understanding. It made them better learners—true disciples—who would go on to be the teachers of the gospel.
Ideally, then, our teaching should be enabling our students to no longer need us; it should be the gift that allows them to replace us.
This year, I taught my last class on Ascension Day. It reminded me that Christ’s final act of teaching was, in fact, his leaving.
It was better for us, he said, that he leave, and more expedient that the Holy Spirit should come in his place. Again, Christ was modeling for us the labors of a Christian educator, for we as teachers have to leave our students to practice the virtues we have modeled ourselves and begun to nurture in them. It’s better for them—more expedient—that they are enabled to think well, pointed towards beauty and wonder, and allowed to grow on their own.
On my last day of class, then, I gave my students not a tidy package of truths, but a small experience of beauty. Actually, I gave them balloons; yellow balloons that ascended to the clouds as tiny specks of color.
Why balloons, you wonder? They do seem a little silly and imprecise. I chose balloons because they were beautiful, and because they were temporary. They would go away and I could leave my students looking up.
I was glad to leave them this way, squinting at the clouds and mirroring, on a small scale, the disciples I was hoping they would become. In a way, it was an image of the whole education I hope I have given them. You see, I want my students to be apostles. I want to love them, and then leave them looking up toward Christ, our first and truest teacher.
by Amanda Ruud - June 2011
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