Every once in a while, I have the opportunity to teach a full semester's worth of introductory biblical studies materials over a period of fifteen days. This, January, is one of those once-in-a-whiles. Which is why I haven't been posting much here. But I have been listening to my life, thinking, paying attention and the thoughts that follow are just a bit of what I've been noticing.
"I don't know."
I said those three scary words at least twice in class the other day.
From the front of the room.
As the professor.
I can’t tell you how alarming that would have been for me when I first started teaching college level classes. I was fresh from seminary then, wearing the one suit I owned.
That suit was – as they often are – something like a suit of armor. It was a symbol that I was an adult (even though I didn’t feel like one) and that I knew what I was talking about (even though I didn’t feel like I did). Looking back, I can see how fear-driven my teaching was, even though I didn’t want it to be. I wanted to connect with the students, to engage, but I was unable to allow the kind of vulnerability that forms community.
I was too attached to my armor of rayon/polyester and knowledge. I set up every aspect of the class in a way that guaranteed I would know the answers to any question that arose. I chose the passages we studied based on papers I’d written in graduate school – a sure-fire way (I hoped) of ensuring I would know more about the topic at hand than any one else in the room.
I often wondered why I felt so isolated, lonely, and frustrated as a teacher.
This time around, some fourteen years later, I purposely wore jeans on the first day of class. Mostly, I wanted to feel like myself and, as someone who works from home, I wear jeans almost every day. Feeling like myself meant drawing on the sense of authority I carry day-in-and day-out as a parent, writer, spiritual director, and middle-aged human being. Also, I wanted to lessen the distance between the students and myself, and jeans seemed like a concrete, visual way to do that.
First thing, on the first day, I explained that every class would start with five minutes of silence. This would be our way of acknowledging the presence of God which dwells - like silence – above, below, and in-between all our words. After silence, I explained that, because this was their class, the first twenty minutes of every class was theirs to use as they saw fit. Every student has an opportunity to submit a topic for conversation and we use silly questions to decide who will draw a question out of the stack.
Those twenty minutes were a little awkward the first day – and still are, sometimes – but we’ve had some laughs, heard some differing perspectives, and even witnessed a little passion. I like to believe giving the students some time and space up front, is one, small, concrete way of reminding them that this class is for them. It also gives me an opportunity to observe and eavesdrop on who they are, how they interact with each other, and how they think about the world we live in. In short, it gives me a chance to listen and builds community.
Finally, before lecture that first day, I explained that we needed to choose a passage to explore together in class the following day. I gave them a few minutes to think about it, then invited them to offer suggestions. Many offered favorite, well-known passages, but there were some random ones thrown out too. I didn’t even flinch (hardly, anyway) when someone tossed out a story I’d never heard of from the apocrypha. After we had ten or so to choose from, the students voted and chose Jeremiah 29.
I stopped by the library after class and grabbed a couple of commentaries. That night, I spent about a half hour familiarizing myself with the context and reading through the passage. Mostly, I figured, we’d figure it out together the following day. And we did.
Rather than worrying about the class, I looked forward to it. I suppose part of this is the confidence that comes from teaching and preaching for years – a gift I’m grateful to have found. Under-girding my decision, though, was the belief that what would be gained by working together, side-by-side, was more than what might be lost by me not knowing all the answers.
I have a great group of students this semester. They’re older, and more prepared to handle the course material. Many are seniors and already thinking about how the things they learn now will apply to life in the ‘real world.’ All of this leads to a more enjoyable class environment. But the thing I’m most grateful for, is a deeper capacity to be with the students, to create an atmosphere where those three little words, “I don’t know,” are nothing more than a fertile starting point for conversation, exploration and comradery.