Don’t Use Substitutes for Your Own Thoughts

A common issue I see in student writing is how they allow substitutes for their own thinking. It could be an online resource, a long quote, or the textbook itself. Some students vaguely re-write the chapter, following its contours in their own words. Others include a large block quote and do not comment or examine it; instead, they put it out there and move on. Preachers do this as well when they have long quotes from books or poems. Primary and secondary teachers are also tempted by this as they provide resources to students and parents.

There really is no substitute for clear thinking in your own words. It’s been said before: be a voice, not an echo. Citations and resources should support your own ideas and analysis. It’s really hard work, and that’s why we’re so tempted by the endless resources of the internet to use someone else’s thoughts (or even plagiarize them). It’s just like dieting. Pills and magic cures are great, but the clear path to weight loss is burning calories while controlling our eating. It's so easy to get overwhelmed by great ideas and quotes in a book or webpage, but the clear path to thinking and writing well is learning to think clearly in one’s own voice.

How to Have a Great Class: Kindness and Fairness

There are a lot of factors in making a great class: a good time of the day, a good mix of student leaders in the class, a comfortable room, and good texts to use. Sometimes there are factors you simply cannot control: the students in your class are tired due to their schedules, or the room just doesn’t work for the number of students you have, or the technology fails you. I’ve had 8 AM classes that worked well because most of the students were athletes who had early morning practices and were ready for class; other 8 AM classes lacked morning people and were lackluster. If your 11 AM class is the third class of the day, then you are in trouble. These are things we, as teachers, have no control over.

There are, however, a few things you can control. Students are deeply attuned to fairness (isn’t everybody?). If they feel you are being unfair to some, or to them, then they will be unhappy. If the class feels unplanned, has unclear deadlines that change, or goes over the stated ending of class, then students will be unhappy. Holding to the ending time of class (and hopefully beginning of class), taking attendance, and being clear on deadlines are easy ways to be fair. Students want you to be fair and open about what the class is, what the expectations are, and what is going on.

Coupled with being fair is the importance of being kind. There are all sorts of situations where one must be kind: students may have car trouble, face family problems, or simply be having a bad day. Some students are terrified of speaking in class. These are times for one to be kind, while still fair, and I find that students respond well when they sense you are struggling to be both fair and kind.

An important way to be kind is to listen to students. When they raise a question or challenge, or attempt to answer a question, listening to them and responding kindly but thoughtfully is vital. Do you dismiss their comments in favor of your outline for the day, or your prescribed answer? Or do you follow up their contribution with an affirmation and a good response? Taking them seriously, as thinking adults, is key to having success in the classroom. No one wants to be ignored. This also applies to their essays and writing; we must thoughtfully and kindly respond to their work, pointing to what is done well and what can be done better, but always in a spirit of gentle, fair kindness. The teacher is there to convince the students that the material is vitally important, but also to remind them that it is, after all, just a class, and some things may actually be more important than that particular assignment or class.

Balancing your expectations for the day, fairness, and kindness are always a challenge. But the classroom is the main place where a teacher can do good work for one’s students. Being unprepared, unresponsive, or humorless are ways to harm the classroom, which is a time when you can achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Students will remember, most of all, those moments in the classroom when you listened and challenged them, and they learned something. They will best learn when the atmosphere, both inside and outside the classroom, is fair and kind.

Preaching versus Teaching

I’ve had experience both in teaching on a collegiate level and preaching regularly in a local church, and I’ve been giving some thought to how they are similar yet different.

Both teaching and preaching involve public speaking on a deadline; both are grueling in that one is constantly either preparing or delivering a bit of oratory. The comparison is not to a writer but to an op-ed journalist, as you are constantly having to be creative on a topic while meeting a deadline. Church, classroom, newspaper – these places wait for no one.

In many ways, preaching is teaching, especially in a time when people are fairly Biblically and religiously illiterate, yet current preaching must also be relevant and with a bit of entertainment as well – otherwise, people will not pay attention to the teaching! Teaching, of course, must also use the tools of entertainment and humor to keep students engaged.

But the character of worship makes preaching quite different from teaching. The music, prayers, and sense of God’s presence garbs preaching differently; now it has gravitas. The classroom is hopefully interactional and even meandering as ideas are explored, challenged, and reformulated, but the sermon is more focused and constructed (although it should be limber as well so not too wooden). Christian preaching is also different in that has an ultimate criterion, which is the Bible, while the classroom does not have a canonical basis (beyond clear readings of any given text). The feel of preaching is also vastly different as it relates to God in an intimate way.

Preaching hopes to tell people what they must do. Giving the practical implications of a text for one’s life is quite different from teaching in the humanities, which doesn’t so much tell people what to think but how to think. Teaching hopes to expose young minds to other possibilities so they can form their own positions and analyses, while preaching hopefully conveying a concrete way we should respond (while also, at times, exploring possibilities as teaching does).

All of that said, I have found that teaching has improved my preaching. Having to prepare for class some 12 times a week has helped me prepare for the pulpit, as well as given me more confidence (practice makes perfect!).