The Dilemmas of Teaching
Teaching is simple in principle. The teacher must study and master a topic sufficiently to communicate the important points to others. However, like many other issues of life, the plan may be simple, but the execution of it is anything but simple. Although some good can be accomplished immediately by even a novice, there is always room to grow and improve in one's mastery of the material and presentation of it. Many "tips" and "best practices" for teaching are learned the hard way: A teacher does his or her best. He or she learns from his or her mistakes and then wanders in the opposite direction, until he or she makes other mistakes and realizes that he has gone "too far" the other direction. After repeatedly banging and crashing one's ship against the rising cliffs of the straits of teaching, one can steadily learn how to navigate his or skiff between these dilemmas. The key is to be self-aware and seek the honest feedback of genuine friends and enemies. You can learn from almost anybody. Do not fear failure or mistakes. Fear mediocrity and cowardice. Learn to truly love others and serve them by teaching them the truth.
Navigating the Straits
These following dilemmas represent lessons that I have learned the "hard way". A few lessons were gleaned by observing others likewise practice and learn to teach. The following dilemmas are presented in pairs, where every pair represents a single dilemma, consisting of two extremes. Although many of these dilemmas appear to represent two extreme approaches, they may be actually two extreme manifestations of the same problem - lack of preparation, for example. Therefore, trying to "balance" the two extremes is often not the solution. Although the following list of dilemmas may apply to all teachers, they were penned while reflecting on the need for excellent Bible teachers.
- Do not under-study — Nothing is more obvious than a teacher, who is inadequately prepared. Make sure you fully understand each of the terms you are using, so you can use them properly. Inconsistent or inaccurate usage of terms is a quick giveaway that you do not know your stuff. Make sure each point connects to the point preceding and proceeding it. Developing a logical progression of thought requires time to sift through various facts and points to establish a preferred flow, where each point builds on the preceding points. Do not underestimate this task.
- Do not over-study — On just about any given subject, there is more information to learn, understand, and enjoy than can be communicated in the allotted time. One can easily waste his preparation time by getting bogged down in minor details or questions. Or, one can spend so much time studying, that he loses sight of the big picture. Make sure you maintain a "big picture" framework, so that you always judge and communicate which points are most critical, requiring everyone's limited, immediate attention.
- Master your content before you master your presentation — The message is the most critical component of your teaching. Modern presentations, especially those involving complicated charts, PowerPoint presentations, hand-outs, lesson sheets , etc., require a tremendous amount of additional preparation time. Although one can use these modern tools as a modern day "drawing board" for drafting, brainstorming, and illustrating, one should not focus too much on the polish of the presentation. You do not want your lesson to suffer, because you had technical problems with your computer or some computer tool! Furthermore, gimmicks, interesting tricks, and novel presentations - although temporarily memorable - typically do not produce lasting memories of the desired message. Charts should be used to visualize difficult concepts or maintain critical truths in your audience's focus. They should not be used to "wow" or impress your audience. Don't waste too much time on the aid to teaching. Focus on the real teaching: diligently researching, mastering, and then conveying truths for the purpose of persuading people to accept and act upon those truths. Clip-art is rarely as important as one might think. ... If your charts contain so much material that you can almost read them, do not be surprised, if you find yourself doing just that. Furthermore, do not be surprised, if you find that your audience tunes you out and reads your charts for themselves.
- Do not forget that you must present what you have studied — Eventually, all study must result in a presentation, if one is a teacher. We must not revel in the research to the point that we forget we must communicate what we have learned in a finite, typically brief, time frame. Please study diligently. Master your material. But, also reserve time to determine the essential and most meaningful facts, truths, lessons, and applications that you wish to teach. One must "pace" his presentation, deliberately choosing beforehand which points to cover and how much time to allot to their presentation. Furthermore, reserve time to articulate those points in private, at least once, before public presentation. Most people, especially me, do not have the brain power to do this in "real-time", while they are teaching. Failure to practice the presentation will generally result in one not covering the material that he really wanted to cover. Too many times during presentations, I have struggled to word a point as powerfully as I wanted. The point's punch was lost in my poor wording. Not wanting to disservice the message, I frequently tried to reword the statement. This results in repeated but varied phrasings of the same point, which appeared as rambling, which even further minimized the point's effectiveness. Planned pacing and advanced articulation go hand-in-hand, and they frequently make the difference between good and great presentations.
- State the obvious — Diligent teachers spend many long hours preparing to deliver a condensed summary of the most salient lessons gleaned from their study. As they repeatedly encounter certain points, what was once enlightening to them becomes obvious. Differences in age, experience, background, and education can all create a similar gap effect. You never know what your audience knows or does not know. Be sure to simply and clearly state the obvious, just in case.
- Do not belabor the obvious — It is important to ascertain some approximate, average level of understanding of your audience. If you underestimate your audience, then you will spend too much time on what is obvious to them. This may be undesirably interpreted as arrogance or patronizing. Or, it just may be plain boring. Do not lose your audience in agonizing tedium by belaboring the obvious.
- Do not ask your students to teach your class — Comments and questions are a great way to involve the class and "share the knowledge". Frequently, there is more knowledge in the "pews" than there is behind the "pulpit". It is in a teacher's own best interest and the interest of the class to tap into that invaluable wisdom and experience. However, rarely will a class prepare like the teacher, nor should you expect them to do so. You have accepted that extra responsibility. So, do not ask them to answer all the hard questions, leaving it to your students to "bail you out". Be prepared with an answer yourself! Furthermore, do not focus on the simple facts while skipping over the controversial, deep, or profound parts of a topic or a text, forcing the more knowledgeable students to "teach your class from the pew" with a 5-10 minute "comment". Touch on such subjects or explain why you are not. Do not force your class to deal with the difficult material, because you avoided it, without giving them the benefit of the lectern!
- Do not ignore or interrupt comments — If you have asked your class or audience for comments, do not insult them by interrupting them. Comments should be sought, because you value their content - not because you are trying to fulfill some teaching checklist, and not because you are just trying to keep the class "involved" or awake. If you truly value class participation, and if you truly value the class's comments, then let them finish, and do your best to integrate the content with a follow-up comment. Even a simple acknowledgment is better than nothing.
- Avoid absolute statements — Verifying the accuracy of absolute statements inherently demands a mastery of all of Scripture. Such breadth and depth of knowledge on subtle truths is rare and requires an enormous amount of iterative postulation and testing. Too often, the young in faith proclaim absolute statements (using words like, "always", "never", "every", etc.) without having the complete knowledge to support it. In general, if one has not done the homework to support any statement with full confidence, then one should never make those statements. Furthermore, outside the obvious and generally understood truths, great care and caution should be exercised before delivering absolute statements on any subject.
- Look for concrete points — Vague teaching is confusing and pointless. Although multiple possibilities can be admitted for any controversial position, the role of the teacher is to master the truth on the subject and deliver it. If that cannot be determined, then you have no business teaching on the subject. This is not "Fox News - We report. You decide." Although a teacher must not cover up his uncertainty, he must also strive for personal certainty and teach the truth. Students are best helped with the truth - not possible truths. Do your best to boil abstractions and possibilities to concrete statements of summary and application.
- Make it obvious that you care — If a teacher condemns too much, points the finger too much, shouts too much, dismisses too much - or isolates himself too much - he will lose credibility, because the listeners will feel like he does not care. Eventually, they will cease to take you seriously or even listen. Wherever possible, all application should clearly and definitively include the speaker. If the speaker is beyond the application, then arrogance will be perceived and attributed. After listening to some speakers, I truly believe they sincerely love me and want me to do better, because they care for my soul. Other speakers, I think they enjoy the ease, safety, and aloofness of the high moral ground. You want to be the sympathetic speaker who knows he is asking something very hard of all of us - not just your audience.
- Do not soften persuasion's punch — Although a speaker does not want to unnecessarily offend, he also does not want to avoid offense. Persuasion by its very nature involves change, which demands the recognition of one's current error or danger. If a teacher works too hard to soften the barb, it may be perceived as indecisive, uncertainty, or unimportance. Or, even worse - after much elaboration, it may not even be perceived! Speech seasoned with grace and salt is more pleasant, but it must contain the powerful words to save, if one listens (Colossians 4:5-6; Romans 1:16)!
- Provide something for everybody — An audience typically consists of many different people from many different backgrounds with varying levels of knowledge and experience. Although extremely difficult, each sermon should have a "take away" for everybody, regardless of their knowledge, experience or background. Lesson after lesson should not cater to one class or another. Specific topics can and should be focused as needed or on occasion, but if one regularly teaches the "whole gospel", then everyone will benefit (Acts 20:20, 26-27).
- Provide something for somebody — Teaching requires taking abstract principles, examples, and reasoning to make application for your audience. If one makes general application, then he has only minimally performed his duty. Applications need to be specific. They should not just apply to everybody. They should apply to "somebody" - you, me, etc. Help your audience make application to themselves by making several specific applications. One will not have time to cover every possible application, but the general application should be made, specific applications should provided be as examples, and the examples should vary from lesson to lesson, so one group is not repeatedly hammered, while another is overlooked.
- Keep it age-appropriate — Too often, adult, college-age, and high-school classes are taught as if the students were middle school age. Games, style, applications, and attitude of the class should be age appropriate, meaning you should serve challenging material that will help the students grow. Silly exercises have no place in classes of experienced adults. Don't waste their time, reminding them of things they learned when they were 12. Moreover, too often, teachers underestimate the older students. Children will surprise you with what they already know and with what they can learn, if you will just be patient with them.
- Keep it age-appropriate — Teachers who are accustomed to working with adults and older children must adapt to younger children. Vocabulary, application, explanation and focus must be relevant to the age. Do not overestimate student's willingness and ability to absorb copious amounts of complex material that is not obviously relevant to them. The key to navigating this strait is spending time with your students outside of class, so you can better understand the challenges facing them, their reasoning capacity, and their current understanding. If you do not know your audience, you will have great difficulty adapting your message's presentation to best fit their abilities, interest level, and needs.
- Do not believe you are aware of all the dilemmas a teacher may face.
- Do not believe that you have mastered all the teacher's dilemmas of which you are even aware. Humility, humility, humility. The proud cannot learn. They can only be broken and harnessed.
Teaching is a difficult practice that can take years to master (James 3:1-5). Experience should improve our judgment, but it will only do so, if we are honest in our evaluation of ourselves, and if we seek the truthful feedback of Scripture and true friends (Proverbs 27:17). Even aged, seasoned teachers have "good days and bad days". And, even they are still learning. Therefore, be patient with yourself as you grow, which will include various attempts, failures, and triumphs.
All good teachers develop relationships, where possible with the students. As the students grow, the teacher enjoys the satisfaction of love fulfilled:
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. (III John 1:4)
In so doing, we catch some small glimpse into the joy that God takes in our growth:
But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. (I John 2:5-6)
The Lord came to "seek and save the lost" (Luke 19:10). He was the consummate Teacher (Ecclesiastes 12:9-11). All good teachers derive their wisdom from Him, as they are taught by Him through His Word (Psalm 119:97-105). If you are not already, you too can become a teacher in the same way. Master God's Word. Obey it (Matthew 7:3-5). And, teach it to others, so they can do the same:
And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (II Timothy 2:2)
If you are not already a teacher, will you take up that valuable work today?
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)
How much time has the Lord blessed to you? Are you digesting "solid food"? If not, what changes will you make to develop to maturity? Will you then be a teacher, if you are not already? As you teach, do not forget these dilemmas you must face; otherwise, you will have to learn them the "hard way" too. Trust me: Your students would prefer you learn from the mistakes of others.
Have you experienced or observed other dilemmas that teachers may face? Feel free to contact me and send them to me.
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