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Speaking Students’ Language: Teaching from Your Heart to Theirs

I felt my heart beat faster and my hands become clammy as I stepped out of my car and shut the door behind me. Butterflies were rapidly swirling around in my stomach, although today they felt more like bats. It was day one of being a student teacher, and while I was excited, the nerves seemed to be getting the better of me. ”How do I teach Christianly?” was the main question that was plaguing my mind.

The metal gate at the entrance of the junior school was broken, its once black color now a gray hue from frequent use. I pushed it forcefully until it budged enough for me to slither past and inspect my surroundings with squinted eyes. I glanced across to where I saw two students fighting, no more than seven or eight years of age. “This is why I’m here,” I thought to myself. I had naively entered the teaching arena with the mind-set that I was going to be the one to change the students I taught. Little did I realise that it was in fact them who would be changing me.

During my four-week practicum placement, I received a lovely little note from one of my students that said: “Miss Clark, you are pretty, smart, active, confident and you are a believer.” It was a very sweet gesture but the last two words struck me. A believer. How on earth did this student identify this? I had not publicized my personal convictions or even mentioned God. These students were not aware that I attended a Christian university; they didn’t know whether I went to church or owned a Bible. I did not wear a cross around my neck, nor did I have markings on my body or items of clothing that would even remotely indicate any evidence of my faith. Next to the word believer, this student had drawn a cross, so there was no questioning what she meant by the term. While her assumption was correct, unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to ask this student why she had presumed it. Although there was still ample room for improvement on my behalf, I was left to imagine that there must have been something about my demeanor, or the way I taught that demonstrated Christian characteristics to this student.

As I started reflecting upon this experience, I reaffirmed my belief that a personal commitment to Jesus Christ is a vital prerequisite that lays the foundations for teaching Christianly. However, being a sincere Christian does not mean that one “will automatically teach Christianly” (Van Dyke 5–6); this is a common misconception. Rather, a Christian educator will be intentional about building relationships with his or her students and modelling the qualities that scripture calls the fruit of the Spirit in every interaction. Unless teachers have these personal characteristics, students cannot be guided in “the truth in authentic and effective ways” (Van Brummelen 48).

Teaching Christianly is far more than just organizing activities or ensuring the learning goals on the lesson plan align with the curricular intentions. It goes beyond knowing all the names of the students, or the perimeters of the school. It is greater than academics, than the sporting teams or linking in a tokenistic Christian perspective. The effective Christian teacher views students holistically, through the same lens that Jesus uses, choosing to see past their “flaws” enough to appreciate the precious person on the inside.

To teach Christianly is all-encompassing, as Christian educators experience the “reality of God’s truth” (Cates 18) that guides and empowers them through their own teaching framework. This truth, based on the Word of God, influences their philosophical perspectives on teaching and learning, as they recognise that each individual student enters the classroom not as a “blank page” (Connell et al. 24), but with their own unique experiences, knowledge, and skills. An educator who teaches Christianly, therefore, will view his or her students through this holistic lens and appreciate the journey that each student is on.

Harvard University professor Howard Gardner, who developed the idea of multiple Intelligences, claimed that we all have different ways of learning and that everything can be taught in more than one way (Checkley 8–13). From researching this theory, I have identified that I wish to further explore how to efficiently accommodate my teaching methodology for specific educational needs, and integrate this into a classroom context.

By catering my teaching to suit the individuals in the classroom, I am reinforcing to them that they have value. Likewise, by teaching with a purely “one-size-fits-all approach,” I am unconsciously sending my students a very strong message: that they are not unique, and their learning does not matter to me. Using a model such as Gardner’s multiple intelligences would best allow me to provide my students with a richer and more fruitful learning experience.

Gardner’s approach strongly aligns with a Christian perspective, as the scriptures are full of beautiful examples of Jesus adjusting his language and teaching approaches based on the audience. Yet for teachers, it can be a challenging and daunting process to implement this in a practical sense. This begs the question: What does teaching Christianly look like within a classroom context? There is no clear-cut answer; every teacher’s process will be “unique to that individual and his/her context” (Herschell 121).

Teaching effectively is about taking an active interest in the student, meeting the educational goals, and communicating using a shared metalanguage. To teach Christianly means to take it one step further, as Christian teachers possess a vital “obligation to nurture the faith development of students” (Sutherland 24). Effective Christian educators understand that they are called to live in relationship—both with others and with their Creator. Sutherland (explains that teaching Christianly involves “leading students to more meaningful relationships with Christ through our relationships with them” (24). Along with educational philosophies and theories, these personal relationships are the backbone that underpins and ultimately drives how the educator teaches.

In the beginning of my teaching practicum, I taught with passion and gusto, but I failed to meet the students where they were at. Over the course of this adventure, I grew in confidence and developed my pedagogical practice to reflect the diverse social and emotional needs of the students. While teaching with enthusiasm is a commendable trait, it cannot sustain a teacher over the long haul. The Christian educator needs to have a deep-rooted knowledge of the way his or her students learn best, how they love best and how they respond best. Teaching Christianly is not just teaching students from your heart, but teaching to theirs.

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Elizabeth Clark is a second year education student at Christian Heritage College in Brisbane, Australia, who dreams of being an effective and dynamic Christian teacher. She lives on the Gold Coast with her family and enjoys travelling, watching live musicals, and reading a good book in bed on a rainy day.