Why Do We Teach?

Most of us who are educators, probably wonder from time to time about why we do what we do, and whether the efforts we make on behalf of our students have any lasting impact. To illustrate, some years ago I attended the twenty-fifth anniversary class reunion of a group of students that I had taught early in my teaching career. I had fond memories of that class. They had generally been an enjoyable group, focused on learning and interested in dealing with challenging material, and I looked forward to meeting them again.

When I arrived for the reunion, one of the first guests I met greeted me enthusiastically. “Mr. Van Arragon,” he said, “You were my favorite teacher in high school.” I was flattered! Since I had taught this class a number of different courses, I asked him what I had taught him. He was not sure, he said, but he thought it was probably mathematics.

Now, anyone who knows me at all knows that the chances of me teaching a course in high school mathematics are nonexistent.  So why would this student remember me as a good teacher but apparently have no memory of what I had taught him?

In an article in The Stone titled “Why Do I Teach?” published on May 22, 2013, Gary Gutting of the philosophy department of the University of Notre Dame observes that not many of us remember information that we as students used to ace tests a few years ago, a fact confirmed by my former student who thought I had taught him mathematics. If students do not remember what we teach them, why do we teach?

It may be helpful to think about learning in terms of what we expect our students to remember for sixty minutes, sixty days, or sixty years. The sixty-minute material would generally be information that we would use to introduce students to an area of study and spark their interest in what we hope they will learn. The sixty-day material would be knowledge of the content of the area of study that we would expect students to use in assignments and tests. The sixty-year material would be the wisdom that we hope that students would develop as a result of their work that would profoundly shape their lives.

Or, put another way, here is Gary Gutting:

We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls.
The fruits of college teaching should be measured not by tests but by the popularity of museums, classical concerts, art film houses, book discussion groups, and publications like Scientific American, The New York Review of Books, The Economist, and The Atlantic, to cite just a few. These are the places where our students reap the benefits of their education. . . .

Gutting goes on to point out that the things that we remember best from our days as students are those things that we use in our regular activities, including skills and information. The rest of what we learn may lie dormant until it is awakened by something we read or see or are asked to do. But the key to good teaching and learning lies in how it can stimulate “critical thinking and creativity: the ability to detect tacit but questionable assumptions and to develop new ways of understanding issues—in short, to think beyond what ‘everyone knows.’”

I would suggest that we can take Gutting’s ideas one step further. We might put it this way: In our work as Christian educators, we help students to grow a vision of what the world, God`s world, might be like if it reflected more closely the shalom that God intended for all of creation. We help them see the brokenness in the world, but not as people who have no hope, because we also help them see the redemptive power of God at work in the world. And then we help them see, experience, and practice how they can be active participants in the work of healing and restoration to which God has called all people. That may not be what they often see in the world around them, but in the end, it is that vision that can give meaning and hope to their lives and to ours.

I do not know why my student who thought that I had taught him mathematics thought I was the best teacher he had ever had. I hope, however, that in my classes he had caught something of that vision, of a different, a more God-honoring way of seeing the world and of being in the world.

It is my hope and prayer that the lives of our students may be so transformed by our teaching this year that the world becomes a brighter and more hopeful place as a result of who they are and who they become.