What it Means to Be a Teacher

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Tomorrow (May 6th) is National Teachers Day, so it’s a wonderful time to reflect on teaching, especially in my context as a liberal religious educator.  Last week I read Teaching from the Heart: Theology and Educational Method by Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore.   Moore, a professor of Theology and Christian Education, also wrote Teaching as a Sacramental Act (which is on my TBR list, for sure).

Moore’s book stands out among the reading I have done, because it takes both theology and pedagogy (teaching method and theory) seriously and puts them into dialogue with each other.  She raises the point that too often practice and theory are divorced or distant from one another, and that theory in particular is often deaf to the voice of practical experience.  Moore puts one theology (process theology) into dialogue with five different educational methods (case study method, gestalt method, phenomenological method, narrative method, and conscientizing method), and proposes how the theology and the methods would alter each other.

The book, published in 1991, is dated – these aren’t the current “it” theologies or methods – but I think it is still of immense value to the religious educator, placing our work in perspective.  What Moore is really pointing out is that the ordinary, real experience right in front of us can be attended to with care and attention and can influence our entire understanding of everything (our theology). For me, this has always meant that when I work with real people – children, youth, adults – I am open to new understandings of who they are and how they can grow, and that understanding of how to be human is deeply informative to my theology.  I find my truth in the people right in front of me, and in the real experiences I have with them.

That is what it is to be a teacher, seeing the real people in front of you with deep compassion while also seeing the possibilities and holding a passion for growth.  A teacher is a midwife, a supportive building scaffold, and most of all a bridge between the concrete now of experience and the possibility of ideas and future.  In Moore’s words:

The many and various educators share the common vocation of humanization – the vocation of supporting human life and the quality of that life.”

This is the gift of a teacher – to revere the ordinary so much that it becomes extraordinarily ordinary.”  

 

In many ways, everyone is a teacher, whether they mean to be or not.  We cannot help but influence one another, and be influenced in return.  But for those who consciously choose this vocation, may it always be a work of the heart.

Religious Education Lessons Remembered

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As I am on Sabbatical from the congregation right now, and headed out to Boston to UUA headquarters for the final interview of the religious education credentialing process, I’ve chosen to take the time for an Epic Road Trip Adventure with my two kids.  One of our stops recently was here, at Walden Pond and the replica of Thoreau’s little cabin.

At first, when I told the kids we were going to Walden Pond, they had no idea what the connection was.  But when they saw the little cabin, they remembered what they had learned about Thoreau in their religious education classes over the years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they remembered the story Henry Builds a Cabin  by D.B. Johnson, which has been told in a worship service, read to several classes, and made into a Spirit Play story.  The book series by D. B. Johnson is charming and he tells the story of the cabin very well.

But the real thrill for me was that as my son sat in that cabin he dredged up a memory from a lesson that I created for a mixed grade class at church in 2009, when he would have been only 6 years old.  He said “didn’t we once have a class where you gave us a bunch of blocks and the challenge was to build a tiny cabin with the fewest blocks you could?”  Yes!  We did do that, and I’m actually delighted that it made enough of an impression for him to remember it five years later.

Of course, just remembering some random activity doesn’t mean that he really understands Thoreau’s philosophy, let alone that his life will be changed or transformed in any way.  But it is touching to me that our children and youth remember things later as being profound or meaningful that at the time we may not notice as such, and that the weekly RE lesson or activity may truly become one of their defining moments in hindsight.  When youth stand up and give their credo speeches in church, I have heard such moments remembered: that time we did a pie sale and it was the first time I ever got to help in a kitchen, it meant so much to me; when we were all talking to the minister and he said X, that really stuck with me; just being here and playing games with people who accept me for myself, that saved my life when I was depressed and lonely.

In the moment, we don’t know if it will be remembered, if it makes a difference, or if it’s even worth doing.  The fruits of educational labor aren’t always seen right away – they may take years to manifest.  And that is why this is a work of profound faith and hope, sowing seeds that we hope will grow but that we may never see.  It’s a wonderful gift when we do get to see it – when a child has an obvious Aha! moment or when a youth looks back and remembers, but we may never see those things.  Teachers move forward in faith and hope, so thank you for all those days when you showed up even though it didn’t seem to make a difference, or you worked so hard on an activity and then when the kids were asked what they did in class they said “nothing really”, or you lead a discussion that felt like pulling teeth.  Those might have been profoundly meaningful to a child or a youth.  Hold onto that.