In preparing for a brand new online class, created from scratch, I’ve been reviewing a lot of the materials I’ve used for other classes. In wondering how to teach through an online class, my first ever, the 5 Guiding Questions that I use in every class I’ve ever taught, I came across a blog post from the very first college course I ever taught. They appeared one day in class, to help guide the conversation, and they have been on the board, in the conversation and on the tests and quizzes for the nearly 10 different classes I’ve taught since then.
In reflecting on them this evening, and reflecting on where they were coming from as I was teaching that first class ever…in reflecting on the friendships and colleagues that the students in this picture have become, in reflecting on what I’ve learned since then, they become even more meaningful.
I had agreed to teach this course while still working at a church. I found out between accepting the role of teaching this course while working at the church and when the course would actually begin that I would be encouraged by the pastor to give my resignation because I didn’t fit with his vision. I realized later, in that same conversation, that the problem was I viewed leadership as engaging the people, the congregation, the community in discerning what God was doing and where we should be going.
I learned then, and later, that these five guiding questions had guided me out of a job that I loved but could not stay in, and into several jobs that I’ve since fallen deeply in love with. To my students that very first class, you really were the best first class ever. You taught me much, and your friendships have proven invaluable, restorative, and inspiring.
I debated before my very first classroom teaching experience whether or not to pretend like I knew what I was doing. Whether or not to tell the truth when we began that they were joining me on a journey that was the first of its kind for me, or “Don’t let them see you sweat,” as I’ve heard people in leadership say to me before. It never settled well with me. We all sweat. Why shouldn’t they see it?
I think when I walked into the room, I still had not made up my mind. They were seated quietly (this once), waiting to see what the shape of the class would be. I was just as curious as they were.
“Well, I tried to decide whether to pretend like I know what I’m doing with you folks, but, I feel like I should come clean: This is my first undergraduate teaching experience. So there. Now you know.”
Apparently, my mouth had decided the game plan but had not remembered to inform my mind.
“Uh oh…” someone said, then the room laughed, and then we began one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had. Definitely the best first class ever. Admitting that I would likely sweat that very first day allowed us to sweat together, and made something very communal, spiritual and human possible and present in the room.
We engaged for the next semester in a class about “faith-based social service,” and the wheres, hows, whys, and whats of how the church and people of faith bring the good news that God through Christ will make right all things cursed by sin, bringing his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Things you can get fired for talking about. Things like the human heart, sex-trafficking, homelessness, planned poverty, economic injustice, christian arrogance and ignorance, poverty, greed, pride, loneliness, mental illness, individualistic idolatry, systemic injustice, abuse, trauma, and on and on and on.
“As far as the curse is found,” the old hymn reminds us. And it’s found far beyond only our human hearts and inside our churches, but in our broken communities waiting to see and hear the good news all the same. The big and broad good news that has more to do with everything else than it has to do with us.
And as a class, we began to engage these issues, tried different typologies out on them, dressed them in different best-practice approaches, and delved into scripture to see what it is we work toward and how we are called to work toward it. Throughout, we explicitly tried to guide our discussions and studies with a few questions that we would ask of each other, authors of the texts, practitioners in the field, and pastors in our churches:
1. Is it a bad either or?
Are these bad either/or scenarios that we are working within? Have we picked a side on something that may not (although it very well may) be a real either/or situation? How can we back up enough to see this clearly?
2. What are the assumptions?
What assumptions are we working from but ignoring as we move forward? Have we questioned these assumptions, and are we okay with them if we are building on them? How can we notice these assumptions? Who or what can be engaged to reveal them to us?
3. What are the power dynamics?
What power dynamics are at play, and what are they costing us and those we serve? Are we being honest to notice them, or are we trying to convince ourselves that they don’t exist? Whose voice and eyes can help us see them, and readjust?
4. Where did this information come from?
Where did this information come from? Is it valid? Is it biased? (Yes.) So where is the other side of the bias, and have we considered it? Are we looking for the truth, or looking for something that defends our current stance?
5. What is absent but implicit?
Built out of the narrative therapy tradition that has stolen my imagination, this question is important and fresh. What have we left out of our questions, our conversations, our research, our planning, our programming and our praying? And what can its absence reveal to us about how we may be thinking wrongly or ignorantly about the issues? Whose voice, opinion, insight or criticism are we ignoring, and what does that reveal about us and our work?
When the class would be engaged in discussion, and a student would offer one of these questions to help push us into more clarity, I would feel my insides jump for joy. More than any solutions or approaches we came to as a class, or read about in our texts, the impact for Christ and his kingdom that is likely to be had will come from a student being guided by the curiosity and humility that these guiding questions encourage. So when they were thrown into the conversation by the students themselves, I would immediately envision them running organizations, pastoring churches, or working in businesses in the future, throwing out these same questions from the field, the pulpit, or the boardroom.
It makes me beyond hopeful.
And then, the best of all, toward the end of the semester, I was challenged––called out––by a student when I made a comment beginning with a phrase I had warned them to be wary of. In talking about a particular issue, the words, “Well, it all boils down to this: …” came from my lips.
I didn’t hear them. But my students did. One spoke up from the back, “But Donald, does it really?Does it really all boil down to that?” Much like that first class, we all laughed, someone says, “Uh oh….” and we continue with a more honest, more appropriate, more life-giving conversation than ones stifled by a person in the front informing everyone of how complex and nuanced issues “all boil down” to something that they of course do not and cannot. I had been called out, and it was the most rewarding experience of the entire semester.
So to those students, the best first class I will ever have, I give my deep thanks! You have taught me to be comfortable with what I do and do not know. You have taught me that laughing at myself and the clumsiness of the process creates space for honest dialogue and true progress. You have taught me that respect comes in the form of accountability and honesty, not position or title. And you have taught me that making room to be called out can be most rewarding.
And you have taught me that there is much to be hopeful for as you enter the world with the good news of Christ and his kingdom. The practice fields, the pulpits, and the boardrooms you operate in will be graced with a fresh humility and curiosity that will always be pregnant with the hope of all things being made new.
I look with great anticipation toward your futures.
Pine Tree Dr