Learning from the Master Teacher

By Dr. Bernard W. Benn

Presentation at the Oakwood College Department of English and Communications Departmental Workshop

 

Someone suggested to me that for my presentation I should expand on the devotion I did for a departmental meeting last semester. I quickly embraced the suggestion for two reasons. (1) I didn’t have to search for another topic and (2) the devotional theme reflects one of the goals identified in the institutional self study. Those of you who were present at the departmental meeting might recall that I spoke about some of the qualities I admired in the Master Teacher and wished I could emulate in my own teaching. I talked about His patience, His compassion, His availability and approachability, His magnetism, and above all His love for His students. I shall add to these this morning and hope I can encourage you to seek with me to learn from the Great Teacher.

Let us begin with His non-exclusive or rather His all-inclusive policy. As both Creator and Teacher, Jesus loved diversity. I will have to tread softly here as I share clearly what is just my opinion, but perhaps you will agree with me. When Jesus created man, could He not have made humankind either male or female? Why did He choose to create them male and female with different anatomies? Some today (and through the ages) would better His creation and would rather have it all male or all female. Do you think it was only for procreation that He made humankind and the animals, male and female? Why is it that even among the animals and the trees and the flowers, there is such diversity? Have you ever considered what the world would have been like if it were a world of all males ( or even females, though it probably would have been a little better or at least prettier if it were all female)?

Didn’t Jesus show His love for diversity and variety when He chose the twelve? Some of the twelve I presume were well educated, some not so well educated, some were young, some were old, some were outspoken, some retiring, some even of the doubting type, some fiery like the sons of thunder, and not all of the same vocation or social status. But He taught them all; He fed them the same spiritual food.

As teachers, are we as comfortable with diversity as Jesus was? I am not talking mainly of diversity in educational training and background. I am not asking if we are comfortable in a multi-grade classroom. I am asking if we are comfortable with the economic, social, ethnic, racial, geographical, political mix in our classrooms and on the faculty and staff. Perhaps as an international faculty I cannot help seeing the decline in our efforts to attract foreign students. Don’t try to read more into this statement than is my intent. This is not intended as an indictment of anyone. I just want us to be more aware of the enormous benefits and advantages of diversity, to be comfortable in the classroom with a diverse group of students, to be comfortable in the cafeteria, in the library, in the dormitories, to be comfortable everywhere on campus as I believe Jesus would have been. It is not so on all campuses, but it certainly can be so at Oakwood, and as teachers we must lead the way. Remember how intolerant the American society seemed toward certain groups under some presidents and how much more tolerant under others? The same will be true of our campus.

I am sure that some of you did not miss the fact that in describing the diversity of Jesus’ Twelve, I could not state that there were women in the group. Doesn’t this put a limit on Jesus' love of diversity? If He loves diversity so much, why did He not include at least one woman among the Twelve? This brings me to the second quality that I would like to have as a teacher. Jesus was very tactful. Tact is born of wisdom, and we are all admonished to be wise as serpents but harmless as doves. Jesus worked within the framework of His society. The record is quite clear that many women became His disciples. But He did not call one of them to be an apostle. To do so would have jeopardized His ministry and His mission. You remember when one of the women got close to Him in public, how the rumor started that if He were indeed the divine teacher He would have known what kind of woman was messing with Him (pardon the slang). Can you imagine if He had one or two women following Him around as closely as the apostles what rumors would have been rampant around town? It would have been very bad for His reputation as well as for the reputation of the apostles. Jesus was too tactful to make that mistake. Am I as tactful in my dealings with my students or even with other members of the faculty? Some people excuse their lack of tact by insisting that one should be forthright in dealing with others and should declare bluntly what is on one's mind. Let us remember that "tactful" is not a synonym for "deceitful." Some people who are afraid to speak the truth or wish to deceive tell themselves that they are being tactful. There is a world of difference between tactfulness and deceitfulness. Tactfulness is dealing with the situation with wisdom in an effort to avoid leaving unnecessary scars. Tactfulness also is not timidity. There comes a time when the teacher has to be outspoken. The same Teacher who commended Peter for one answer also said to him in the hearing of others, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" I long for the wisdom of the Master Teacher so that I may know when to commend and when to rebuke, when to pull the student aside and speak softly, or when to say before the whole class, "You’d better get your act together, or you’ll have to leave my class." May God grant us all that wisdom and tact.

The third quality I would like to stress is fairness. Very often we are told the world isn’t fair; therefore we should not expect fairness. Of course, the world isn’t fair. How can it be when it is still Satan’s domain! And how ironic it is that Satan is in charge after he was cast out into this world for accusing Jesus of being unfair. Jesus was fair. We can see that in every aspect of His life on earth. His choice of the apostles was a fair choice. He did not go about choosing apostles on the basis of status, education, or connection. We just observed the diversity of His choice. Not only was His choice a fair choice, but each apostle received a fair chance. Peter didn’t have a better chance than Judas. Jesus had to work as hard with Peter as with Judas. But Peter responded and Judas did not. This fact should remind us that our responsibility is to treat each student with the degree of diligence necessary for the student’s success, but we are not to be surprised or ready to commit suicide when we cannot reach that student in spite of our efforts. Do not let us become psychotic by believing that every failure is our failure. Some educators would have us believe this. Of course, Jesus was saddened when He lost Judas, but He did not abort His Mission because Judas failed.

Back to fairness. I am terribly disturbed when I see employers, administrators, and teachers making decisions and concessions based on face, favor, friendship, and fellowship. Too often two or more people under similar circumstances with similar qualifications may make the same requests, and one is approved and the others are not, and the only determining factor seems to be the connection the grantee may have with the grantor. Too often bonuses, promotions, allowances of one kind or another, exemptions, and so on, are based not on merit but on membership; that is, membership in the "club." As teachers, we must make every effort to see that we do not treat one student better than another because of family connections, financial, social or physical advantages, or any other such reason. We must be prepared, if we offer one student an opportunity to make up work, to give the same opportunity to other students who may make the same request under similar circumstances. This is one of the reasons why I rarely, if ever, allow students to do what they call "extra work" to improve their grades. My argument is that, except under extraordinary circumstances, if I grant the opportunity to one, I must be prepared to grant it to all.

Often I have heard students say "that’s not fair," when what they mean is "that’s not what I expected," or "that’s a lot of work you are asking me to do," or "if I have to turn in the assignment tomorrow, I won’t be able to get an early start home for the weekend." Do not let students disturb you with their twisted definition of fair. When I talk about "fair" or "fairness," I am talking about being free from favoritism or bias. I am talking about being consistent and impartial. As teachers we need to be consistent. Employers and administrators, politicians and judges need to be consistent. Isn’t it comforting to know that as we approach Jesus we can count on the fact that He will be consistent? Don’t you think our students will be rather comfortable if they can count on the fact that we will be consistent in our dealings with them? And something else. Do you know when we are consistent, we will save ourselves from a lot of unnecessary problems later on?

So we want to be fair like Jesus, the Master Teacher. But was Jesus really free of favoritism. Didn’t He show special favor to Peter, James, and John? Didn’t He take just these three with Him to the Mount of Transfiguration, to Jairus’ house, and to Gethsemane? Didn’t John get the seat close to Him? Let us not confuse the attitude of the student with the actions of the teacher. Peter, James, and John had a special relationship with Jesus because they sought that relationship. They wanted to be close to Jesus, and the Master did not drive them away because He thought others might accuse Him of favoritism. And lest you should think that He did show favoritism towards them, remember that He did not hesitate to rebuke them when they should be rebuked.

Remember also that He did not reward their relationship with Him by sending them on a tour (all expenses paid). He didn’t bequeath to them His special robe; He didn’t give them expensive gifts. Note what His reward was: He bestowed upon them greater responsibility (with corresponding hardship) to lead His church and consequently to drink of the cup He drank of, for tradition tells us that Peter was crucified, James was beheaded, and John was exiled. Was this favoritism? How many students you know would like to be thus favored?

I am not denying that Jesus had an inner circle, but that inner circle meant added responsibility, not unmerited favors and season tickets and paid for club membership. Employers and administrators will also have their inner circle, their cabinet, upon whom they will rely for counsel and inspiration; they will not just look forward to being stroked. An inner circle is a natural thing. We feel closer to those with similar language, culture, heritage, and interests. It is natural that some students will get closer to us than others. How will we handle it and not show favoritism in the negative way that word is normally used? We must learn from the Master Teacher.

Lastly, the Master Teacher teaches me that "more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of." Jesus spent a great deal of time in prayer. He prayed before every big lecture and I am sure every small one, too. He prayed before every demonstration or presentation. He prayed at every critical moment, and He prayed not only for Himself but for His students also. And so I have learned to pray when I enter my office in the mornings. I pray for myself and my students, I pray before I make a test and while I am making the test, I pray when I am grading the test, and I pray for sure before I give final grades at the end of each semester. And yet I know I don’t pray enough. I have not yet learned to pray like the Master.

But when all is said and done, perhaps maybe the greatest lesson we can learn from the Master Teacher is that there is yet a more excellent way, and that is that we should try hard to love our students and to love teaching. And to end on the highest possible note: we know of a surety that God just loves teachers.