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What Does It Mean to Teach Like a Disciple?

What Does It Mean to Teach Like a Disciple?

What is the highest teaching aspiration for a follower of Christ? I believe it is to teach like Jesus taught, to teach like His disciple.

Doug Lemov’s practical book Teach Like a Champion significantly influenced the K–12 profession by assuring all novices that while excellent teaching is hard work, it is achievable—in part through implementing several strategic but often simple techniques. The phrase “teach like a champion” has been used both to encourage and challenge many beginning and even veteran educators to improve their practice. It reminds them of their ultimate goal in the classroom: to equip their students for college, careers, and civic engagement.

However, as an education professor who values and recommends Lemov’s ideas, I wondered if Christian educators should aspire to be something more than a champion in the classroom. Although Lemov’s goal and strategies are extremely valid and useful, I began to ask, “What is the highest teaching aspiration for a follower of Christ?” I believe it is to teach like Jesus taught, to teach like His disciple. Thus I began my exploration of Jesus’ interactions in the Gospels with many different types of “students,” and then shared these findings in class devotional times with my college students.

When graduates returned to campus and told me how these brief comments had helped them in their first years of teaching, I decided to write a book for other K–12 Christian educators on what it means to teach like a disciple, featuring 10 encounters Christ had with an extremely diverse group that included wealthy and poor, male and female, unschooled and well-educated, impulsive and shy, influential and powerless, those familiar to Him and those who were strangers, as well as those of His own faith and culture and those outside of it. The individuals He taught were remarkably similar to the broad spectrum of students we find in our public and private school classrooms today.

To keep “teach like a disciple” from merely serving as a slogan for Christian educators, we need to unpack the phrase. Although there is not space here to include every lesson, there are three aspects of this concept that I would like to offer you, whether you are a classroom teacher or an administrator with instructional leadership responsibilities. My goal in sharing these insights is to take a global truth offered in Jesus’ curriculum or pedagogy and see its application to our profession without trivializing His original message. My intent is not to substitute a practical meaning for an eternal one, but to show how Jesus communicated significant truths through a carefully chosen instructional approach—one that was specifically tailored for each of His students.

To teach like a disciple means we are, first and foremost, relational teachers.

It doesn’t matter what subject we teach; if we are not relational, we will not be effective educators. The first lesson we learn from Jesus is that He was relational. This is not only a spiritual but a recognized professional aspiration. Charlotte Danielson, creator of “A Framework for Teaching” (the foundation for public school teacher evaluation in most states) writes, “Teaching depends, fundamentally, on the quality of relationships among individuals” (Danielson 2007).

Jesus himself demonstrated the importance of establishing and strengthening appropriate relationships when He met Mary Magdalene outside the tomb after His resurrection. Despite having just accomplished the greatest feat in history—saving all humanity from the power of sin by His death and resurrection—He stopped to take time for her. All of heaven waited to celebrate Jesus’ glorious return, because He heard a heartbroken woman crying in a garden and needed to heal her sorrow. Knowing that Jesus had delivered Mary from demon possession, we can understand why she was so despondent and why He mattered so much to her. But it is somewhat shocking to realize that she mattered that much to Jesus. Although she certainly would have learned of His resurrection later from the apostles, He delayed His schedule to personally meet her need in that moment. He assured her that everything was all right. In fact, for the first time since the Garden of Eden, everything was truly right again.

Just as Mary learned that she mattered to Jesus, our students need to know they matter to us—not just as students but as persons too. I often think of how busy we teachers are both inside and outside of the classroom. It is so easy to let our instructional responsibilities take priority over every other aspect of our profession. However, from this account, we learn that there is no lesson plan, no appointment, no phone call, no issue more important than meeting with a student who is troubled. This was true when I was a kindergarten teacher, but it is equally true as a college professor. No matter what their age, all students deserve a safe space for releasing a burden and a caring adult who can provide empathy, advice, or advocacy for them as the situation requires.

Being a relational teacher does not imply that we must all be extroverts. Susan Cain’s research reports that one-third to one-half of all adults, including teachers, are introverted (Cain 2013). Being introverted is a natural phenomenon, not a disadvantage for either students or teachers to overcome. Introverted teachers contribute significantly to students and other school faculty members through their thoughtful perspective and analysis. Regardless of whether we consider ourselves to be extroverted or introverted teachers, being relational requires us to be perceptive of and accessible to our students.

Although we need to be available to help our students in a major crisis, many times it is our smallest action that students remember best. It may be calling them at home when they have missed class or done well on an assignment. Perhaps it is affirming them for being thoughtful toward another student when they didn’t think we had noticed or just stopping in the hall to have a conversation with them about their weekend. We can communicate our desire to know our students better in a variety of ways, but they all require taking time to show that we are genuinely interested in them, just as Christ took time with Mary Magdalene. To teach like His disciple, we must work to connect with every student.

To teach like a disciple means we value the individual student.

Because Jesus offered His students such abundant healing, wisdom, and love, it is easy to see the stark contrast between the all-knowing, benevolent Master Teacher and His needy students. It is tempting to see His students only for the qualities they lacked rather than what they possessed. But Jesus saw His students’ strengths and built on them to help each one learn His objective. He recognized Mary Magdalene’s loyalty and sense of agency, and therefore gave her the first gospel message to deliver to the apostles. He recognized the Samaritan woman’s intelligence and spiritual knowledge to help her understand that He truly was the Messiah. He saw determination and sincere faith in a woman who brushed against Him in a crowd, making her healing public so that she could be restored to her community. He saw boldness in Peter’s impulsivity. He recognized Saul’s keen mind and rich background to take the gospel to the Gentiles, even though all others feared him for persecuting the fledgling church. Jesus saw resilient trust in Mary and Martha despite their great disappointment when He did not come immediately to heal their brother, Lazarus. He accepted love and gratitude from a woman entrenched in prostitution, and by doing this showed her true compassion. As evidenced in these and other encounters, Jesus consistently looked beyond His students’ disadvantages and instead used their capacities to engage them in understanding truth.

As educators we might be tempted to look at these interactions and focus only on poverty, religious and cultural differences, social class discrimination, the effects of trauma, attention-seeking behavior, emotional crisis, or prejudice. But Jesus did not succumb to this pattern of deficit thinking; He saw capacity in His learners regardless of their background. Jesus is regarded as a remarkable teacher not because He recognized and addressed these complex issues but because He valued the individuals who faced them. He is an exemplary model for us in this regard.

Elementary and secondary teaching goals often work against valuing the individual. The need to group learners for instruction often makes us appreciate conformity over individual differences. Learners who already excel at a subject or who fail to grasp its fundamental concepts are challenging to thoughtful teachers because they require us to differentiate our instruction. Non-native English speakers and students requiring special education services similarly stretch us to adapt our teaching skills for their specific linguistic and physical needs. Addressing these complex challenges takes time and expertise, two resources that are often scarce for busy classroom teachers. However, if we are not mindful of our model, we may not see the “tree” for the forest. To teach like a disciple, we must look for each student’s strengths.

To teach like a disciple means we hold all of our students to high expectations.

If a group of teachers were to design a profile of the ideal student, I imagine it would look a lot like the rich young ruler in Mark 10. We would all probably want this obedient, accomplished, and motivated student to be in our own class. He had financial resources, solid background knowledge, and a strong track record of following directions. The Gospel of Mark even includes the fact that “Jesus looked on him and loved him” (10:22). What more could we want in a learner?

However, the encounter ends far differently than we might have predicted. I believe the young man anticipated another answer to his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” than the one he received from the Master Teacher. I think he expected Jesus to tell him that if he just kept on doing what he was doing, he would easily gain access to heaven. The young man merely wanted the assurance that his many efforts were good enough to please God. But Jesus didn’t say this. There are no self-made men or women in heaven, because access to heaven is not based on what we have done. It is based solely on what Christ has done for us.

The end of this encounter with Jesus shows our highly successful “dream student” failing to grasp the most important lesson. Jesus saw that the young man’s identity was trapped in the most obvious sign of his success—his great wealth. Therefore Jesus asked him to give it all to the poor. Since the young man could not do this, he turned and sadly walked away. As an educator, I find Jesus’ demand of the rich young ruler shocking. If I had been in Jesus’ place, I probably would have run after the young man calling out, “Wait! What about giving away just half of it? What about starting with just a third?” I hate to see a student not succeed, so I would have been tempted to lower my expectation for him. But Jesus didn’t compromise. The paradox of salvation is that it is freely given, but it demands everything. Jesus didn’t change His requirements; He actually let the student He loved fail.

Jesus is a great example here of a teacher who employs “tough love,” a skill every educator must master. Discerning when to hold a student responsible and when to offer grace is one of the greatest challenges for novices. For beginners, it is easy to mistake excusing a student for showing compassion to a student. We don’t want anyone to fail, in part because it indicates we too have failed. This misguided compassion results in students quickly learning how to wriggle out of assignments or how to avoid consequences that are rightfully theirs to pay. Over time, students fail to achieve what they must learn and are ultimately cheated out of a rich and rigorous educational experience. So even though life at home may be especially difficult for one student, we cannot excuse him from turning in his homework. We may need to modify an assignment for a student with a learning disability, but we still need to insist she finish it. To help my pre-service teachers prepare for situations like these, I have them practice saying, “Because I care about you, I am holding you accountable.” To teach like Jesus’ disciple, we can’t compromise our expectations.

Conclusion

Teaching is one of the most demanding professions we can choose. As a teacher educator, I need to assure my state board of education that every graduate I recommend for a license is “safe to practice,” much like a pilot must be deemed “safe to practice” before being allowed to fly passengers to their destination. The analogy communicates the importance of mastering professional preparation before beginning one’s teaching career—although the teacher is not only to fly the plane, but also provide the beverage service and monitor the bathrooms during the flight. Stepping into a classroom requires us to fill an overwhelming number of roles.

However, teaching is also a highly rewarding ministry. We are called by God to instruct and encourage students in the ways He has called them to live. We are also called to support their parents in this process and contribute to our school community life. You can’t find more significant work than this profession. You never know when you might have a Mary Magdalene, a Peter, a Martha, a rich young ruler, or even a Saul sitting in front of you. You also cannot find a better guide than the Master Teacher himself. I pray that all of the teachers at your school will teach like His disciple.

Questions to consider:

  1. How do my interactions with others in the school context demonstrate a desire to learn from others?
  2. What am I currently learning from students that challenges me to grow and understand life from a different perspective?
  3. How can I build relational learning opportunities into my classroom so that students are truly challenged to love and appreciate those who are very different from them?

References

Cain, S. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. 2013. Broadway: New York.
Danielson, C. 2007. Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA.

About the Author

Jill LederhouseJillian N. Lederhouse, PhD, is professor of education at Wheaton College. She is the author of two books, Teach Like a Disciple (Wipf & Stock) and Life Lessons through a Teacher’s Eyes (ACSI). She coordinates the undergraduate programs, including an elementary urban partnership, and teaches courses in elementary education, math education, and special education. She can be reached via email at jillian.lederhouse@wheaton.edu