Tag Archives: relational teaching

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

We teach who we are.

Teaching isn’t as much about the what as it is about the who – who you are as a teacher is communicated more thoroughly than any ‘content’ in the lesson plan.

Source: Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

This is a great read. Had to share.


Why I mentor

As an exercise to wrap up the training this week, I’m supposed to draft my personal mission statement / elevator speech explanation of why I mentor at WGU.

I’m an educator. It’s what I do. It’s what I am.

When I was a kid, I used to pretend sometimes that I was a teacher, and play-act teaching in front of a classroom. This happened alongside pretending to be a lot of other things, like a doctor or a missionary, so I never put much stock in it. In fact, once I got it in my head that I was going to be a missionary, I pretty much stopped looking at any other options.

But now, looking back at myself, it’s no surprise that eventually the teaching profession came and found me. Literally, that’s exactly what happened.  An acquaintance in our area called us up one day and asked us to come talk with him. He was working at a tiny, new little school in the area and they were looking to start a high school. They needed teachers who would commit to at least 4 years, to put a stop to faculty turnover. And they wanted teachers who had a broad liberal arts background and a knack for education. Dennis felt that we had both, so he asked us to apply for teaching jobs. And we did.

The decade I spent teaching was the single most life-altering experience I’ve had. It changed me more than my religious conversion, more than meeting my husband and getting married, more than traveling to Europe when I was 22, more than losing both my parents by the time I turned 25.

Everything about my world changed when I became a teacher.  My M.Ed. program at Covenant drove that change even harder, challenging everything I thought I understood theologically and practically and professionally in the realm of education.

My students rocked my world.  I learned to laugh, cry, suffer, rejoice, and fear with  and for them. I grew up during that decade.  I gained a ton of confidence in myself and in my students. I loved them fiercely and unashamedly. I’m still proud of that.

Leaving the classroom was hard, but it was also right. I had to grow. I had to go away to see more of the world because the classroom had become too small. So these past four years in communications and higher education were needed and valuable. I sharpened a whole set of skills that would otherwise still be dormant. I needed to rub shoulders with new people. It was uncomfortable and scary, but it was necessary or I would never believe myself when I say now, I know that my life’s work lies in education.

For me, teaching is relational. You cannot claim to have succeeded with a student if you merely dumped information into their brains. Any computer can do that with a mere Google search.  I’ve never bought into the idea that lecturing or assigning papers equals giving students a “good education.”  Education should radically alter the learner and the teacher. Both stand side-by-side in the learning space, struggling to make meaning of this broken world.

When I say teaching is relational, I mean that education happens in the context of interpersonal interactions, both with peers and with the teacher. While it’s theoretically possible for someone to be entirely self-taught, those individuals are extremely rare. Humans crave companionship and community. We work better as a team than as individuals. Lone wolves get eaten.

So why am I a student mentor at WGU when that position radically redefines the role of a faculty member (in ways that make many uncomfortable)?

Because the learners who have the deepest needs are the learners who most benefit from personal, caring education. They benefit the most from education that happens within a relationship. 

Not all students should adopt online education as their model. It doesn’t work for everybody. I’m not sold on the idea that WGU is the right choice for an 18 year old with little life experience. By definition, competency-based education requires that the learner bring some competencies to the table. And few teens have lived broadly enough to learn from The School of Hard Knocks.

But many adults have.  The ones who started college but had to drop out, the ones who never saw themselves as smart enough to make it through a degree, the ones for whom school was a prison because the lessons put before them had little connection to the lives they lived.  For these students – often underserved and haunted by the spectres of broken dreams and failure – an education grounded in a relationship may be the only way they escape the poverty and limited opportunities delegated to those who do not walk through an employer’s door with a diploma in hand.

WGU wants to make a difference in the lives of those students, and in those for whom graduate credentials would otherwise be out of reach.  This is a mission I can put my weight behind, and the fact that WGU’s model grounds students’ learning in a mentor relationship seals the deal.

Teaching is relational. And that is why I mentor students at WGU.


Want to discuss education?

This is a small plug for a site where I and a few friends chip away at the ideas behind “teaching redemptively” — applying the Gospel to the structures of education, not just the words used in the classroom or censoring textbooks or any number of surface-level attempts at biblical worldview integration.

The title of the blog is an homage to the book Teaching Redemptively by Donovan Graham, a work that profoundly affected the way I view teaching and learning.  Seeing how the Gospel transforms the very fabric of classroom structures, student-teacher relationships, and perspectives on the curriculum & subjects taught deeply changed how I approach discussions of education.

Finding myself in the company of a few colleagues who were studying at the same graduate school and absorbing the same viewpoint, we began writing — a little — in an attempt to tell some of our stories and unpack the day to day experiment of “Grace-based education.”

Our goal was to kick off a longer project of writing a series of case studies that illustrate or illuminate the principles Graham sets forth in T.R.   Names changed to protect the innocent and guilty, of course.

There’s much that we never got around to writing down, and some older posts that we might even wish to revise. But if you have any interest in thinking through what the Gospel means for education across all ages, we’d love for you to join the journey with us.

A note during the changeover:  I can’t update original author attribution until my fellow writers get over here to WP.  For the moment, all posts are listed under my name, but many were authored by my colleagues.  I’ll at least get authors listed over the course of the next few weeks.

Teaching Redemptively: A Blog on Grace-Based Education

TR blog shot

Teaching Redemptively: It’s about the students, really.

Teaching Redemptively: It’s about the students, really.

Teaching is a subject that’s always on my mind, no matter what I’m actually doing at the moment. And finding a teacher who rants in line with my heart on teaching is just the best. 😉

I published my thoughts over on the Teaching Redemptively blog, so head there to read and discuss.

Happy Friday, all!

Online education – just a pathway to low-quality education?

Let me lead into today’s story with a Facebook thread:

My friend John & I had this discussion this morning.  Well, it wasn't much of a discussion since this is all we said. But it got me thinking ....
My friend John & I had this discussion this morning. Well, it wasn’t much of a discussion since this is all we said. But it got me thinking ….


John’s personal journey from a pastor’s home to Bob Jones to becoming an actor and an atheist (agnostic? both? probably) and then back into Christianity is just …. crazy.  And awesome.   He also reviews great music albums and great beer selections on his blog. You really can’t go wrong.

But my point here is this:  John is a great student. He’s already far more qualified than nearly anyone in class with him …. he’s read waaaaay more books than I’ll ever get to, he’s well-versed in theater theory and acting techniques, he reads crazy deep theology and philosophy and history books because he thinks that’s fun. We get into arguments all the time.  It should be a sporting event with tickets.  And this guy, of all the people I know, should be able to squeeze an online course for all it’s worth.

But his Facebook post this morning struck a nerve with me.

As long as we define education in terms of knowledge — sheer quantities of facts to be digested, disgorged, arranged, codified, grokked — we are missing the point of true education.

Online courses can deliver facts. Sometimes they can facilitate the development of skills, even – if the online learning community is a robust one, full of self-motivated practitioners who are helping each other reach new levels.

But I’m becoming more convinced that you can’t replicate the Human element of education — the relational angle — apart from deep and rich personal contact.

Perhaps that is my beef with so much of what I see in K-12 and higher ed these days.  The arguments swirling around whether liberal arts colleges should just go off and die the death make their argument on economic and labor metrics.  The Department of Education marches on in its quest to quantify, quantify, quantify.  Colleges cost a lot, and they get a lot of their money from the federal and state governments (financial aid and loans) so the government has a vested interest in finding out whether those colleges are delivering on their promises.

And in a quantified world, the “promise” always boils down to numbers.   How many grads got jobs in their fields? (Never mind that most 22 year olds have no idea what field they’re supposed to be in.) How many students read at such-n-such level?  How many students failed to graduate? How many of the 50% who enrolled in college dropped out before they finished? (never mind the reason)

I’ve done enough education research and classroom teaching to value data in helping us make wise decisions, and obviously something needs to change.  If 100,000 people can sign up for a Stnaford online course on artificial intelligence, then clearly there’s a worldwide demand for good content.

There must be balance — between demanding that mom and dad pay for their dreamer to wander through Bulgaria on an art history vision quest and shoving kids who love the humanities into studying computer programming because those are the only jobs open right now.

Not everyone should go to college; not all pathways to success should be measured in annual income or education levels.

Perhaps everything went wrong when we lost our ability to value the qualitative relationships of teacher and student now replaced by “publish or perish,” or pushed out of K-12 classrooms by the guillotine of standardized testing.

Perhaps online education is just another way to deliver a poor product for less production cost by harnessing underpaid adjuncts.

Perhaps one of you out there can rescue me from a crushing doubt that online education will do anything more than separate the rich and not-rich even further.  You can bet that Harvard will always have a classroom experience.  It’s the community college kid who’s trying to make it through Algebra 2 on a $2,000 state scholarship who will live in the world of the online course where manipulating your way into a good grade is easier to learn than teaching yourself the actual material.

Some clarifications:
– I think graduate level learning may be more adaptable to online delivery, because the students there have already learned how to learn. Undergrads don’t have that advantage.

– Traditional school environments serve only a narrow range of students. I’m not a fan of “let’s all sit here and listen to a lecture” or “read these 12 books, write 4 papers, and call it a class.”  Those methods of education are similarly faulty — but the students who are succeeding in our schools and colleges tend to be students already wired for the traditional classroom.   Thus, some students who would falter in a traditional environment may actually find the online course structure much less intimidating.

If you want to read scholarly words about it, check out this article.  Or if you want to read someone who tells you what a big research study says, try this article….. though I’m not really sold on this one since testing what people know seems like a lousy way to determine whether they’re actually good at anything.


What’s the point of a teacher you can’t build a relationship with?

I’m getting to where it’s nearly impossible for me to envision teaching without seeing it as relational.

I was reading a discussion about college faculty and their communication methods with students. Of course, people vary in the way they prefer to engage others, and the faculty/student relationship adds another wrinkle to that question.  Most teachers today ban Facebook requests from students, limit their availability via text or cell phone, and prefer to shepherd student interactions into clearly-defined spaces like office hours.

It bothers me that many college faculty are even less approachable than, say, a public high school teacher.  You’d think that adult students would have even more of a “right” to expect that a professor would be personally engaged, but it seems that our modern academies do not think so.  Some of them, at least.

I realize that time is a limited and valuable resource, one that many education professionals must guard jealously to avoid overload. Oh believe me, I remember.  For the first time in 10 years I’m not heading home every night to another 2 or 3 hours of work.  So I totally get why teachers want to guard their time from intrusion by the rug-rats they’re teaching during the day. And yes, “rug-rat” can refer to college freshmen. lol

Teaching is a highly social activity, one that drains you of  your ability to give attention to other human beings. My desire to know other people and engage them hit a low point during the school years and bobbed back up over the summer when suddenly I had the emotional energy again to build relationships.

(By the way, I understand that enforcing office hours and communication channels do function as a fence that allows people to get work done when they don’t want to be disturbed. But do you really need a fence around EVERY other hour of your life?)

But I ramble.

My point is this:
If you don’t see teaching as a relational activity, then why are you in it?

If teaching (college or high school or whatever) is mere information-transfer, then you have no business demanding that other human beings reorganize their schedules to put themselves in the same geographical location as you. A web site, textbook, or online course should replace you.

Even if we acknowledge that much teaching involves the transfer of skills, and mentoring students into certainways of doing — say, to play the violin or make a flambe or fix the fuel injectors or argue a case before a judge — I still question whether any teacher has the right to treat teaching like an object which can be dropped at will (especially at 5pm) and picked up again with any given student, on cue, as if the factory bell had rung to call everyone to the assembly line.

Very little good can happen to a human being outside of a relationship.

Andy Jones, who is on staff at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College (a non-profit dedicated to equipping churches to help the poor without hurting the poor in the process) spoke in chapel here at Erskine on Tuesday.  One line from his sermon stood out to me:

“When humans flourish, it is because of positive relationships.” 

He said this while explaining that poverty is not an issue of monetary disadvantage; poverty (as described by the poor themselves) is a state of being an outcast, living outside the boundaries of normal human society. To fix poverty, you have to repair the relationships (to God, society, family, and one’s self).

Professors and teachers must recognize that their value to their students lies NOT in their vast knowledge which they share in lecture form.

It is not even in their ability to mentor a student from apprentice to mastery of a skill.

The power of an educator lies solely in his/her ability to develop meaningful relationships with students, relationships that lead to students flourishing as human beings because of the investment of the teacher on a personal, meaningful level. 

And that, my friends, will not be a work limited to 8am-5pm.  You can shut your door to Facebook friend requests, text messages, cell phone exchanges, and even human contact outside of office hours and classroom time … but I question your value to the educational profession.  Yes, very learned people can add knowledge to a subject discipline…. but Kingdom work takes place in hearts more than in journal articles.

My former NCS coworkers & I do occasional blogging on topics in relational teaching and Grace-based education at our blog Teaching Redemptively