Sunday, July 18, 2010

My Relationship with My Teacher


Jesus’ closest followers, among the many titles they might have chosen for him given the myriad of thoughts whirling around about who he was, consistently chose the title “rabbi,” master teacher. If they really thought they were trotting around with God, I think they’d have chosen another title like, say, “God,” and they wouldn’t have been walking around with him shoulder to shoulder, but would constantly have been bowing down before him.

A rabbi was and remains the central figure in a Jewish religious community. The people typically love their rabbi because he (can be “she” too in Reform Judaism) is their spiritual master or spiritual director and teacher. He or she teaches them about God and about life. In some communities no one is more respected than the rabbi.

In the Prologue to “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevia is introducing his family and key members of his community to the audience, and he comes to a point where he introduces the “special” members of the community. There’s the matchmaker, the beggar, and then Tevia says, “And most important, our beloved Rabbi....”

Jesus didn’t have his own congregation and didn’t teach regularly at synagogue, but on occasion he did; and he was recognized as someone who belonged to the role he performed; he was accepted doing what the “regular rabbi” normally did. I think there’s a lot to be made of this, but today I only want to stress that, though he was a carpenter, his closest followers called him, “rabbi,” which, again, means master teacher. He taught them about God and about how to live as people of God. He studied the ancient law, prophets, and writings and taught based on his studies.

As most of you know, though I am not Jewish, I have my own rabbi, Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn of Temple Sinai in New Orleans. I have been learning from Ed and sharing a friendship with him about a quarter of a century. I love him, and he is greatly loved by his congregation. In fact, several years ago, they entered into a lifetime contract with him--to make him their rabbi for all of his remaining earthly years, which hopefully are many.

I was talking to a clerk the other day at the pet pharmacy, and I made reference to my rabbi; then, to explain and respect real Jews and rabbis, I told her that I’m Protestantish and don’t have a rabbi the way my true Jewish friends do. Without missing a beat, she said, “Of course you do. His name is Jesus.” She was right on target.

Most of what we know about Jesus is related to what he taught in various genres and how he acted on the challenges of what he taught. He wasn’t a, “Do as I say, not as I do,” teacher. He spoke his lessons, but he also lived them out.

Teaching and teachers are important in the Jesus tradition still today, and we hold our religious education teachers in high esteem here at Silverside; we entrust at least part of the development of our children’s spiritual and moral values to their instruction. In our church, the cream of the crop participate in teaching our children in Sunday School: Martha Brown, Bonnie Zickefoose, Dorothy Siegfried, Molly Hale, and soon Amanda Catania. We have the highest confidence every week that our children are learning positive, encouraging, self-affirming lessons and thinking positively about God, never fearing God.

I had many good teachers in my Sunday School years, but in my formal education--both in public school as well as in undergrad and grad school--I consistently hit the jackpot when it came to great teachers. I’d say I ran at 90 percent. Very few of my teachers were mediocre or poor. Often teachers teach us much more about life in a broader sense than just about the subject matter in which we are formally engaged.

I hope each of you has had the privilege of having at least one teacher along the way, and preferably at least one at each level of your educational endeavors, with whom you powerfully connected. You knew this teacher believed in you, and her or his teaching style worked for you in every way. You felt this teacher’s care about you as a student and as a human being even if words to that effect were never spoken. To this day, you know that part of the reason you are educated is because of that teacher or that small handful of teachers who inspired you and encouraged you.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude and humility when a student says I am this professor for her or for him. Not a few of my friends today were once my students, and not a few of my friends today were once my professors. It’s a great and wonderful cycle.

I think the film, “Dead Poets’ Society,” is one of the greatest modern stories about the power and the possibilities of teaching that I’ve ever seen. It’s hilarious and powerfully moving, even tragic at points. But a teacher can’t watch the movie without shedding at least a few tears. Robin Williams was at his dramatic best in the role of the teacher, John Keating, who captured the minds and the hearts of students who had decided not to learn English or poetry at all.

“Mona Lisa Smile” has a similar theme, and it’s a fine film in its own right. Julia Roberts does a good job as the liberal art history professor at conservative Wellesley, but it is certainly not on par in terms of emotional depth with “Dead Poets’ Society.”

Those of us who teach to earn all or part of our livelihoods probably were positively influenced by at least one great teacher along the way. We want to cut loose and teach with enjoyment and enthusiasm; that is sometimes hard to do, though.

One of the things that has changed tremendously in the world of higher education in the last few years is the increased emphasis on the commercial aspect of teaching. The students have become consumers, and the professors have become service providers. In many schools, student evaluations of professors and courses weigh so heavily that a professor’s salary increase and often her or his eligibility for tenure rests nearly exclusively on these evaluations by students.

The truth about course evaluations is that they are largely unreliable. One student rated me poorly once and explained by saying, “Farmer actually expects students to do assigned readings.” Fire the guy on the spot! What kind of professor expects that?!?! Another student rated me poorly once and explained by writing in, “Dr. Farmer is an atheist and therefore should be terminated from the faculty.” Yeah, at a private secular school, make sure all the professors believe what the students think they believe.

Many students in a class choose not to take the time or make the effort to complete an evaluation form; not always, but often what happens is that the only students who fill out a course evaluation form are the two or three students who utterly loved the class and the four or five who hated the course and probably also the professor since few students draw a distinction between a professor and a course. A good course and a good professor are seen as one and the same. Similarly, a bad course is naturally connected to a bad professor in the mind of the typical student--whether at Harvard or UD.

Back in the time of my college and seminary studies, professors were revered; even the bad ones were respected, if avoided. A big difference between then and now is that the institution employing the professor valued the professor and stood behind her or him. Disrespect for a professor was not tolerated.

Not all teachers in any era have deserved the highest respect, but most have; and the uncomfortable dynamics of dealing with an ineffective teacher should be left to administrators, not to ambivalent students rushing through a course evaluation on the last day of class after turning in a research paper they hated writing or after having crammed all night for a final exam that will be administered after the course evaluation is administered.

In our culture, great teachers are often great in spite of the educational contexts in which they teach. Most are underpaid--at all levels, and most give much more than they are actually given. It’s not uncommon at all for a teacher to buy supplies out of her or his own wages to enhance a learning activity for the students.

I like the bumper sticker that says, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” Yes indeed.


When my younger son, Carson, was a first-grader, evidences of his dyslexia were first showing up in the classroom, but the learning difference wasn’t easy to pinpoint some twenty years ago. He excelled in oral vocabulary work, but couldn’t get the written alphabet down pat. His teacher, Ms. Judy Tesvich at the Jean Gordon Elementary School in New Orleans, realized that flash cards and textbooks weren’t doing the trick so she came up with the idea that she should work with additional senses. Ms. Tesvich went to a hardware store and bought a whole alphabet, upper and lower case letters, of those six-inch-high wooden letters and covered each one with sandpaper--rough side out. Then Carson could learn what an “A” felt like and the bane of his young educational life, also the lower case “p” and “b.” I think that story goes in the elementary teachers’ hall of fame.

Thirty years earlier, I had been a little first grader, and my teacher was a tough old school benevolent dictator. Miss Willie Nellie Garrett. I liked her, and I learned a great deal from her; but I also got in big time trouble in her class and was sent to the office the first of two times in my educational career. Both times, I was guilty, but I didn’t think my crime deserved having to face the principal.

When Miss Garrett gave a directive, there were no exceptions. Everyone had to do what she said or face her fury. She was nearing retirement and might have weighed as much as a hundred pounds, but when she got angry every student shuddered.

One day, it was rest period, and during rest period every student was expected to put her or his head down on the desk. Some students could actually take a little nap; I wasn’t one of those. I didn’t like rest period; it was boring. I wanted to be busy, but Miss Garrett said it was rest period; and so it was. I now realize that back in the days when teachers weren’t allowed planning periods, rest period was both beneficial for the students who needed a break as well as an opportunity for Miss Garrett to do a little planning and get a bit of a break herself.

Anyway, and I have no idea why, I sat up briefly. This meant, naturally, that my head came off of my desk. Immediately Miss Garrett blared out, “David Farmer, you will not be going out to the playground today. You will be staying right here in this room practicing keeping your head down until you’re told to raise it.” Next to a paddling or being sent to the office, that was the worst punishment that could be meted out: no reprieve from that pale, institutional green cell for a whole afternoon.

Two girls laughed when I groaned at my punishment, and they received the same punishment. Miss Garrett said, for the life of her, she couldn’t see a thing in the world funny in our classroom at that time and, therefore, that the only reason anyone would laugh would be intentionally to disturb the peace so Darlene Rosenbaum and Brenda Mitchell would join David Farmer in the classroom while all the rest of the students who knew how to behave and respect the teacher would get to enjoy time on the playground while the three misbehaving students would stay put with their heads on their desks in silence. There would be no talking and certainly no laughing in that classroom while the others were outside having a ball.

I have to interrupt the fascinating flow of this real-life story to explain to you that in those days at the Halls Elementary School, we didn’t have closets. We had what they called “cloak rooms.” Along one side of the room there were four wooden panels; when you pushed one, all four opened to reveal little hooks on which coats, jackets, and sweaters could be hung. Then, when one panel was closed, all four neatly closed.

Alright. Our fellow classmates filed out, quietly, single-file, and left us there with our heads down in defeat and shame--all because of our grievous infractions to Garrett Law. Miss Garrett said we’d better not move, that she’d be peeking in the window to see that we were doing what we’d been told. She also called in the teacher across the hall to keep an eye on us. Mrs. Corum had plenty to do in her own class so she wasn’t much of a threat, but being on the first level, Miss Garrett, though short, really might be able to see into the classroom from the outside.

The silence was broken instantly because the three of us immediately started laughing as soon as everyone left the room. There was no reason to laugh, but in our culture we often laugh in awkward situations when we don’t know what else to do or say. Then, the two girls in a daring act of defiance got up from their desks and opened the cloak room to get something out of their coats or something like that.

Instantly, and who knows why, it occurred to me how funny it would be if Miss Garrett came back into the room and found me with my head down and the two of them shut into the cloak room, which would prove how obedient I’d been and how disobedient they’d been. My plan, however, backfired. As I tried to shut the cloak room panels, one of the girls tried to stop me, and the panels closed on her arm, which acted like a wedge jamming all the panels. Fortunately, they didn’t close enough to hurt her arm, but snugly enough to keep her from regaining control of her arm.

Well, instead of waiting while the three of us fixed the problem, silly Darlene Rosenbaum started screaming her head off. “Oh God; this is going to cut off my arm. Help! Help! This thing is gonna cut off my arm. God! Help!”

Well, in ran Mrs. Corum who assessed the situation and then ran out the playground to get Miss Willie Nellie Garrett. I knew I was in serious trouble; I only hoped that I’d be able to keep on living. Miss Garrett’s face turned so red from anger once she was back in the room that she could hardly speak. She blamed the whole incident on me because of how incriminating the scene appeared, but I hadn’t made those girls go into the cloak room had I? I hadn’t caused the cloak room panels to malfunction had I? N-O spells “no.” I had not. In the end all Miss Garrett could do was confirm that Darlene Rosenbaum’s arm had not been severed, and point to the door saying to me, “Office!”

“Witch. You mean old witch,” that’s all I could think of Miss Garrett who was sending me to Mr Lakin’s office where I was almost guaranteed a paddling, and the rumor was that the teachers paddled with small paddles; but the principal paddled with a large paddle with holes drilled in the end to inflict more pain to the student’s backside. She did look a little bit like Margaret Hamilton who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the film, “The Wizard of Oz.”

I braced myself for what lay ahead for me, and I began the long walk from the first grade wing through the cafeteria, then up the steps to the principal’s office where I’d have to tell my story, get paddled, then carry a note home informing my parents that I’d been paddled by the principal. And my parents, instead of suing him, provided me with a spanking at home to help solidify in my mind two things: 1) the school is always right, and 2) every Farmer kid was going to abide by the rules.

I lucked out that day. The principal was too busy to be bothered with my situation so he sent me back to class with a warning. But if Darlene Rosenbaum’s arm had so much as a bruise on it the next day, a paddling would be in order after all. Thankfully, no soreness and no bruise. My behind was safe!


I can’t think of any culture yet in which teachers have been unimportant, and when we deal with cultures with a generally illiterate population teachers become even more important. I like to say when I use the word “illiterate” that the word doesn’t mean stupid; it means lacking or, because of misinformation, rejecting an opportunity to learn to read or write. In any case, in cultures where there is a high percentage of persons who are illiterate, information related to knowledge not connected to skills or trades--history, for example, and religious principles--has to be passed along by teachers. Such information is often regarded as a core aspect of a people’s corporate self-identity, and those entrusted with teaching it to the next generations are typically very highly regarded. In some Indigenous American cultures, the tellers of these stories are regarded as key leaders in tribes--often held in esteem very near to that of the chief her- or himself. (And, yes, there were and are some tribes with women chiefs.)

In such contexts, there is justifiably a concern about false teachers--those who might mislead people in regard to where they’ve come from and/or their Deity or deities. In the early Jesus Movement, with Jesus gone and those who walked side by side with him dying off one by one, there came a time when no teacher in the Movement had personally known Jesus. Would the second generation of teachers as accurately and as faithfully reflect Jesus’ concerns as had his original followers? There was absolutely no guarantee that they would or could. Indeed, the concern runs down to today when plenty of teachers, some with big budgets and huge followings, blatantly teach as a concern of Jesus something he clearly rejected or made no comment about at all. Their lazy followers won’t take the time to seek the truth for themselves.

Back to the early Jesus Movement. Though Paul had never met Jesus face to face, he considered himself a channel of truth for what was accurate concerning Jesus, and those who taught contrary to what Paul understood he readily accused of being false teachers. Eventually, the Church would become so powerful that a charge against someone as a false teacher was equivalent to the charge of heresy and could often result in the punishment of death; in Paul’s day the charge might cost you your reputation or not, but nothing much worse.

Paul wrote to his likely successor, Timothy, saying:

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables (2 Tim 4:3-4).

In this case, the charge is that there are people who dislike the truth and the teachers of truth so much that they go out and make those who are willing to sell out for power and money in exchange for performing the function of false teachers their handsomely rewarded demigods. They knowingly tell people lies because the people want to hear the lies and will pay for the lies to keep from having to hear the truth.

Outside the realm of theology, in a way, there are those today who are telling us that global warming is a myth devised by Al Gore and others simply to frighten people into going along with other things environmentalists say. Gore is portrayed as the epitome of a false teacher, and his troubled marriage is presented as a partial punishment for this “false teaching” of his since we all know temperatures are getting cooler all the time, and if they’re not it’s God’s will, not human environmental abuse! Please!

To the Christians at Colossae, Paul wrote:

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Jesus, the Anointed One (Colossians 2:8).

Here, Paul says false teachers rob sincere seekers of the truth. They clearly push an anti-Jesus secularism in place of Jesus’ core teachings, which--after all--are demanding.

Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffeur, in his now famous work, The Cost of Discipleship, condemned cheap grace. Simply defined, cheap grace is a way of making the demands of the gospel easy and appealing, rather than demanding as Jesus taught them. It’s much easier to build a crowd if the demands are limited, and the rewards are great, which is exactly the script of most messages being preached by the religious right today. British professor and philosopher of religion, Eric Rust, used to say that the religious right was like Grapenuts--no grapes and no nuts. The prosperity gospel has the upper hand in the contemporary proclamation of what Christianity supposedly is all about. When the demands that Jesus taught begin to be worked into the messages, the crowds thin out quickly.

Teachers of truth, though, tell the truth, painful though it may be. False teachers water it down.

The Apostle Paul taught that, in the church, teaching was one of the spiritual gifts God bestowed on certain individuals who would be entrusted with teaching the core truths and values of the Jesus Movement to members of the church, and, thus, to posterity. Some scholars say that the gift of teaching is tied to the gift of pastoring; others say, “Not so.”

There may indeed be those within a congregation with natural gifts for teaching, and the same is true of people outside the church. There are professors of education who recognize natural born teachers among their students. It’s a wonderful gift; if it’s yours use it well! Part of using it well means establishing relationships with students who respond to your subject matter all across the continuum--students who get it and love it, students who don’t get it and hate it, and students who don’t care one way or the other.

My friend, Carson Brisson, is Professor of Biblical Languages at Union Seminary in Virginia, and he had a student once who was failing his introductory Hebrew course; most seminaries call that first course “Baby Hebrew.” I think Carson is a great teacher. She appealed to him to help her avoid receiving the failing grade that she was pretty sure was about to be recorded; Carson is also the Registrar so she could conceivably have killed two birds with one stone, as it were. Carson did not change her grade, but did tell her with compassion and encouragement that the grade was no reflection on her as a person or a future minister; it was strictly a calculation of how she had performed in a particular course that she’d have an opportunity to take again.

That was truthful and kind, and it goes against the current grain of grades as purchased with tuition dollars. I used to hear the maxim, “Pay your fee, get your C” around schools where grades were for sale. Now, the rhyme is all messed up: “Pay your fee, get your A; or sue the school.” In these kinds of grade-inflated institutions, the great teachers are used to bring in the big bucks so that the administrators can get paid disproportionally high salaries and rewarded with perks that make the Big Biz CEO’s green with envy.

If I have been privileged to study with a great teacher, and I have, the spirit of that teacher travels with me for the rest of my life journey whether I ever see him or her again or not. Dan Rather said, “The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘Truth.’”


No comments:

Post a Comment