Most of what I know about God and faith I’ve learned from teaching. Far more than the common parenting or marriage metaphors I’ve heard ad nauseum in sermons, I tend to view God’s relationship to humans through the lens of a teacher. And over the course of my brief , 7-year career as a high school English teacher, I began to feel convicted of my own moments of sloppy, careless, and harmful teaching. I had always tried to teach the way I figured God taught us. The challenge was that over the course of my teaching, my assumptions about God began to change.
Needless to say, my experience teaching high school English overseas for 7 years was more than just a day-job or even a professional career: teaching was always deeply entangled with my Christian identity, my relationships with both God and people. In 2008, upon completing my student-teaching at the school to which I would soon return, I wept like a fool. I’m talking a quivering bottom-lip sucking action on a red-eye flight back to the US. (I had the seat to myself, so maybe no one heard me?) I was told that saying goodbye was supposed to hurt like hell. I was strangely thankful that it actually did.
When we said goodbye again in 2016, I remember hinting at a farewell gathering that teaching at this school saved my faith. I was reminded of how I sabotaged a date I had with my fiancee before I shipped off to Russia for the year, when I brooded aloud: “I wouldn’t be surprised if it all went black when I died.” Caitlin didn’t love hearing that anymore than I loved saying it. It didn’t help that I cited the Bible as the reason for this thought: “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes). Anyway, it was in such a cloud of existential dread that my 23-year-old-self arrived at the missionary school, becoming firmly convinced not only that there was a God, but there was a God who orchestrated beauty and love in my life, who made all things work out for my good (even during the times I didn’t love him). Did I know if it didn’t all go black after we died? Well, that was a thought I didn’t have to talk about.
In Russia, I found myself immersed in a strange language among strange people. And I don’t mean Russian or Russians. I found myself swimming in conversations peppered with strange phrases: God-things, if-the-Lord-wills-its, God-told-mes, and I-don’t-think-she’s-a-believers. My reformed intellectualist bent toward faith did very little for me in the way of speaking fluent Evangelical Christianese– I could whip out a phrase here or there, but, even moreso than my experience with the Russian language, I have always spoken it with a bit of a suspicious accent.
With that said, I did become comfortable with one Christianese construct: the language of calling. Now sometimes, my accent would come through if I merely said things like “I was called,” or my even thicker accent when I said “I felt called.” But sometimes I would get it right and say straight out, “God called me.”
There have been two things I was always comfortable with attributing to the voice of God in my life. The fact that Caitlin and I are married is one. And the fact that I spent 7 years at the missionary school is another. I can usually say without any hesitation that God told me to do those things.
And so my faith and my teaching were always one. I knew God best when I would enter into that classroom, and I don’t mind saying that I could hear his voice. Every change in my practice or curriculum was a bending to his will, an obedient submission to the God who grows things, trees as well as students. I would begin my classes with prayer because I believed that all learning was communion with God in some degree, all growth was a divine and precious miracle, any development of mind was inherently a spiritual development.
It’s no surprise that it was in this teaching context that God chose to chisel away at my soul– the sins I have been most convicted of throughout the past 7 years have been my teaching sins. It was in the world of lesson plans, grammar quizzes, vocab lists, essays, and participation grades that God called me to a life-changing repentance. It’s not your typical dramatic testimony of drunkenness, prostitutes, or life-in-prison. But in my own mind it was no less dramatic. On the surface it may look to some like I simply changed some teaching methods; in reality, however, my entire theology was turning upside down (or, as I see it, right-side up). For those interested in the pedagogical details, you can read about the changes elsewhere (my view of participation grades, or my changing view on grades in general, or what this all meant for the teaching of grammar). For the rest of us who have kitty GIFs to check out, we’ll suffice it to say that God was telling me that my classroom needed to be more dialogic.
There is a whole library of research on dialogic teaching (e.g., Juzwik et al., 2013) (there’s even a journal devoted to it), and finding it was– and I’m only exaggerating a little here– like being united with my soul-mate. (If you want the gritty details on this end, you could read about how it impacted the way I saw student essays or my classroom policies; or you could read about how it impacted my curriculum). Dialogic teaching is basically a posture towards students that assumes that they might have something to say, or if they don’t, then at least giving them space to say something will help them find something to say. Going dialogic in your teaching can mean a lot of different things in different contexts, but basically I’ve understood it to mean holding fast to the principle that saying stuff, listening to said stuff, and responding to that stuff should be central to the learning process.
Many teaching practices are rooted in principles other than this one. One common one, for example, is to be wary of stuff that gets said. Only say good stuff, never say bad stuff. And it just so happens that the teacher is probably most equipped to say the good stuff. It’s at least a principle that I often taught by. Which brings us back to my repentance: I felt that God was telling me to make my classroom more dialogic.
Before going dialogic, my teaching was exceptionally strict, unreflectively egotistical and teacher-centric. I was an unapologetic authoritarian, and I must have struck many of my colleagues as a bit of a nut. Students were marked late if their butts weren’t in the seats before the bell rang; the highest participation grade I would offer was a 95%; I took the liberty to penalize all absences (even when excused) by refusing to issue make-up work if the student didn’t personally email me with a reason for the absence; I insisted on hours worth of grammar homework every night, work I rarely kept track of, but made for certain I could penalize if necessary. I led classroom discussions in much the same way– striving to lead all interpretations to converge with mine. I encouraged the students I liked, ignored the students I didn’t understand, and made it a point to convert the students who threatened to make the class less about me.
I became convicted, however, when I realized that these teaching policies were at odds with how I thought God behaved toward us as our teacher. I began to find both moral and logistical fault with monologic teaching methods. Not only did I find they do not work in a diverse classroom, but they are actually damaging and unfair. I could never imagine God to teach us like that. For example, I just did not believe God would ever:
- assign busy work;
- get irritated when we bombard him with questions;
- tsk-tsk us when we disagree with him;
- lead us in the dreadful discussion practices of “guess what the teacher is thinking”;
- design his curriculum to benefit only those “who got it” and punish those who didn’t understand;
- feel vindicated when watching the rebellious students fail;
- shame us for being unable to complete our tasks in time;
- turn us against each other;
- forget about us when we aren’t flattering him with compliments;
- insist we follow every little grammar rule;
- reduce us to a pass/fail;
- expect us to read his mind, especially when the directions are so complicated;
- put undue weight on multiple choice comprehension tests;
- insist that we all be the same;
- use the fear of punishment or negative consequences as his primary motivators.
I believed God to be far more dialogic than that. I imagined God as the teacher who
- values our differences
- takes compassion on our limitations;
- walks with us when we don’t get it;
- waits patiently when we throw the assigned text at the wall;
- allows us to approach him when we have questions;
- gives enough feedback when we need it;
- designs the classroom to meet everybody’s needs;
- motivates us with the joys of learning and growing;
- allows us to get it wrong;
- encourages us to get it wrong;
- laughs with us and finds us funny;
- gives us tasks and projects that take time to master;
- has done his homework so that he can actually be of help when addressing our concerns;
- provides us tools to engage the process (rather than reducing our whole school year to a product);
- looks at our homework and weeps because he finds it so beautiful;
- shows us an unexpected human side just when we start to feel he is too distant and too perfect.
Some may be wondering a bit more about what I mean by dialogic teaching. Some of you might be thinking that dialogic teaching is about having more discussions and debates in the classroom. It’s not. From my earliest teaching days to my later teaching days, I always hosted discussions and talking in the classroom. But dialogic teaching is much more than “letting students talk.” Taking turns talking does not make anything dialogic (not a classroom and not a blog). Rather dialogic teaching structures everything around “tension– indeed even conflict– between the conversants, between self and other as one voice ‘refracts’ the other” (Juzwik et al., 2013: p. x). It is teaching that is guided by the idea that “what I say responds to what you said” (p. 4).
Others of you might be thinking that dialogic teaching is euphemism for an “anything goes” classroom, where all snowflakey students are told that they’re perfect, where everyone gets a participation trophy. That’s also not what I mean. I found research on dialogism refreshing because it ended up being far more rigorous than what I had been doing, despite all my strictness. There is a missing sense of responsibility when a student submits a multiple choice test back to the teacher; and same for the teacher. He can always say, “Well, the book says you got it wrong, so you got it wrong.” There is far more cognitive energy exerted (both on the part of the teacher and on the part of the student) in classrooms revolving around dialogic tensions. Students cannot appeal simply to a sentence in a textbook to defend their answers. They must take responsibility for what they say and how it was received. Same for a teacher. Dialogic classrooms, I found, hold students to greater accountability, nurturing in them a sense that what they say is always responding to what someone else has said. (And, for the record, students under my dialogic teaching tended to be just as punctual, more engaged, and more reluctant to miss class.)
Dialogic teaching, blogging, speaking, or anything, to conclude, is always directed to a particular person. We can talk about abstract groups of people we’ve heard of. We can talk about “the conservatives,” “the liberals,” “the charismatics” or “the homosexuals”– we can talk about worldviews and ideas or thoughts, but until we direct our words to a particular you in particular contexts, we are not being dialogic. I may be wrong about this, but I believe God is dialogic with us. He has been dialogic with me. It was within dialogue with him that I changed my teaching, and again within this same ongoing dialogue that I write for this blog. If God is monologic, the way I had been at times as a teacher, I’m probably in some serious trouble. It would also be my unfortunate opinion that if this monologic God ever wanted to teach high school English, he might need to tweak a thing or two.