Teaching is the process of serving others by facilitating their learning. In pursuit of teaching excellence, I must continually explore what meets different students’ needs, knowing that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. While theology concerns things of ultimate value than cannot be proved, the conversations it sparks, including those more squarely in the realm of religious studies, concern human practices and beliefs. When my students learn about religion, they learn about themselves and about each other. My chief goal in teaching religion is for my students and I to understand and respect each other; it is immaterial whether or not we agree about the contents of our beliefs.
The best teaching is reciprocal. I learn from my students, just as they learn from me and from each other. In order to better learn from my students, I assign frequent but short writing assignments treating topics that we have not yet addressed in class, using these essays as points of reference for lecture and discussion preparation. My students and I teach each other with words, both in writing and in the context of discussion, and with actions, especially in how hard we work for each other.
The best teaching takes place in the context of a mentor-student relationship defined by mutual trust and respect. Although teaching is a matter of reciprocity, teacher and student have different roles. My students and I are not peers any more than that we are master and disciples. Rather, I must humbly accept the role of a mentor who likely has more life experience and knowledge of the subject at hand. It is important to be friendly without being too familiar and respectful without being too formal, learning each other’s names and establishing clear boundaries. Students’ daily interactions with each other are my best means for gauging the level of respect established in the classroom.
The best teaching is intellectually and emotionally engaging. It is my task to invite active learning, asking questions that compel students to consider issues in a new light and crafting assignments that direct students to take a leading role in shaping their own learning experience. I assess their level of engagement based on the degree to which they are intellectually and emotionally involved in class; being present is more than merely being in attendance, although the most present are not always the most vocal. I seek to model for my students the healthy joy of blurring the line between work and play when I approach learning. To learn about religion is to read and to talk about potentially eternal, controversial, and dangerous things. I cannot think of a more important and enjoyable kind of conversation to have.
The best teaching is also pragmatic. While students in my classes may be discussing religion or theology, they will hone skills that will be useful and transferable to whatever fields they ultimately call their own: critical thinking, clear and persuasive written and verbal communication, and teamwork. My assessment of my students is largely in such practical terms.
I teach because I love learning and I love to share that joy with others. Teaching helps me to learn both about the subjects that I teach, about other people, and about myself. Teaching allows me to guide the personal and intellectual development of a generation of future leaders. As a teacher, I am a catalyst, an agent of change with the opportunity to transform lives. If my students can learn to respect and understand each other about matters as traditionally divisive as religion, I can have hope that the future of our society will be more defined by listening and mutual acceptance than by division. As a teacher, I work toward that future.