Friday, June 30, 2017
How to Help At-Risk Seminary Students Succeed in the Classroom
When I was a senior in college, doing my practice teaching at a high school near my home, an older male instructor I’d never seen before stalked into my classroom after school, eyed me up and down, and grunted, “I just wanna see what all these students are talking about.” Then he observed, “You don’t look like much to me.”
All my education professors back at Rutgers up to that point had been women and I was presently working with a calm, veteran female teacher and learning a lot, but I hadn’t yet had a male perspective, so I ignored his opening salvo and admitted, “It’s all new to me - do you have any advice for me?”
“Yeah,” he growled, “one piece that was given to me and helped me through, so I’ll pass it on to you.”
He paused. I waited expectantly. Then, he declared, “Keep the little S.O.Bs on the other side of the desk!” And he stalked out.
Later on, when I was about to finish the term, I was suddenly revisited by him with two other teachers in tow. “He looks awfully young,” exclaimed one of the new ones. “Doesn’t look like much to me,” registered the third one, making that the majority opinion.
By this time, I was starting to get the point: I didn’t look like much to them.
Then the middle one finally directed the conversation to me, “I guess you know why we’re here.”
I stared at them blankly. “No, why?”
They shook their heads, assuming I was being coy rather than clueless, and the only one who hadn’t informed me I didn’t look like much snapped, “The school is about to offer you a job. We want to know which teachers’ union you’re going to join, because you’ve got to join one or the other.” And I could see it in her eyes, as she impatiently awaited my reply: I didn’t look like much to her either.
I stood there dumbfounded. Nobody had told me the school was going to offer me a job. These were the union reps. They knew before I did. I realized that none of my professors in any of my classes, Materials and Methods, Principles and Techniques of Education, Mental Hygiene, (and eventually) Philosophy of Education, History of Education, et. al, ever prepared me for this. I was taught principles and practices of teaching thoroughly, but had learned nothing about schoolhouse politics: power positioning with the administration, bargaining for a decent wage, securing benefits, ensuring pensions, protecting unemployment rights, deciding whether to, determining when to, and negotiating when in strikes (while damage-controlling the larger community push back), handling parents and politicians, all the rest of the stuff of actual working life. But I did learn one lasting thing from this experience: teachers have power and the focus should be how they choose to use it.
As it turned out, I didn’t take the job. I had already sensed God’s call to seminary and that’s where I went. Five years later, after serving in various city ministries and several college chaplaincies, I was called back to the classroom, training and supervising seminarians in urban ministry for New York Theological Seminary and working with Aίda and leaders of the Church of God in Christ to spin off an educational program for urban storefront pastors with classes in Newark, Jersey City and New York City. Today, I’m in Boston in my 43rd year of seminary teaching, training urban pastors for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Boston’s Center for Ministerial Education, where I began teaching back in 1992. Since my classes have been large and my students richly, multiculturally varied, and I want to give each of them the best opportunity to succeed in class, I began over 20 years ago to invite my best and brightest graduates from each ethnic constituency to come back and teach with me, particularly to help at risk English language learning students and those who come to us underprepared to negotiate the assignments and materials and get the maximum benefit out of each class. The extra-attention support to succeed in class helps us avoid, or at least minimize, students giving up and dropping out overwhelmed and disappointed. When classes are particularly large, size-threatened students can get lost. So I have hired up to 3 graduates per course, so that I now have 56 Athanasian Teaching Scholars (as I call the program in honor of Athanasius of Alexandria, the great defender of Nicaea’s Creed and prolific writer and defender of the orthodox Christian faith). This year I may have 3 more graduates joining our fellowship.
Every year we have a meeting and celebration at which all past scholars who are able to attend gather at our home. After feasting on the ethnic specialties all of us bring, hearing that year’s speaker, and each family getting a free book related to the presentation, we move to perhaps the most important part of the evening, educationally speaking, honoring the previous year’s Athanasian Scholars with a certificate and a copy of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation and then inducting the next year’s team with one piece of sage advice each of the past scholars brings on teaching from what they have learned so far. The advice this year was particularly helpful, so I asked the scholars for permission to jot it down and put it up for all readers to benefit.
The Apostle Paul wrote in the first letter we have to his young mentoree Timothy to pick out leaders who use power well, being irreproachable in their morals (anepilēmptos), welcoming and hospitable (philoxenos), able to teach (didaktikos), not quarrelling nor pugnacious bullies (plēktēs), but kind, gentle, courteous (epiekēs), in other words, gracious, intelligent, others-oriented leaders who can teach and manage their students and their courses well (1 Tim 3:2-4). So, these are the kinds of traits I look for in my teaching scholars.
This year, I noticed a common denominator related to these traits running through my Athanasian Scholars’ advice that reveals their perceptions about how to minister to the changing nature of today’s graduate student: the scholars were emphasizing relationships along with excellence.
The lead-off observation by a particularly perceptive Korean pastor, very popular with the students over the 5 years he has returned to help out, was: “You will get tons of emails, but be nice to your students as you respond and do so in a teaching manner. Don’t panic, especially as the end of the course nears. Just pray for them and in that kindness you will find your love of teaching.” This caring theme came up again as a wonderful woman who has since served as a live-in worker in a safe house for abused women counseled, “It’s relational. Ask students what is happening in their lives and, when you find out, pray for them. Class is a mini-church. When you share prayer requests with your students, they will interact with you and with each other, creating a spiritual fellowship.” Another urged, “Pray for your students every day!” One of my most stalwart scholars, a very wise African-American scholar who is pitching in to help mentor both students and scholars now for the sixth year, agreed, “Make yourself welcoming: ‘I’m here for you!’ Initiate a relationship and they will let you help them—they will work for you. Praying is definite. If they know you understand, that will go a long way.” Clearly, asking for God’s wisdom to make us wise enough to help students become knowledgeable was being recommended as the sensible way to teach. And empathy was identified as the impetus for realizing that fact. As one Chinese scholar, who was actually a co-teacher and colleague when he team-taught with me, noted, he consciously keeps in mind, “I am still struggling with my English, so I remind myself just be generous with others who struggle with theirs.” So, the teaching scholars were emphasizing, as Paul counseled Timothy, being welcoming, hospitable, kind, gentle, courteous.
This does not mean that quality education is discarded for relationships. On the contrary, teachers are spurred on by those relationships to bring the best to, and the best out of, the students who choose to work with them, so a previous year’s valedictorian explained, “Try to be clear not just in what you expect but your own availability. Set expectations.” I was thinking of a strategy my wife and I discovered and employed in our years in Trenton, NJ, when she taught English literacy in Trenton State Prison and I was a chaplain at Rider College (now University). In the evenings, I was able to volunteer with her when she organized and ran an evening Bible study at the prison. (She also brought in church services by community churches for Spanish speaking inmates.) What was the strategy? We treated each inmate as we wanted them to become and we watched a number of them become that person. It worked so well, as they thrived over those years under genuine, godly care, that we have since brought that strategy into our general ministry in school and church. “Able to teach,” the Athanasian Scholars were advocating for a similar student-encouraging strategy..
Further, on the side of ensuring excellence, a veteran of helping me in many classes suggested to the new team, “Allow yourself plenty of time. If a paper is tough, put it aside and come back to it.” In other words, take time and care to do the assignments carefully, it demonstrates genuine familial love to your students. Another added, “See reading term papers as a process [not just something to get them over quickly]. Read each paper first of all without a writing implement and read the whole thing. Look for the big picture, emphasizing a good outline and then you can help them fill in the blanks. You might be looking for something on page 1 and there it is on page 5. Then you can help them organize their papers better.” “Get everyone’s name and contact information and that way you can keep in contact and teach discipline,” offered another. “And do so in humility,” counseled one next to her. “Cultural sensitivity is key. Be patient. Put yourself in their situation. This is true management. Expect to have students who struggle.” Such humility guided another scholar who is a community social worker to this insight, “The second week people will come telling you why they are not turning in a paper. Listen carefully. One woman turned out to be having a crisis of faith. Of course she was having trouble with the assignment, if she was being overwhelmed by doubts. You help students like that work through those doubts so they can get back on course.” This year’s speaker even passed on a piece of advice he had just heard: “In the eyes of the students, you, the teacher, are the first textbook.”
Management is a key, as one perceptive Filipina scholar shared, “Keep adjusting. They may be saints, but they aren’t angels. Some students don’t read the syllabus. You need to keep going through it with them, constantly repointing students to the syllabus, helping them develop the paper fully in covering what is required by connecting up the pertinent parts of what they’ve written with the assignment and its cover sheet.” (The cover sheet is a checklist Aίda and I developed out of the rudimentary template I used when I was running GED centers. We adapt it for each class with all the component parts that should be in that specific course’s written assignments, so students can use the cover sheet as a guide and then attach it to the draft they submit so we teachers can mark what is missing and students can then redo their drafts for higher grades and thereby ensure us they are reaching a level of understanding. Students in my classes can redo until the final day of class.) My wife, an Hispanic senior professor of New Testament who fields Athanasian Scholars in her own classes, warned the incoming scholars, “Grade for content, not style. Some erudite papers are not actually on the topic. Use the Pile Theory Bill developed during his high school practice teaching. If you are not sure what to grade a particular paper, on your desk begin to pile your papers from highest grades to lower grades. Let the papers pile up by quality. Some papers suggest clear grades and some are in-between grades. Then, by comparing these intermediate papers with the ones in the clearer grade piles, you will find in-between ones will fit more easily in the higher or lower piles.” (Athanasian Teaching Scholars can give interim grades, but only professors can give final grades. Still their interim grades follow the grading guides I devise for their use and the cover sheets I provide, so they normally tend to be an adequate measure of how students are progressing).
Joy in study was the theme of my most enduring veteran teaching scholar and specialist in English language learning, who is returning for the ninth year to help: “Anxiety levels can be very high. Show them how they can even build on a total disaster. Bring out a level of enjoyment. Use humor gently and help them relax and find the delight in their studies. It helps them stop shaking. Tell them, ‘I can’t do this in your language. I so respect you for doing it in my language.’” In other words, she was recommending being the opposite of a quarreling, pugnacious bully, a humble fellow traveler who gently helps point the way to the desired destination of success.
What is the common denominator this year? True learning emerges when excellence is taught in genuinely others-oriented, caring teacher-student relationships.
So much for “keep[ing] the little S.O.B.s on the other side of the desk!” Teaching seminary today involves a component of sitting down next to a brother or sister in Christ and helping them fulfill their calling of preparation to become the wisest, most knowing, most caring pastor they can be, as we model that in our pedagogical style. After all, in graduate theological education, our business is training seminarians both in content and conduct as they prepare themselves to be pastors in their churches and chaplaincies and missions work and in whatever setting they will be called.
Today, we live in a culture of bifurcation, an alienating age when people are isolated, cubicled by smart phones and niche identities as surely as if we were in prison cells with cement walls between us all. The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, is all about face to face community. It began with the eternal love relationship among the Persons of the Trinity being extended to earth in God’s great salvific plan, as Jesus, God-Among-Us, linked us up with the loving Triune God and then networked us with each other through our relationship with Jesus himself. And this is the exact antidote for loneliness that people need.
If the church is to survive and flourish and grow, it needs to be nurtured through caring relational excellence. For, as I keep reminding my scholars, the way we educate our students is the model they will use in nurturing their people.