Is the Work of Teaching about the Students or the Teachers? 

I love music. Growing up, I religiously listened to Casey Kasem’s weekly top 40 countdown in hopes of catching the latest song to add to my mixtape. Crouched over the radio, knees pressed into the bright red cherry loops of my bedroom’s shag carpet. I had to be ready to name that tune in just two or three notes. One day, instead of the synth sounds I expected, a children’s choir joined Pink Floyd to ominously sing out, “We don’t need no education.” I was unnerved as they shouted in protest for teachers to leave those kids alone. Even as a young girl, I knew how different my life might have been if teachers had left me alone.

I love school. You may think I’m required to say that because I’m a teacher now, but it’s true. I have the credentials, student loans, and stories to support my claims. Not to mention the rituals that surround the start of a new school year, offering sacred perks to the job. All those freshly sharpened pencil bouquets, brand new backpacks, and students with their retro Trapper Keepers stuffed full. I get positively giddy anticipating what will occur as we cross the classroom threshold together.

These days I enjoy the view as a teacher of teachers in both physical classrooms with undergraduate students and online spaces with adults embarking on new career paths in education. I imagined I would continue teaching English language arts at the middle school level until I retired, but God had other plans. Now former students of my own teach in the classrooms where I once stood. But no matter my vantage point, I will always consider 6th grade my home away from home.

If you pay any attention to conversations about education today, education at most any grade level, you might notice the commodification of education has led and continues to lead to unintended consequences of standardization, often reducing the learning process to an assembly line and a teacher to, yes, just another brick in the wall. But, of course, a true teacher is more than that.

Teachers listen to those around them, understanding that, in this sacred vocation, what we do is an extension of who we are. Many teachers, including me, have a story that traces our teaching journeys back to someone who listened to us so closely that it enabled us to hear and recognize our own voices in ways that still resonate.

And vocation itself is an endeavor in listening. Parker Palmer, author of Let Your Life Speak and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, helps us consider:

Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. 

A traditional understanding of education positions teachers, and sometimes curriculum itself, to take up most of the classroom space, leaving students on the margins of the entire process. Whereas prevailing theories of learning reposition the classroom, students at the center, with an increased focus on seeing and supporting students who sit on the margins. I often encounter soon-to-be teachers who are eager to take on the challenges of teaching today yet quickly find themselves under increasing pressures from more than one side. They get discouraged by the sheer number of tasks required as they seek the goodness of teaching. It is both a privilege and a challenge to serve these new teachers by reminding them that it is vital that their voices are not displaced from the heart of their newly forming pedagogies.

As teachers, we begin our professional lives by developing personal working philosophies of education. These pedagogies are never static, nor are they simplistic. They represent dynamic, embodied ways of being that are cultivated throughout our lives in this vocation known as teaching. While many in the public arena remain locked in a debate about the science, art, and heart of teaching today, most teachers strive to make room to walk with all those who inhabit their classrooms.

A pedagogy of accompaniment allows teachers the agency to bring their unique gifts and talents to the classroom space and walk alongside students in responsiveness to the unique strengths and resources they bring for learning. School walls become porous with 21st century resources that allow teachers to tap into the dynamic literacies students are already carrying with them. Simplistic notions of education, such as teacher-centered versus student-centered classrooms, are not expansive enough to serve the human beings in the center of the teaching and learning process fully; nor do they offer language large enough to convey the honor of being known by name in the classroom community.

Jesus, our teacher, is the perfect model for this teaching philosophy. In his own way, he teaches by being with people throughout the Gospel narratives. He bent down to speak to those he served. He was known to irritate the religious elites because he often walked with those on the margins and encouraged his students, the disciples, to serve in obscurity. On his last night with them, he stooped down even more to take on the role of a servant to wash their dirty feet (John 13:3–5).

A.J. Swoboda says in The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith, “Listening is a kind of twenty-first-century foot washing.” Ask any teacher about how they accompany students on any given day, and you’ll hear plenty of foot-washing equivalencies. To see and listen to students requires a posture that includes a living, breathing humility of heart, mind, and body.

Jesus showed us the posture of a true teacher. God made his intentions clear: He wanted to accompany us in a garden filled with life. He designed a space for Adam and Eve to be with him. He gave them clear instructions and assignments and plenty of freedom to learn as he walked with them and talked with them. In his original design for our education, there were no walls. Yet God still gave us plenty of agency for choosing to learn alongside him. But like our ancestors Adam and Eve, we stopped truly listening to him long ago when we decided we knew better. We are still building walls today between our Creator and each other by thinking we know better.

A true teacher doesn’t let the walls we construct stand in the way. He instead plans to redeem his original design so that he can accompany us just as he originally intended. And the ultimate cache of best practices resides in walking with our God and those around us as he prepares us for his coming kingdom. When we walk with our Teacher, who teaches us by accompaniment, we learn to live expansively, in a way that goes well beyond time, positions, and classroom walls.

A pedagogy of accompaniment expands the possibilities of teaching. Thirty years ago, in only my second year of teaching, I could not have imagined that one of my quietest students would grow up to become my colleague and brother in Christ. When we reconnected a few years ago, he reminded me that for all the complexities we face as teachers, the beginning of wisdom is reverence for the Lord, and the knowledge of God brings insight (Prov 9:10).

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