Reflections as One Celebrates 50 Years of Teaching

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      Reflections as One Celebrates 50 Years of Teaching

I am retiring from eleven years of teaching as a Senior Scholar at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (where I retired and became Professor Emerita in May of 2003). I’ve taught several intensives on campus and a few independent studies but most of my teaching has been the “on-line” section of a two year (four semester) course called “Vocational Formation and Church Leadership.” It is the academic component that is taken in conjunction with field education.

Most of my students lived and/or served in congregations at too great a distance to travel to the seminary weekly or they had work obligations that made it impossible to be on campus on Wednesdays when the on-campus sections are offered.

What I love most is sharing in the lives and ministries of my students—listening, helping them claim their own authority and voice, and asking questions that invite them to journey with the others in the class and with me as they

  • engage in collaborative teaching and learning.
  • claim their identity as persons called to be leaders in the church.
  • clarify the call God is making on their lives.
  • create a vision and strategies to embody their own calling into ministry.
  • develop leadership skills.
  • focus on developing and practicing spiritual disciplines.
  • attend to self-care.
  • find new ways of viewing and responding to conflict.
  • struggle with life in imperfect institutions.

Whenever I teach, I seek to develop a learning/teaching community that engages the whole person (both teacher(s) and students)! We establish a covenant of confidentiality so that what is shared stays within our group. Together, we create a safe space where feelings and questions are welcome and can be shared.

Journeying with students as they seek to discern and understand the claim God is placing on their lives is holy work. It is work that requires deep understanding and compassion as well as rigorous expectations that have consequences. Laughter and tears are welcome in my classes!

On-line classes offer opportunities for a weekly check-in, a blog-like thread where students are able to share what is happening in their lives, their prayer requests, and sometimes, to vent! Some amazing sharing has taken place across the years.

For example, the year of Katrina, one of my students worked in the only hospital in New Orleans that stayed open. Everything on the ground floor of her house was destroyed and her family lived in a FEMA trailer in their “back yard” for months. She said, “I would have lost my mind without this class!” And those of us in the class learned so much about how disasters affect the everyday lives of people and the kinds of stress such disasters put on churches and those who serve in them.

Students have found a caring, supportive place to be when they experience difficult decisions that impact their lives and vocations from judicatories and the seminary. Those students who are already working as professionals in ministry find a safe place to test their perceptions about difficulties they find in their congregations or other ministry settings. I believe all of us in these learning/teaching communities (called seminary classes) have both been blessed and have had opportunities to be a blessing to others! In general, the deepest sharing seems to take place in my on-line classes (which have some Google + Hangout engagement where we can be together both visually and verbally).

As I reflect back on fifty years of teaching in a college, in local congregations and in a seminary, here are a few of my most important convictions:

  • Creating a teaching/learning environment that is hospitable and safe is a task that requires a commitment from everyone in the group. Teachers have to be willing to share power.
  • It is possible to create safe space where confidentiality is honored.
  • Collaborative learning means that everyone has opportunities to engage and explore their own work and the work of others in the class. Self-critique and engaging in appreciative inquiry about the work of others is important.
  • There are three significant components in every class—the students, the teacher/facilitator, and the content. When the teacher and the content are merged into one, the possibility of critically engaging the content is greatly diminished. Teachers need not promote or defend any course content!
  • Key components required of good teachers are:
  • having clear goals and clearly stating expectations.
  • learning how to create and facilitate good processes.
  • making use of teaching/learning strategies that honor multiple intelligences.
  • setting boundaries and providing resources that both challenge and foster growth  intellectually and spiritually.
  • inviting students to explore their assumptions without fear of being asked to change them.
  • recognizing that teachers are midwives—students need assistance in developing their own theologies and skill sets which may be quite different from their teachers.
  • offering timely and constructive feedback to student work as well as creating ways for the students to respond helpfully to each others’ work.
  • finding new ways of viewing and responding to conflict.
  • praying for each student and the class.

I cannot conclude this reflection without giving thanks to those who have been my friends and have helped me always to become a better teacher:

  • my students, through the years and around the world
  • those teachers with whom I have team-taught, especially Dwight Vogel, Jack Seymour, Margaret Ann Crain, Lib Caldwell, Jim Poling, Lallene Rector, David Hogue, Reggie Blount . . .
  • my mentors, Ellen Oliver (a math professor at Westmar College) and Nelle Slater (Christian education professor who treated me like a colleague when I was a young, part-time undergraduate teacher of Christian education).
  • my beloved students who have become life-long friends (too many to name but you know who you are!).
  • my doctoral students who became my colleagues and who taught me much (especially Sara, Cheryl, Jeffery, Kimberly, Howard, Houston, and …).
  • those authors who have been seminal in my writing and my teaching—Tom Groome, Maria Harris, Bell Hooks, Mary Elizabeth Moore, Parker Palmer, Larry Daloz and so many more. . .
  • my wonderful friends and colleagues at Garrett-Evangelical—Jack Seymour and Margaret Ann Crain (both of whom could be in multiple categories here!); and all of the women faculty there, especially, Ruth Duck, Rosemary Ruether, Rosemary Skinner Keller, Lallene Rector, and Barbara Troxell.
  • my Deacon friends and colleagues in the United Methodist Church (especially Diane Olson, Sondra Matthaei, Ruth Ann Scott, Diane Eberhardt, Joaquin Garcia, Rosemary Davis, Martha Morales (who will soon be a deacon) and so many more.
  • My colleagues in the Christian Educator’s Fellowship of the United Methodist Church with whom I was privileged to serve as board president and my colleagues in APPRE and the North American Academy of Liturgy.
  • Sister Jeremy Hall, OSB, with whom I studied when we were on sabbatical at the Ecumenical Institute of Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey and University and all the sisters at St. Ben’s.
  • Father David Fleming, SM, life-long friend, ecumenical dialogue partner beginning in 1963, travelling companion and so much more!
  • and, most of all, my beloved partner of 55 years who supported me through six years of graduate school, whose vocational path mirrored mine as we taught at Westmar College together for 20 years (we even shared an office!), served St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Dubuque, IA together (he was senior pastor and I was minister of education), who left this church he loved to join me in Chicago, and who ended up as Professor of Theology and Ministry and then Styberg Professor of Worship and Preaching and director of the seminary choir at G-ETS. He fathered our three children and has always been my best friend, my ardent supporter and always tells the truth in ways that help me grow!
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