Once, I was invited to be the devotional speaker for a retreat of university professors. As you might imagine, that can be an intimidating assignment, and it was especially so with this particular group of professors, because many of them had been my instructors. I was speaking to university professors from my alma mater.
Earlier in the day, I’d heard some of them talking among themselves about how their classes were going, and how discouraging it was that so many of their students weren’t really that interested in learning anything. “One of my kids wanted to know, the other day, how long they had to wait in class if I was a bit late getting there. Could they leave after five minutes of waiting?” It seemed to him that waiting five minutes for a teacher was too much to ask.
Now, it was evening. I stood before my former teachers. I would be the ‘teacher.’ What to teach? What to say? I finally settled on a question to ask them. As I stood before them in that lovely retreat setting, I quieted myself before I spoke, as if what I was about to say was very important. I looked out over my audience. In silence for more than thirty or forty seconds, I scanned those faces. I looked those professors in the eye, one person at a time. And then, I asked my question:
“Are you learning your students anything?”
Now, the quiet atmosphere of the room changed. And the rather stoic expressions on the faces of those listening morphed into smiles. Their nodding heads, and their looks at one another told me they were thinking, “This could be an interesting class time.” I made three observations, as I affirmed something to all of them that they already knew, only too well.
There’s a difference between teaching and learning. One idea deals with dissemination; the act of spreading something, especially facts or information. The other deals with assimilation; the process of taking in and fully understanding information or ideas that are being taught. To teach, then, is to ‘scatter or broadcast seeds of thought or information. To learn is to acquire or assimilate information.
The second observation I brought to their attention was:
Teaching is about the act of ‘transference’ of truth or knowledge from one person to another. Teaching, the dictionary says is ‘the occupation, profession, or work of a teacher. Teachers have already learned something. And they ‘scatter the seeds’ of their learning onto the soil of students who haven’t ‘learned, yet.’
And the third observation I made was this:
There’s a bit of ‘teacher’ in every student; and, hopefully, there’s a bit of ‘student’ in every great teacher. If you’re in the ‘teacher’ mode, you’re doing your best to transfer or spread what you know to those who may be listening. If you’re in your ‘student’ mode … your responsibility is to learn. The teacher is not responsible for the ‘learner’s learning.’ A teacher may do an excellent job of teaching, leaving no stone unturned in covering every aspect of a subject, and still have students who fail to learn. The ultimate goal of all great teaching isn’t to cover all the curriculum; it’s to accurately assess the ‘learning’ that is going on. And sometimes, the greatest challenge in teaching is having to learn how those who are listening learn best.
The most gifted teach who ever walked this earth was Jesus. No teacher ever did a more masterful job of knowing the learning style of the student or in some cases, the students —plural— who were before him. He never dumbed-down a topic or a truth. In fact, the Message translation of John chapter 6 says that his words about His being the Bread of Life were too tough to swallow.
It says that “Jesus sensed that his disciples were having a hard time with this and said, “Does this rattle you completely? … Every word I’ve spoken to you is a Spirit-word, and so it is life-making. But some of you are resisting, refusing to have any part in this.” Some people just never learn. In fact, as Jesus said, some people don’t even want to learn, no matter who it is that’s doing the teaching.”
May it never be said of me that I’m too old to learn. You are the teacher; I am the learner. May I ever be enthralled with the idea of hearing you teach me, lead me, guide me. I am convinced that You are never confused about your role. You know me completely. And you see every part of my unknowing heart and life. In the words of the psalmist, will you …
“Lead me in your truth and teach me, For you are the God of my salvation; For you, I wait all the day long.”