What Steven Garber Learned From J. I. Packer About Teaching

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Over the shoulder, and through the heart.

The image is born of my years pondering pedagogy, of what we teach, the way we teach, and why it matters. Though a thousand things could be said about what good teaching is and isn’t—which in reality is a perennial challenge in every century and every culture—the contrast between “I teach history” and “I teach students” begins to get at the problem. The same is true of philosophy, of engineering, of business, of biology, of literature, and yes, of theology, maybe especially of theology. What is the task of teaching? And when does teaching move from information to transformation?

What changes a mind and a heart? A pedagogy that understands that the truest learning is always and everywhere “over the shoulder, and through the heart.” Simply said, it is why Jesus, the rabbi of the rabbis, begins his teaching by saying, “Come and see.” If you want to know, you will have to enter into what you want to learn; in Michael Polanyi’s great insight, you will have to “indwell” what you want to know. If we fail to show that words can become flesh, our best efforts stumble, which is why the vision of “incarnation” is the heart of the truest theology and also the heart of the truest teaching.

In these days of remembering J.I. Packer, now two weeks after his death, ordinary folk in ordinary places the world over have in an almost-cosmic chorus said, “Packer changed me—everything that matters most to me I see differently because of him.” To think about that for a moment is truly amazing. What was it in him? What was it about him? There was something profoundly transforming of his theological vision and the way he communicated it. Yes, he was brilliant, but it was something more, because he was more. A Puritan scholar of the highest order, yes, but it was his ability to draw ordinary people in—over his shoulder, through his heart—that transformed people throughout the English-speaking world and far beyond. A theology for life in the very best way.

Dr. Steven Garber, Professor of Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College and Director of Regent’s Master of Arts in Leadership, Theology, and Society program, “Reflections on Knowing God & Knowing J.I. Packer

Seth Godin’s Zoom Agreement: Everyone, Make it a Good Experience

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There are things about using Zoom I enjoy.

Other things I hate.

Some I tolerate.

A few I accept. A few I resist.

The Breakdown

What do I enjoy? The connections. I like seeing other’s faces, I like that the technology makes a conversation (or at least an exchange of ideas) possible. I like the reactions feature because I like visuals when words aren’t necessary. The “thumbs up” is my favorite hand signal, as anyone who has ever hung around with me or sent me a text message has discovered. I like the chat feature and I often use the group chat.

I hate that there is a global pandemic going on right now that necessitates the use of Zoom or another video conferencing tool. Meeting in person is better. Mediation is not the same. The pandemic is not Zoom’s fault, unless you believe this. Maybe I do believe that, maybe I don’t, but people are telling me this, this is something I’m hearing, and I understand that people are looking into it, and I think they should look into it.

I tolerate the ways side conversations are limited, moments when it is evident a person on mute is distracted or steps out of the frame to handle a matter, or the fact that some people log on from bed.

I accept that people don’t always keep their video on and that some people are logged in but not really engaged. Some will make that choice.

What I resist is temptation. To check my email, to visit other websites, to do other stuff. I feel it. I admit that sometimes I give in. But I know that detracts from the experience for everyone.

The Godin Agreement

Seth Godin wrote a post, “Toward a Zoom Agreement.” Here’s what he said:

If you promise not to check your email while we’re talking, we promise to not waste your time.

If you agree to look me in the eye and try to absorb the gist of what I’m saying, I agree to be crisp, cogent and on point.

If you are clear about which meetings are a waste of time for you to attend, we can be sure to have them without you.

If you can egg me on and bring enthusiasm to the interaction, I can lean into the work and reflect back even more energy than you’re contributing.

The purpose of a meeting is not to fill the allocated slot on the Google calendar invite. The purpose is to communicate an idea and the emotions that go with it, and to find out what’s missing via engaged conversation.

If we can’t do that, let’s not meet.

Multi-tasking isn’t productive, respectful or healthy.

When my classes move online, we don’t have the option to “not meet.” But we can have an exchange before or after Zoom meetings that will help me improve, to use the time more effectively, to communicate more clearly.

My Commitment

One of my greatest struggles as a teacher is sticking to the time allotment. I let others talk, and I talk, and I make the mistake of trying to cover too much ground. I’m still learning how to be a good steward of time, and Zoom has made that even more challenging. The chit chat is where we connect. The side conversations are where we get the chance to goof around and listen and learn about one another. Zoom isn’t conducive to that.

I have to accept the limitations of the medium. I also have to stay disciplined in covering the ground we’ve agreed to traverse that day.

And if there are still ways to make it better, I want to learn how.

But as Godin writes, one way to make online meetings more enjoyable for everyone is to bring your energy to the meeting, to come ready to engage. Don’t put everything on the leader. Show up and do your part. And I’ll promise you I’ll give my best on this end.

A Sacred Trust

I believe that we became educators because we know–on our better days–that the lives of each one of our students is an irreplaceable gift. We want our students to grasp this truth, to live into their God-given potential. We know that we might end up being the only person who sees that one young student for who he or she is: a unique person, made in the image of God, loved by Jesus, and placed here to give him glory. Is there a more sacred trust?

Christina Bieber Lake, The Flourishing Teacher: Vocational Renewal for a Sacred Profession, p. 206

The semester begins in twenty three days.

This captures well how I’ve seen every student, either while in service to the local church and now in service to the seminary. Teaching is a responsibility. People are a gift.