About a year ago, I received an email from where I did my undergraduate degree, Montreat College. They were looking for a local pastor to teach Survey of the Old Testament. My name had come up. I met with the department head and talked it over with my wife and agreed to do it. I was terrified.
Terrified and really, really happy.
I was terrified because teaching a class three times a week is very different than anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve been people’s pastor, but I had never been anyone’s teacher. I really had no idea if I could even do it and I definitely did not want to screw it up.
But I was really happy because, years ago, when I was choosing my seminary program, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew I wasn’t interested in choosing a degree path that was what you’re “supposed” to do just because you’re supposed to do it. Now, this has proven to be a pain in my Southern regions as I’ve run into the fact that people expect you to have done what you’re supposed to do. But at the time, I just picked the program with the things I was most interested in. But I also picked my MA in Christian Thought because I thought that an MA might give me a more natural window into the academic world. In other words, I sort of hoped that I’d be able to teach one day.
When I went to the classroom to teach for the first time last Fall, it was incredibly surreal. I felt like I had just been a student in that same classroom. In fact, I sort of led with that idea. But, mid-sentence, I realized that it had been 11 years since I was a student in that classroom. I couldn’t believe it even as I was saying it out loud. “Has it really been 11 years since I was a freshman in college?!” I guess this was one of my most severe “OH MY WORD I AM AGING” moments to date. On top of my apparent inability to track the passage of time, I was unsure whether I’d be able to talk for 50 minutes at a time, three classes a week. I mean, I preach regularly for 30-40 minutes, but you’ll notice that those latter numbers are smaller than the first one. That 10-20 minutes extra makes a difference. Especially when you’re in there three days a week.
The first day, I finished all the material I had prepared and felt great about it. Looked at the time. Yep. 30 minutes.
So I improvised. I created some group thing on the spot. It actually went really well and was probably more productive than what I’d done for the first 30 minutes. We talked and discussed. It was fun.
That’s basically the seed form of the past two semesters. I have mostly had some mixture of knowing exactly what I’m doing and no idea what I’m doing. I have had expectations that were accurate and I have been very wrong, too. I have no idea if I was justified in my terror. Sometimes I walked out of that classroom depressed that I’ve been staring at 90% of a classroom that appeared very concerned with their phone or with drooling into their palm. Sometimes I’ve walked out elated that we just had a conversation of such depth and meaning that I felt like we could quit for weeks.
I think this is what teaching is. At least for me. It is a swerving between the expected and unexpected towards this mysterious “learning” thing. The teacher-student dynamic is scientific and study-able, but it is also charged with mystery. It is utterly predictable and completely surprising. I had students ask exactly what I expected and I had student surprise me with their insight and curiosity.
What I was most surprised by was how much I loved being in the classroom with those college students. I really, truly enjoyed them. Even the ones that probably thought I hated them or didn’t care. I cared about every one of them and I enjoyed them. If they were silent and hiding and saving their words for essays, i was eager to read what was going on. Nothing made me happier than to go off the map and have a wide-ranging conversation. That couldn’t happen enough for me.
Yes, I tried to make my students read. Sometimes even read a lot. Yes, they found this annoying. Yes, I made my students write because…. ugh. It’s necessary. SO necessary in our social media-shaped world that forms thoughts into tiny speech bubbles. I tested. I quizzed. I took attendance. All of that was fine and good.
But I loved the talking.
College students are being formed in significant ways while they are in college. Hopefully they are being positively formed. But they are changing quickly right in front of you. I know I came to Montreat and I changed dramatically. I remained who I was but… not. I learned facts and such. I had to. But I was shaped as a person in ways that are hard to pinpoint. I loved being in a room with a bunch of people that I knew that was probably happening to as well.
I loved teaching them the Bible. Many of them (most?) would have no desire to take my class. They’re only there because it’s a requirement. But I love helping people to see the big picture of the Bible and to catch the large vision of God’s goodness. It’s exciting to me. And honestly, it probably helped re-connect me to corners of the story that I’d forgotten.
I think had good reason to be scared last year. I probably still do. But I think I was right to be excited, too. The classroom is a holy place. I will always believe that. It is not purely functional. It is not soul-destroying. It doesn’t give you everything you’ll ever need in your life. But it is a holy place where minds open and work and grow. It’s a wonderful thing to watch and I was privileged and honored to do it this year. I loved being able to be in the same classroom that I sat in and to watch it from that side of the room. Such a privilege to come back to the place that it feels like I just left yesterday.
Even though it was 11 years!