A little over a week ago, I gave the last lecture of my fourth semester as an adjunct professor. It still feels weird to call myself that. But after four semesters of grading papers and taking attendance and trying to convince students that the course material is more interesting than their cellphones, I have not grown sick of my classroom. In fact, I’ve come to love it all the more. That Friday, as I looked out at my class during the last moments that I had scheduled lecture time with them, I tried to sum up everything I was trying to teach them for two semesters. I teach Old and New Testament Survey, so, naturally, I was trying to sum up the Bible.
In that moment, I could look at all of those faces and be happy for them. They survived their first year of college. For many of them, it was better than they hoped. For some of them, it was far harder. I’m sure all of them would say it was different than they expected. I so vividly remember being 19 and ending my first year of college. I’m 31 which, I often realize, seems so much older to them. But all of us who have moved past college, we know that inside our bodies, we feel so close to the people we were when we were 19. It isn’t hard to conjure up the feeling of being in those classrooms at the end of that first year.
I was proud of all of them. Happy for them. A little worried, because I know what finals week is like.
But as I cleared my voice and tried to recapitulate everything I’d try to throw at them over a year, I had to concentrate on keeping my voice steady. I’m not one prone to much outwards display of emotion, but the emotion was leaking out in ways I recognize and was surprised by. I’m not sure they noticed. But I noticed!
The truth is pretty simple: I love my students. I don’t know that I communicate it well. I don’t know that they would even believe me (especially after they get their grades back). But I legitimately come to love the students in my class. I’m invested in their success, in their futures. And whether they believe me or not, I’m so happy to get to spend time with them.
It’s a lot of time. Apart from my family, I probably don’t spend as much time with anyone as much as them. Three days a week, we’re in the classroom together. That’s a significant amount of time. And that time, I think, is what makes the classroom such a special place.
I believe in the classroom. I know that technology has made it possible to deliver content to places that we never dreamed it could go. We can deliver that content efficiently and widely. I think that is a really great thing, especially when you consider the fact that there are some places that are really difficult to get to, but that desperately need educational resources. I think that’s a great thing.
But I think the traditional classroom, the room with seats and a podium and a board, is itself a special, special place that cannot be completely duplicated by technology. The formational power of repeatedly seeing one another and talking, face to face, over the course of weeks and weeks- that power can be easily underestimated in today’s disembodied, technological culture. We are embodied people. We should not take for granted our skin and bones. It is a profoundly human experience to sit in our skin and bones and look each other in the eye.
So much time spent together carries with it so much potential for good. Hopefully, of course, concepts are communicated and built upon. Hopefully, knowledge is expanded and deepened. Hopefully, disciplines connect and are synthesized. Hopefully, our brains are engaged and our minds worked over.
At another level, often unnoticed by our learning minds, something else powerful can happen. Our hearts can be changed. The classroom is more than a place for our brains. The classroom is a place for love.
This is maybe one of the most significant parts of teaching, a potentiality that I don’t think I recognized as a student. When knowledge is passed on from someone in a spirit of genuine love, something special can happen, even if it’s only recognized in retrospect. That kind of love is difficult to cultivate apart from the consistent physical presence in the classroom in the midst of the up and down, mundane nature of life. It’s important that the teacher is there in good times and bad, to show that the power of what’s happening does not lie in how much you feel good about it. It’s that the teaching keeps happening, hopefully speaking to the consistent and enduring truthfulness of what’s being communicated.
Maybe I feel this more keenly because I’m a pastor and a Bible professor. As I stood in front of my class on that last Friday afternoon, I wanted to embrace all of these students, these young, important people who have so many gifts, and whisper straight into their hearts the truth of what we’d talked about for months: God is after them. The Bible is not a morality handbook. The Bible is a story about God and his insistence on bringing his kingdom to every corner of the world, back where it belongs. It’s a story about God’s surprising goodness in the face of pervasive evil. It’s the story that makes sense of their lives and everything else they’re learning in school.
The message is moving. But the people that I was looking at, the eyes looking back at me… I love those people. I care about them. I care if they did well in my class or they did poorly. I care about them whether they were quiet or talkative. The classroom is a holy, loving place.
I love the classroom. I can’t wait to go back. I can’t wait to see who I’ll meet next.