What are the qualities of a good Christian teacher and mentor?
I’m a grad student in history at Big Ten Football State University, finishing up my dissertation and hoping to become a college professor next year. A large part of my desire to be a Christian professor is the desire to help my students — to help them find their way through perplexities. I know I’m not as wise as Theophilus and some other Christian professors I know, but I yearn to be.
What I want to know is, how do you do it? I’ve mentioned my availability to talk about history and other things during the first day of classes, and I have six hours of clearly-posted office hours a week, but none of my students seem interested — except to cram on the day before an exam. In fact, most of my end-of-quarter reviews said I was “too arrogant.” I think part of this may stem from the fact that I am young (mid-twenties) and afraid of getting too “buddy-buddy” with the students for fear of losing their respect, but the students still seem to have fun in class. Is it possible that my concerns about respect are inhibiting them from coming in? Do I just need to be more patient and wait a while? What are the qualities of a good Christian teacher and mentor?
I’ll start at the end. What are the qualities of a good Christian teacher and mentor? Part of the answer to that fascinating question is obvious, and you probably already know it. Another part may or may not be obvious. Still another part is difficult, and I’m not sure I know it myself. But I’ll tell you what I can.
First, though, remember that the conversations of Theophilus with his students are idealized. My responses aren’t as perfect as his; my students don’t really pop in that often; and when they do, their questions are more diffuse. There do come golden mentoring moments, but for Theophilus the moments all seem to be golden. No matter how good you are, it won’t be quite like that. It isn’t for me either.
But I was saying that the answer to your question had three parts. Here is the obvious part. You aren’t a Christian wearing historian’s clothing, or a historian wearing Christian’s clothing — you are a Christian historian. This implies that you must master the discipline of history, striving for broad and deep knowledge of your subject rather than mere expertise in a microscopic niche. It also implies that you must pray for, and strive to practice, the moral and the spiritual virtues. That includes loving your students — by which I mean having a deep commitment of the will to their true good, and a desire to serve them.
Now for the part of the answer that may or may not be obvious. You must desire to serve your students for their sake — rather than because of your own need to be sought as a wise mentor. You must trust God to bring them to you — if that is His plan — rather than trying to get them to want to come. You must learn how to find points of contact with them, as Paul did when he spoke with the pagans of his own day. You must accept the discipline of Christian faith and tradition, rather than being a theological cowboy. You must remember that if you are obedient, God uses you whether you can see how He is using you or not. You must always be hopeful, never in despair.
Finally, here is the part of the answer I know little about. Good teachers and mentors are not all cut from the same mold; God makes use of people of more than one temperament. It’s also difficult to know what to make of student judgments on our teaching. Consider the judgment on your teaching that you mentioned — the judgment that you’re arrogant. You might come across this way because of something you are doing wrong, like being impatient with dumb questions. On the other hand you might come across this way because of something you are doing right, like having high standards. What makes discernment especially difficult is that you might come across this way because of something you are learning to do right but haven’t quite mastered, like finding the mean between the error of being “buddies” and the error of being stand-offish.
I’m sorry I can’t explain all this better. Of course there are parts of teaching I still do badly. Even with the parts I do well that I used to do badly, though, I am not always able to explain what changed. We don’t always know what it is that we know; much of what we know is tacit — embedded in developed habits. This applies to most things, and teaching is one of them. I do know that you must remember your utter dependence on God. To be of service to Him, the important thing is to be obedient to the duties that you actually know. Don’t worry too much about the duties you can’t yet discern. You don’t have to know how He is using you right now; you don’t have to know how He plans to use you in the future. He is quite able to use you even if you are in the dark about all that. If you pray that He will show you the next step, He probably will, but He likes to be asked. If He doesn’t show you, trust that He has His reasons — and go on obeying Him.
Let me close with a story. A few years after my return to Christian faith, it was beginning to dawn on me that I should bear witness in every part of my life, my teaching and scholarship included. Yet it seemed obvious that I couldn’t distort my vocation by using my classroom as a pulpit. Feeling a bit frustrated and befuddled one day, I prayed something like this. “God, I don’t know how to speak about You without strong-arming my students. If you want me to talk with someone about Yourself, you will have to make the arrangements. You will have to bring him to me. You will have to cause him to open the subject.” That week –- needless to say this had never happened before — three different students visited at separate times during office hours to ask nervously, “Could we talk about God?”
Will that happen to you? You can’t know. Frankly, it doesn’t usually happen to me. But in His own good time, God will lead you into the way of serving Him that He has in mind for you.
Grace and peace,
Copyright 2005 Professor Theophilus. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.