David I. Smith’s On Christian Teaching continues to challenge me. It challenges me both as a professor and as a person of faith. That’s the sign of a good book!
This post invites you to join me in the challenge of teaching authentically. I’m exploring the specific idea of prayer in class, but the heart of the post isn’t about Christianity as much as authentically living what we claim to believe as we teach. If you take your values seriously, this post is for you!
In a chapter called Designing Space and Time, Dr. Smith considers what we’re actually conveying when we pray at the beginning of class. It’s a surprisingly risky proposition, even in a Christian institution.
Why? The risk isn’t in the praying; the risk is what comes with the praying. Or the threat of what may not come with our prayers.
Smith explains that our teaching isn’t just what we verbalize or write to students, but how we do it: “The meaning of pedagogical behavior is carried not just in words, but also in positions and postures, in a kind of bodily memory and familiar choreography, the material underpinning of pedagogical practices,” (p. 118). Teaching includes all of these things.
I extend the idea to assert that actions and symbols in the classroom and on campus convey what we think about education and the individual student. Our values are implicit yet loud.
This is similar to Bolman & Deal’s idea of an organization as theater in Reframing Organizations. The substance matters, of course, but equally important is what our symbols convey. Humans love narrative and symbols, and stories.
For example, do I stand behind a lectern and lecture at the students? What story does that tell students about my views on my own role in the classroom? What does it say about their roles and their own capabilities? Do I ask questions in the classroom? What does my curiosity convey? Do I look at students with my full attention when they respond, or am I glancing at my phone?
This comes back to starting the class with a prayer. Smith gives an example of a professor praying at a lectern and asking God to make the students listen respectfully. Boy, that’s one way to do it! It’s not the only way.
What if that same professor individually emailed each student before class to ask what to pray for? What if the professor washed the students’ feet (I’m not saying this is a great idea, but you get the contrast)? What if the professor took a seat and asked the students to lead a short devotional time? What if the professor asked God not for obedience from the students but for the Spirit to intervene on behalf of the students?
Getting back to the choreography of the classroom – What if the professor sincerely prayed for the students and then offered no time for students to ask questions or rewrite assignments? Is that a mixed message?
This is the risk of prayer in the classroom and really the risk we run when we verbally state any value in front of students. If our words and behaviors say something about our values different from what we profess, we may lose credibility in all areas.
Smith asks us this:
Do our actions demonstrate a heart invested or a heart uninvested?
Lord, help us demonstrate invested hearts!