To Sir, With Love: the Proctor and the Pedagogue

A few months ago, I volunteered to help lead the youth group at the church I've attended for over ten years. That's right: tonight, we're going to talk about the F-word - 'faith'. Buckle your breeches, it's game on.

The church and I had some time apart through college and university while I barely kept my head above the tides of study, but I never forgot how much I valued the guidance and fellowship of the few youth leaders who could preach the Word in a way that wasn't righteous, and still kept a foot grounded in the real world (instead of cloistered away between the lofty shelves of theory).

When I was growing up, I struggled a lot to understand how I could use anything I learned at church once I'd left those 'hallowed halls'. It's hard enough being a teenager; layer practicing religion on top of that, and you've immediately asked for trouble.

Fortunately, over the years, through much study, meditation and discussion, I've comfortably come to a place where I'm firm in my faith and see no conflict with my position as an empiricist and lover of innovation. But I keep my struggles of faith as a teenager at the back of my mind when I think about how to prepare my lesson plans for the youth groups on Sunday.

I am, quite frankly, flattered and mutually terrified by the trust (and yes, faith) the ministers have placed in me by accepting my offer without question or interrogation of my qualifications. Yes, they know me and my family intimately, but I am not a teacher. I am not a theological student. Everything I know about the church and its texts, I pursued from personal interests. I can count on one hand the number of people I soundboard my ideas with - thankfully, they are all highly educated and critical individuals who won't hesitate to shoot through the holes in my plans.

However, as a leader, I think there's some merit to the fact I don't hide my lack of expertise. Since I've never been trained as a teacher, I focus instead on what I would want from a learner's perspective - and if I was presented with someone who purported to know everything about anything, I'd be among the first setting out to prove that, actually, they don't.

While I personally love the security of being led by someone who knows exactly where we're going and how to get there, that can also be the lazy path. A good instructor makes the journey of discovery the worthier part: I personally retain information much better if I've had to deduce it through guided questioning, instead of being told the answer from the start.

It's fine to have a sign-post ("We're going to Brisbane"), but have some faith in your audience's intellligence ("Instead of telling me when to turn, and where, why not let me plot the route myself on a map?")?

Strangely, getting the theories straight in my head is the easier part. Devising how to pass that on in an effective and useful way is the real challenge.

I personally appreciate an instructor who does their homework, acknowledges they have limits, but still demonstrates an interest in the answers they don't have by chasing them up. It's okay not to have all the answers: I appreciate a teacher with humility.

I appreciate a teacher who maintains order, but isn't afraid to learn with me.

I appreciate a teacher who recognises I'm not only a student, but a daughter, a sister, a tax-payer, and many other things that inform how I think about an issue. I appreciate a teacher who isn't afraid to acknowledge an answer might be messy and imperfect, sometimes even confronting. I appreciate a teacher who celebrates there are many ways of thinking about and approaching a problem.

I want to be the sort of teacher who inspires people to maximise the strengths and ideas they already have, and develop the ones they want to pursue. I want to be the sort of teacher people aren't afraid to ask the hard questions. I want to be the sort of teacher who can learn from their students.

So, yes, I'm going to go and talk to some more teachers.

Friday, 8 June 2012