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Teacher as Learner

Written by: Dr. Adam J. Johnson, Biola University: Associate Professor

Originally Published in Flourishing: Volume 2, Issue 2


Through life story, Professor Johnson shares learning as partnership with students; a partnership shared by Trinity’s teachers.


As I was doing some much-needed laundry while camping, I fell into conversation with a man who had just retired. He told me about working in CSI, while stationed on a US military base in Japan. One of the stories was about the two days off he had during his two years of service there. Let me assure you – he remembers exactly what he did during those two days, precisely because they were the only days he could do what he loved! Then it was my turn to share about my work, and I told him: “I’ve retired. Maybe someday I’ll have to get a real job, but for now I’m just doing what I love doing. I’m a university professor in a Great Books program.”


I’m hardly unique. Our growing numbers of Classical Christian schools are filled with teachers flourishing, and in love with what they do. Everyday we strive for Christ-centered living and to model life-long learning. So, what is invigorating and compelling about teaching the young about Homer, Plato, Athanasius and Shakespeare over and over and over again?


My own answer is that this is not what I am doing at all. I am not teaching my students “about” these figures, or even “about” their books or ideas. This is not what we do as teachers. Rather, we devote our lives to learning from these books. And we invite our students to join us in that task, in that vocation. In short, this job is so compelling because we get to be students: students who invite others to become students. To be a teacher is first and foremost to be a student.


To be a teacher is first and foremost to be a student.

I will try to explain this by using Aristotle’s view of friendship. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes: “the defining features of friendship that are found in friendships to one’s neighbors would seem to be derived from features of friendship to oneself.” You are only a friend to others, you can only wish them the best things in life, and give them some of the best things in life, if you are already being and doing these things yourself. Do you want your friends to be rich? Then be rich. Do you want them to have good family relationships? Then you have them! Do you want your friends to be wise? Then grow in wisdom, so that you can wisely guide your friends in the way of wisdom.


This should come as no surprise to Christians, for we know we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). But we often take this to mean that we should love our neighbors “a lot,” rather than focusing on loving ourselves well as the basis for loving those around us. Think about it. We love ourselves Biblically by loving Him and His image bearers, but also by meeting the potential He has placed in us to thrive in His creation.


But what does this have to do with teaching? We can abstract Aristotle’s insight to the following: whatever I want for those around me begins by seeking that same thing for myself. Do we want our students to be good students? Of course we do! So should we want them to learn about Homer? To learn about his Odyssey? Well, yes . . . but in the first place we should want them to be good students—and that means that we should want to be good students ourselves.


So what does that mean? What does it mean for us to want to be good students, and on that basis to invite others into that same life-shaping activity?


To answer this question, I will draw upon Jane Austen’s much-loved Pride and Prejudice. In the middle of the book (vol. II, chap. xii), Elizabeth reads a letter from Darcy, which profoundly affects her. The letter, she finds, overthrows a whole set of biases and prejudices, a whole way of seeing the people and relationships around her. She comes to a very painful awareness of the problems in her family, and an equally painful realization that she was deeply mistaken about the character of Mr. Darcy.


But how this happens is important. First, she reads and re-reads the letter. There is something about reading that is a little more removed from the tyranny of the present, a little more distant from our powerful emotions than a person-to-person conversation.


There is something about reading that is a little more removed from the tyranny of the present, a little more distant from our powerful emotions than a person-to-person conversation.

And unlike a conversation, we can read and re-read a letter. And this brings us to Austen’s second insight: while Elizabeth finds certain of Darcy’s points intolerable and unreasonable, others she finds more believable, and these help her see anew some of her circumstances and relations. But once Mr. Darcy has convinced her on certain points, she finds that she is now able to read the letter yet again, and entertain some of the points to which her mind was previously closed. What follows is a powerful struggle to re-interpret the things around her by listening to an argument, and going through a process of having her pride and prejudice gradually broken down by reading and re-reading a text. That process she refers to as a “mortifying” act, a death to self, of sorts – a literary taking up of one’s own cross, as cherished and deeply-held beliefs are shattered.


This is not the whole, but it is a vital part of what it is to be a student. To read and re-read classic texts, whose views are foreign to our own, but which gradually guide us in breaking down some of our most cherished prejudices. Not that everything we believe is false! Far from it! But the Christian faith tells us that the fall of humankind is a real and powerful thing. Sin colors every aspect of our being. To be a student is to embrace dying to self: most importantly by embracing our death in Christ, but as a part of this act, using our reading and re-reading of the Bible and our reading and re-reading of some of the most influential texts in the history of the West and of the church, to be good students: to die to self so as to be re-made in Christ.


To be a student is to embrace dying to self: most importantly by embracing our death in Christ, but as a part of this act, using our reading and re-reading of the Bible and our reading and re-reading of some of the most influential texts in the history of the West and of the church, to be good students: to die to self so as to be re-made in Christ.

And this is precisely what we love about teaching. The opportunity to invite others to join us in a commitment to learning as a life-giving death-to-self. This unfolds through the shattering of false beliefs and prejudices, and simultaneous growth in wisdom and understanding, that we might be students of the risen Lord together. To teach, from start to finish, from our first years to those just before we retire, is a matter of being a good student.

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