Learning from the Good Teacher

Spiritual Lessons from the Writing Classroom
June 17, 2019

The school year is over. As I close out one year and prepare for the next, I am doing what many teachers do: reflecting on what worked and what didn’t last year; asking why; and wondering how I can improve. As a Christian teacher, I am also asking myself: Did I teach in a Christlike manner? And if so, why did some students in my class fear failure? Why did a few actually fail?

In thinking about why fear and failure happen in any class, I keep coming up with spiritual parallels. My best answer for why students fear failure or fail seems to echo two reasons why we may fear or fail on the spiritual journey. First, we may have misunderstood how the Good Teacher wants to work with us, coaching and gently correcting us. Second, we may have also mistaken the nature of our unique assignments as Christians, not understanding that God cares more about the process than the product.

Here’s where some writing terminology can help us understand the spiritual journey.

Lesson 1: Think Process, not Product

Research in composition studies, and my own teaching experience, has shown that a process-centered approach to writing, as opposed to a product-centered approach, is the preferable method and the one that gets the best results. In my humble opinion, the process approach is also Christlike.

Think of how Jesus invites us to come to Him with our problems and roadblocks early on, when they are still in progress. Jesus ultimately wants us to succeed in our spiritual journeys, but He doesn’t expect perfection. He knows that messes and mistakes are part of the process. He knows that this process of falling, asking for help and getting back up is crucial to success in the Christian walk.

In the same way, good teachers want success for their students, but they understand that success does not mean perfection. In my classroom, I invite my students to talk with me while their essays are in progress. I even invite “bad” or “messy” efforts: half-developed drafts, lists, chicken scratch. I tell my students just to produce something, whatever they can, so that I can help them develop it into something better. This is a process approach, and it produces good final results when students understand it and use it.

Some writing teachers focus only on the final product. These teachers want “error-free” essays in only one submission. This particular approach is a well-documented teaching method in composition history, called “Current-Traditional Rhetoric.” As more research about the writing process appears, this teaching trend should be phasing out. However, students tend to see these teachers as “bad cops/grammar police”; and students will often avoid taking risks with their writing in order to avoid being corrected, or worse yet, shamed. This approach creates fear; it creates students who claim they “hate” writing. It is also, in my opinion, un-Christlike.

Abby (not her real name) entered my class this year claiming she hated writing. She was so worried about producing a clean paper that she bypassed her own writing process, and she bypassed seeking help from the teacher. Instead, she plagiarized.

Lesson 2: Intervene Early and Often

To Abby’s dismay, for the first draft submission of the first essay assignment, I scheduled one-on-one conferences with each student. I was following some of the best teaching advice I have ever received: Intervene early and often in the writing process. But this concept of low-stakes drafting, conferencing with the teacher, and then revising, was foreign to Abby. She didn’t understand that the point of a rough draft wasn’t to produce a perfect paper; it was to show me her writing warts.

As you can imagine, our meeting was awkward. We both knew she had plagiarized, and there had to be a penalty. I told her, kindly, that what she had produced was unacceptable; I had to give her a zero (on the rough draft) for cheating. This brought her grade to an F. I tried to explain to her that, in the future, if she would just ask for my help, she would be okay. Turning away from me and taking matters into her own hands was the worst thing she could have done.

Ultimately, this early intervention was a pivotal moment for Abby. Right there in my office, and throughout the rest of the semester, she expressed surprise and gratitude that I took time to read through essay drafts, have face-to-face conferences, and give early feedback.

Over the next few months, I saw Abby slide from apathy to enthusiasm. She started engaging with the process, writing me long freewrites filled with questions about how to proceed with her essays, which I always answered. By the end of the semester, she was producing some of the most original, engaging writing in the class. She also earned a well-deserved A.

On our last day together, she thanked me in a letter for being the first English teacher she had actually liked. She wrote, “Your class is one of the few college courses that truly affected me.”

Lesson 3: Disciple, and Be Discipled

When I question what made the difference for Abby–what brought her from failure to success, apathy to enthusiasm–I think it was the process-approach, an approach that, done right in the Christian classroom, is really about a gentle Shepherd leading His sheep.

Teaching is a discipleship process. For the teachers or leaders among us, and for all of us on the spiritual journey, maybe adopting the process mindset can help eliminate the fear and failure. Our walk may not always be easy, but, as Abby found, if given the chance to do its work, the writing process, the discipleship process, can be enjoyable. Finally, when we stay in constant consultation with the Good Teacher, He will give us the tools we need to succeed.

By Lindsey Gendke. Gendke is a writing instructor at the University of Texas at Arlington where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in English. She lives with her husband, Marcus, and their sons, Sam and Seth, in Keene, Texas.