“Would you ever teach?”
Now that finals are at last over, and we’ve had that fun day of Latin and furry hoods and throwing hats and posing for photos, conversations turn more and more often to career plans. If you don’t have a career planned (which I don’t – if anyone would like to offer me employment after I’ve interned for 10 months, I’m all yours), this is the question everyone asks. As if you couldn’t have thought of it yourself.
It’s a fair question. A theology degree doesn’t lead to many obvious career choices besides becoming a nun, which I did consider, but my friend has had it shotgunned for years. Religious Studies teacher is the next most obvious option, which I imagine also entails poverty and chastity, albeit less voluntarily. Not sure either is for me.
One of the most popular post-uni choices for graduates in the UK is a scheme called Teach First, through which high achieving graduates spend two years teaching in schools in areas of deprivation, working to help young people from low-income backgrounds to overcome educational disadvantage. They learn on the job, going straight into teaching rather than doing a year or more of training as you would with other routes into teaching. From what I know of the scheme, those chosen for it are graduates who already have the communication skills, creativity and resilience needed to teach, which gives them the best chance of success in a classroom even before much formal training. For many graduates keen to give back to communities, and the teenagers who have benefited, the Teach First model is a great success.
Not everyone is quite so eager to teach though.
I visited a church for the first time on Sunday and a guy stood up to preach from James chapter 3, which begins:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways.”
As you’d expect, he didn’t sound entirely comfortable with these verses! They give a sobering reminder that any kind of teaching comes with a degree of responsibility. We can all remember certain teachers from our pasts because of the effect they had on our lives, whether by their encouragement or condemnation. If we’re going to be help to account for that impact we have, teaching becomes a bit more of a scary choice.
For the guy about to preach on that passage on Sunday, the response was to opt out all together. Noting the personal resonance of the phrase “We all stumble in many ways”, he asked the congregation not to consider him a teacher at all for the next 20 minutes; instead, he wanted to preach as a fellow student.
I appreciated his humility in acknowledging his own weaknesses in the light of the passage he had open. But I’m not convinced that they answer is to opt out of the responsibility that comes with standing behind a lectern. In fact, I don’t think any of us can opt out of the responsibilities of being ‘teachers’, because we all teach in some way. Whether in a formal school or church setting, as an employer or manager, or by our influence on other family members, by virtue of being social animals we find ourselves teaching perhaps more often than we notice or intend.
So which model should we go for? The Teach First, jump straight in, “if you’ve got the skills, give something back and make a difference as soon as you can” model? Or the James 3 preacher, cautious, “don’t quote me on this, I take no responsibility” model?
Predictably, I’d go for a third way, more like a learning and teaching cycle. The warning of those verses in James should encourage us towards humility, to consider our faults and flaws, to be ready to learn continuously, to be corrected and challenged, to apologise, and to take responsibility for the impact our teaching can have on other people’s lives.
But that shouldn’t stop us teaching. It couldn’t stop us teaching, unless we were to lead indifferent and silent lives in solitude. As long as we believe in something, are passionate about something, stand for some kind of values, and engage with other human beings, we’ll be teaching. So the Teach First model seems to make sense: do it with purpose. Do it with energy. Do it with desire to contribute positively to other people’s lives. The ability to communicate, to speak, write and demonstrate is shouldn’t be a burden to cower away from , but a privilege and a responsibility to step up to, for all of us.
Here endeth the lesson.