Returning to our series with Nathan Foster, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Spring Arbor University, Spring Arbor, MI. As you may remember, the first post focused upon how a private person, such as Nathan, wrote such an open book about his life, struggles, family, and vocation. In the second post, we explored becoming a wisdom chaser in higher education, strained family relationships, and discerning the call to higher education.
Today, we’ll consider
- power in the classroom from the perspective of the teacher
- taking the first steps in teaching
- how InterVarsity Christian Fellowship can journey with academics
And in case you were wondering, Nathan’s keeping an eye on the series and would love to respond to your comments. So please, take advantage of the opportunity!
Thomas B. Grosh IV: I heard Andy Crouch speak at Biblical Seminary on Playing God: Christian Reflections on the Use and Misuse of Power. He spent a fair amount of time talking about the power he had being on stage behind a podium, with a microphone in a crowded room giving a presentation. How do you deal with power in the classroom situation, as you refer to earlier, the students desire to come and learn from someone with the “answers?” How do you use power creatively, “rightly”?
What a great topic for a presentation. That’s great that Andy acknowledged his power. Sometimes I think we ignore the idea of us having power because it makes us uncomfortable, so we say we’re not powerful. But we’re extremely powerful in teaching, also in writing and speaking. Not to mention the other social privileges our society rewards people based on gender, race, age, income and sexuality. I’m a straight white male, the world is controlled by people similar to me, that gives me power. So I would say acknowledge it’s there, acknowledge we have power. Don’t deny it. Power can be used for good, but we can’t use it for good if we’re denying it. The way I use that in the classroom is realizing that I have the power to bless people, but I also have the power to destroy people. You remember this don’t you? When we have a professor who criticizes us, it stings. But, it’s also thought provoking. Whether we realize it or not, comments that professors make hold a lot of power. Here’s how I use it in social work. I try and see students most of the time as better than they see themselves and intentionally call out their strengths. If I see a student who has a lot of gifts and they’re unaware of it, I call that out. “You have an incredible ability to do this or that. Here are some things that you can work on.” I wrote about this in the chapter on expectations [Chapter 13: “Rising and Falling to Assumptions”].
And so we get to use our power to listen and to love and to bless people. Sometimes people become what we expect of them. So I have fun with it. I enjoy it. I can bless people by making some little comment or offering a smile. Something as simple as “Hey, I noticed you’re growing in this and you’re working on that.” That’s cool to get to give to people. It’s really cool.
TG: As you bless students and encourage them to grow, how do you point out when they need to improve? This is of particular importance as in social work you’re teaching them how to interact with people.
NF: Once I get to know a student I point out areas where they need to grow. “I care too much about you not to point out where you’re going wrong. My job is to help you be the best social worker student you can be.” It usually goes over best when I have some sort of relationship with the student first. I also try and throw out some compliments as well. Thoughtful and honest responses to papers are a good place to start. I think the trend of grade inflation is at least in part reflective of our inability to hold students to a certain standard. So I ask myself, “Do I care enough for students not to let them walk over me?”
TG: What is it like to start teaching?
NF: It’s like day after day giving a public speech and not getting feedback. The only feedback is the looks that are on people’s faces. It can certainly bring out our insecurities. Parker Palmer wrote a powerful book on teaching, The Courage to Teach. Isn’t that a great title? I love the idea that it takes courage to teach.
When I first started teaching, actually when I first start any job, I’ve always felt like a fraud. I was just waiting for everyone to figure out I shouldn’t be teaching. It’s tough cause really none of us are trained to teach. Our self-doubt can be easily managed by forming an exaggerated sense of self-importance, back to the thinking I know everything issue again. I think it’s really important to connect with other faculty both in our department, but also in different disciplines. Having a mentor, having a cell group. I love it it’s a great profession.
TG: How can InterVarsity journey with academics?
NF: You’re the experts on university life, trends, and resources, this is wonderful power. Teaching can be very isolating. Most of us are isolated in our discipline with a narrow focus. I see colleagues, but mostly I’m in the classroom and busy working. It can be the same for grad students. InterVarsity can help break up the isolation and connect people. As you know, much healing comes in the form relationships. IV can provide an incredible service by just providing a neutral ground bathed in God’s presence for people to get together. When we break through isolation we get to discover how similar we are. So, foster an environment that enables people to give and receive from each other. Oh, remind us that Jesus was the antithesis of competition, and that we only destroy ourselves when we try and compete with our colleagues. Remind us to give, with your beautiful example of serving others.
[Come back next week, when we wrap up the series with a few selections from Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father at 14,000 Feet.]
Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!