Releasing the Helm: Loosening My Grip on My Students’ Learning (Scholar’s Compass)

Sea Turtle Releasing the Helm CroppedFor if we are really to receive everyone as Christ that means that we must respect each as made in the image of God and not in the image of ourselves. Esther de Waal,Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict.


Sitting at their tables, my students listened to me with red-rimmed eyes or drooping heads. Many had half empty coffee cups near them. They were tired. Painfully tired.

I knew these students gained from the course because they would refer to its content in other classes. But as I walked to my car, their bleary eyes were imprinted on my mind. Should learning be this miserable?

Teaching with Hospitality

Esther de Waal writes of the Benedictine rule of hospitality “Let everyone that come be received as Christ.” If I apply this rule to my classroom, I am struck by her thought, “For if we are really to receive everyone as Christ that means that we must respect each as made in the image of God and not in the image of ourselves.”

As a teacher, I’m tempted to make my own disciples. I’m tickled if I overhear a student recommend me as a prof for a multi-section course. And I wonder if in Scripture, Apollos and Cephas weren’t also pleased when they heard believers claiming that they followed them above other early Church leadership (I Cor. 1).

The course I was teaching, Writing Theory and Ethics, was text driven and discussion oriented with latitude from my department for shaping it. To keep my students accountable, ready for discussion, I required guided reading homework for the assigned texts for which they typed two-page answers due almost every class meeting. The questions I gave focused on the portions of the text I believed most important.

These were seniors, and I was treating them like high schoolers. I wanted to be confident that they could already articulate what I saw as central in their homework. Yet I also assumed that it was their fault if they could not read and respond to extensive texts as rapidly as I could as a Ph.D. student. Unless they became like me, my classroom was a hostile place.

Risking Hospitality

Changing the course the next time I taught it was a matter of prayer—what if my students learned less? Wouldn’t I be a failure?

I shortened many of their readings and asked the students to “resonate and resist” (as a writing friend suggested) with their texts, first through shorter responses and later through marginalia. In our discussions, I asked questions related to the portions I deemed important, trusting them to take notes for their term papers.

They surprised me. They highlighted parts of the texts that I had overlooked but could find impactful too. They entered the room talking about their readings. They were freer to challenge me, and I found myself scribbling notes and adjusting more frequently for the next time. One student would return after graduation to tell me, “This is what I thought college would be like.”

God broke through my pride and fear. The results would heal that burned imprint, replacing it with a new one, a vision of my students’ participation as a gift, their engaged faces made in God’s image. A gift I hold in open hands.


1. Do you consider your section of a course or how you teach a course the best and perhaps only way to teach it? Consider if you’re prone to “make disciples.”

2. How hospitable is your classroom? Would some students feel that it is a hostile environment to be in? If so, what could you do to make it more hospitable?

3. In what ways do you see the image of God in your students?


Father, open my eyes,

to see you, to see your image,


Son, as you receive me,

let me receive my students,


Spirit, quicken my mind to teach,

my heart to value them always,


Three in One, unveil me,

may they see You from me.

Further Reading

Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2001 (1984, London).

Image courtesy of hilarycl at Morguefile

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Heather Walker Peterson

Heather Walker Peterson has taught in the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern—St. Paul, contributes to the blog, and tweets @languageNfaith.

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