What Makes an Effective Christian Teacher?
The Preamble of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (AITSL 2011) outlines the ‘crucial role of the teacher’ noting that:
Teachers share a significant responsibility in preparing young people to lead successful and productive lives … A teacher’s effectiveness has a powerful impact on students, with broad consensus that teacher quality is the single most important in-school factor influencing student achievement. Effective teachers can be a source of inspiration and, equally important, provide a dependable and consistent influence on young people as they make choices about further education, work, and life.
AITSL 2011, p.1
What do Christian educators believe it means for students to live successful and productive lives? What characterises the practice of Christian teachers who strive to do this?
For Christian schools, the purpose of learning and what it is to gain knowledge is defined by the Bible’s view of what it is to be wise and to know. In Colossians we are told that all knowledge and wisdom is found in Christ—without Christ, learning is incomplete. It is not enough for us as Christian teachers to teach our students about the world they live in. They need to know whose world they are in, who created all things, and who calls them to live in the world responsibly, and how they should live.
Seeking to identify what it is ‘effective’ Christian educators do, I suggest there are two concepts that can frame our thinking. The first concept concerns the stages in teacher career development. The second is to do with teachers being real, teaching out of their genuine faith, developing Bible-shaped learning communities.
Finally, understanding these concepts, I suggest there are some intentional practices we can develop.
Research concerning teacher career development often present stages in a teacher’s professional career as a continuum, using labels such as from ‘novice to expert’, or ‘Graduate, Proficient, Highly Accomplished, and Lead’ (AITSL, 2011).
A model presenting career development stages by Huberman (1989) suggests teacher career development isn’t quite so simple, arguing that in the first two to three years of their career, teachers find themselves in discovery and survival mode, working out what it is to front up each day in a classroom and survive. As time rolls on, in years four to six or so, teachers start to stabilise in their teaching; they start to feel comfortable enough to try new ideas and work from experience. After this stage (six to eight years of teaching), teachers start to go down one of two possible directions. Some start to experiment and diversify in their careers, perhaps going into a new subject field, different year levels, developing new programs, taking up leadership, and so on.
Alternatively, Huberman (1989) suggests teachers at this later stage start to stock-take: questioning how they ended up a teacher. They may move straight into the next ‘Conservative’ stage. This might be delayed after they’ve been through the ‘Experiment and Diversify’ stage. If teachers take the ‘Conservative’ route, they stop developing ideas and programs that previously excited them. They begin to think that new ideas are probably what they’ve always done anyway. They tend to stick to what they know works. Huberman (1998) suggests the majority of teachers, towards the end of their careers either become bitter or serene. Retirement starts to look attractive. They are much less interested in learning anything new (of course, there are a few teachers we know who buck this trend!).
Joerger (2004) suggests teacher career development is more dynamic, arguing that there are two main factors that influence teacher career stages, moving in and out of stages: ‘organisational environment’, and the ‘teacher’s personal environment’.
The organisational environment refers to the learning community in which the teacher works and the support that is provided (or lack of), the colleagues they work with, and the leadership. The broader context in which the school operates is also a factor, such as changes in state or national policy. Such external influences can shape and motivate teachers or cause disengagement—tiredness of change.
Joerger (2004) notes the second factor concerning a teacher’s personal environment is key—things that occur in the teacher’s personal life, outside school—positive and negative life experiences, planned and unplanned: illness, family concerns, broken relationships. I add, their faith journey.
Personal experiences, and their faith journey, impact and shape a teacher’s career development, sometimes reinvigorating them, making them more compassionate or eager to learn new skills, or causing disengagement from their calling and the craft of teaching.
Together, one’s career and faith journey, point to the need for our schools to provide strong professional development and teacher support. We need to look out for one another, sharing each other’s joys—as well as the burdens when tough times come.
Being self-aware is important. The decisions we make about attending conferences, taking on further study, seeking feedback, collaborating with colleagues, or learning a new skill, spending focussed time reading God’s word, and considering our lives lived shaped by the Story, influence us as effective educators.
Here are just a few intentional practices I suggest we can develop in our craft (and that you won’t find in secular readings):
Practise playing second fiddle
Be real, become more aware of The Story
Develop a left foot
Be determined to finish
Romans 12: 9-10 teaches us ‘Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves’. I like the way Peterson paraphrases this in The Message. He writes:
Love from the centre of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
In an orchestra, the initial acknowledgment goes to the first violinist when the concert is a success, and the applause is given. However, without the role of the second fiddle, which supports, provides harmony, contrast, and depth, the first violinist would be left lacking. The idea of playing second fiddle is to practise supporting your colleagues and those in your wider community, from the maintenance staff, to the parent heading up the Parent committee, to the board members, and your leaders and colleagues as teachers—the young and the more experienced. Be there to support, encourage, pick up the pieces, fill in the gaps. Create the harmony for others.
Secondly, be real! Ensure the faith you profess makes a difference—in your life lived. If you’re not convinced that faith makes a difference in your life, and will for your students’ lives, then you’re teaching in the wrong school.
This doesn’t mean you will always feel good about your faith because that’s what faith means—living in hope despite sometimes feeling unsure. However, strive to work out how the faith you profess influences and shapes your pedagogy, the curriculum content you select, and so on.
Galatians 5 teaches: ‘Since this is the life we have chosen, the life of the spirit, let us make sure we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives’ (The Message). A great verse for us as Christian educators!
Thirdly, develop a left foot. With apologies to left-side dominant folk, this one might take some explaining. As a mum of a couple of now young adult sons serious about their Aussie Rules football, this is a ‘footy’ phrase that I’ve heard regularly urged by their coaches.
In coming to understand what the saying means I think it can easily be applied to us as teachers. Develop and cultivate and craft what you are good at: your main subject area, your main area of responsibility in your teaching, or your leadership position—what God has gifted you to do and be. But work on strengthening the other areas in your teaching too. Be flexible. Be willing to be used by God in a number of different areas, in a number of different ways. Be creative, willing to change and learn; don’t just kick with your dominant side—develop a left foot!
And finally, be set on finishing well what you are called to do. Be focussed and determined; persevere. Work hard at your job.
Several times in the scriptures Paul uses the analogy of the Christian life as a race. Compare the calling we have as Christian educators (often a career span of 30 or 40 years) to a marathon! It’s not a sprint race; it’s long, and hard, but it’s rewarding when you reach the end. It takes months of training to prepare for a marathon. In fact, years of running to do it well. It takes good nutrition, fuelling the body to sustain the length of the race. It takes perseverance and sure grit—getting rid of negative things. It takes listening to the crowd, people cheering on.
Fuel yourself…do further study…keep reading, putting good nutrition into your body.
As Paul writes in Hebrews 10:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we might spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:23
Go be an effective Christian educator!
AITSL, 2011, Professional Standards for Teachers, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership Ltd, MCEECDYA, Vic Aust, available at http://www.aitsl.edu.au/verve/_resources/AITSL_National_Professional_Standards_for_Teachers.pdf
Huberman M, 1989, On teachers’ careers: Once over lightly with a broad brush,
International Journal of Educational Research, 13, 347-361.
Joerger, 2004, The Teacher Career Cycle (p. 36), adapted from Fessler and Christensen, 1992, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.