Seventeen Years of Learning Seventeen Things

Today is the last Torrey Honors Institute event over which I will ever preside as director. Seventeen years is a long time in a career, but seems like an educational moment. I started teaching with Genesis and seventeen years later had a last class on Revelation, so obviously I am a slow learner.

And I mean to go on learning, but with seventeen years worth of lessons taught me by Torrey students.

1. Taking a risk in a discussion is good, if the risk is based on sincere doubt.

A bad discussion cultivates false skepticism for the sake of “intellectual” activity. Begin with something people are actually wondering. If nobody wonders if God exists in a class, don’t “induce” doubt. Instead, discuss what is there.

2. People are more important than ideas or programs.

Ask of any policy when it is applied: is this rule serving the student or is the student serving the policy?

3. Fiery rhetoric is less important than gentle words and is justified only with tears.

The teacher fit to launch a jeremiad has lamented as much as Jeremiah. If you don’t love the students, don’t correct them.

4. Good questions are formed out of reading combined with life experience.

Is there anything more useless that a textual discussion that is not applied? Not in general education anyway.

5. Don’t be afraid. Closets are for clothes not doubts, fears, or experiences.

Hiding opinions is bad. Some experiences are too private for class discussion, but need pastoral or psychological discussion. However, basic openness is vital.

6. Students rarely say something new, so learn from the old. Grow deeper through the bromides.

Two thousand classes later, I can honestly say I was never bored in class. Why? Students rarely say something new, but the person saying it is different. As a result, I learn about the people and this deepens my knowledge of their statements. Seventeen years later, I know “Zeus is not as good as Yahweh” in a deeper way than when I first heard it from a student reading “Iliad” and “Genesis.”

7. Admit errors. Everybody knows you make them anyway. Laugh and learn from them.

I once taught an entire class calling the Tsar’s consort “Alexandria”  . . . this was funny and humbling. Being humbled is good for a teacher always.

8. Argue boldly and with zeal, but do so willing to change your mind.

One reason I started blogging was to show my students my opinions so they could check my bias. Parents could warn them against my Republicanism! At the same time, strong opinions allow strong pushback and this helps me learn. I have changed my mind on many things as a result. My Democratic friends make me a better citizen, because they have something to argue.

9. The best students often say little, but a good teacher registers what they say and probes for more.

Good listeners are rare. Watch them and when they speak, often with Twitter brevity, take their gentle tweeting and build. It will always be worth it.

10. Avoid forcing a text into my experience, but allow the text to challenge my experience.

Reading a book through the lens of my life always is to read the same book multiple times. I have stopped and it has made me a better reader. Trollope isn’t about me, but applies to me.

11. Don’t have the last class in this class.

If something worked well, it is easy to be disappointed when it works differently in the next session. Love the class you are in. Some classes “reap” the buildup other teachers have labored to produce. . . .don’t always have to be the teacher who gets the results, but be willing to be the teacher who builds the foundation for others to follow.

College teachers often get too much credit by the way, when we actually just finish what high school teachers, pastors, and (most of all!) parents have done.

12. Buzz words and issues change, people do not. Teach people.

Teaching tricks and tools come and go. Let them. Learn what is constant in people. One student constant: great parents are a teacher’s best ally. Never pander to an attack on them. Bad parents are the students worst enemy. Help if you can.

13. Faculty exist for students.

We get paid to serve. The main social function for most teachers in the humanities is to produce better citizens for the Republic and citizens for Christendom.

14. Love and gratitude are better learning motivators long term than rebellion or “warfare.”

I am against quite a few things and sometimes that must be said, but mostly define your teaching by what you love. Attack your own school . . . rarely.

15. When a student is critical of me, they almost always are partly right. Learn.

If David can, so can I.

16. Be yourself, but aspire openly to be a better self.

The fact that “I am this way” doesn’t justify it. It is true. Show where you are at to students, but also show where Jesus is taking you.

Finally, I have learned to no man is indispensable or really founds any great thing.

I will go and next years class will have a fantastic Torrey experience, because Torrey never was about me.

Paul Spears, Thomas Llizo, Fred Sanders were all there from the start and stayed to the finish of my time in Torrey. Each contributed to the DNA of the program in their own way. Melissa Schubert was in the first class and came back to help us in a crisis and has stayed as a master teacher. The present faculty is the strongest we have ever had and is growing strong with two brilliant new hires.


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