I believe it was leadership guru Zig Ziglar who said "Aim at nothing and you'll hit it every time." As nice as it may be to always hit what you're aiming for (i.e., "nothing") in this scenario, most people want their lives and efforts to count for "something." In light of this, then, it's important to give intentional thought to what we're aiming for. Having our aim set on something overlaps significantly with other helpful habits like setting goals, diagnosing health, and best practices & methodology.
Since I enjoy teaching, do a fair amount of teaching, and interact with other who enjoy teaching, the question I've asked myself more than once is "What am I aiming for when I teach?" Certainly, there are very specific objectives that accompany particular classes. But for this post, I'm thinking more broadly than that. What are some umbrella "aims" that more-narrowly focused objectives should serve? In other words, regardless of focused objectives for particular classes, what am I trying to do when I teach at the level of stratosphere? In terms of broad-brushstrokes and the big picture, what am I aiming for when I teach?
For too long, my unconscious objectives when teaching were either to "finish/finalize" people's education in certain areas or to "follow fads" and let whatever was new and shiny take a dominating role in material. Upon more intentional reflection, however, I realized how unsustainable and unhealthy these were. By trying to "finish" or "finalize" people's thinking in certain areas, I was covering too much material, I was wearing myself out trying to master "everything about everything," and I was cutting students short by not challenging them to continue learning for a lifetime themselves. When "following fads" became a dominating lens, I neglected to emphasize the faithful presentation of truth or I majored on minor issues.
So if "finishing" people's education isn't my goal, and if "following fads" shouldn't be primary, what should be? We're back to our main question: In terms of the big picture, what am I aiming for when I teach? Here are five "aims" that I have reminded myself of often, and keep me pointed in a right direction.
Ultimately, I want my role in teaching to point people in the direction of ongoing discipleship. I understand that teaching in a classroom environment is not the sum total of discipleship. Discipleship needs the soil of understanding, desires, relationships, and service (and more?) to grow in a healthy way. But can I use class time to champion the more holistic process of being and making disciples? Absolutely. Is part of discipleship a renewed mind - something that teaching can facilitate in an effective way? Yes. Even Jesus and Paul seemed to understand that teaching would play a vital role in discipleship (Matthew 28:19-20; Colossians 1:28).
A second aim I have in mind when teaching is to faithfully present the content I'm responsible for. As a pastor, most often this is relaying God's revealed Word and received Christian truth in a way that accurately and faithfully communicates the material. This means teaching methods always serve the goal of communicating truth (content). This means fads don't take the driver's seat in determining what I talk about (though I certainly want to deal with contemporary ways truth is being challenged or reinforced). My goal isn't too keep up on any-and-every fad and novel way of thinking. (I wonder if sometimes the pressure of being novel can push some towards heterodoxy or worse.) My goal is to take what the Gospel writers (or Peter, or Paul, or James, or any inspired scriptural author) wrote and advance it faithfully in the 21st century.
As I faithfully present content, I also want to take students further down the road of understanding, appreciating, and applying this material. In other words, I don't just want to repeat stuff everyone already knows and have them leave the class time no differently than when they entered. I want to reveal greater depths of truth than some may have considered, explore implications not yet thought of, and help students wrap their arms around the material in such a way that understanding is gained and values are shaped.
This aim of "furthering learning" is where particular outcomes for each class (and each individual session) are so important. Two questions we as teachers should always be asking are "Where do I want to take my students with this material?" and "How can I do so?"
One of the ways we can faithfully present and further learning is by helping students "frame" the content correctly. Sometimes this will mean laying a good foundation of "basic material" by which they can continue learning themselves. Sometimes this may mean helping students structure and organize content they already know, but that they've "put together" the wrong way. I believe that if we can give students the right foundation and framework for most topics (instead of feeling like we need to answer every question that could ever possibly come up), they'll be in a good position to grow in a healthy direction themselves, and keep learning for a lifetime.
As I seek to faithfully present and further learning, there are times this means I need to "fix" misunderstandings. After all, in an internet age with tremendous access to lots of teaching from diverse sources, there are those in classes I teach who have been exposed to material and lines-of-thinking that don't align well with evangelical Christianity.
Most often, this sort of "fixing" can be facilitated by simply looking closely at Scripture together. Many wrong interpretations are based off of missteps in observation, so by looking at what God's Word actually says misunderstandings can be self-corrected. Sometimes the reality of misunderstandings means I encourage people to consider options they've never been introduced to. Or maybe I'll invite them to consider implications of their views that bring out things I see as inconsistencies. And there have been times (not many, but a few) where I've had to graciously but firmly explain to people that their views fall outside the "tent" of a broad evangelical Christianity, explain my reasons for believing what I do, and see where things go from there.
I can't tell you how many times I've gotten into a stressed "funk" as I've approached teaching with the goal of either "finishing" people's education in an area or "following fads." But whenever I remind myself that I'm teaching to "form disciples," "faithfully present," "further learning," "frame topics," and/or "fix misunderstandings" I'm able to settle down, settle in, and work in such a way that I "teach with all wisdom, to present everyone fully mature in Christ" (cf. Colossians 1:28).
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