To Be Taught Is to Be Known

by Mr. Sheehy

“You failed English?” The disbelief behind my question was clear, but the student’s excuse was quick.

“The teacher hated me.”

It’s not an uncommon exchange, and such a comment usually reveals how little the student knows about the teacher; when it is genuine, however, when it’s not just a vengeful smokescreen, the truth of the teacher’s feelings for the student are less interesting to me than the reality of the student’s perception, which is that the quality of the relationship with the teacher was the primary factor impacting the learning experience. The same perception emerges in positive comments, when students ascribe to a teacher the honor of their own performance: “That teacher loves me.”

Education is many things, but in a school, with a teacher involved, one fundamental thing education appears to be is a social transaction between two people. (This is a neglected aspect of the social learning theory I hear peddled in schools today; too much of what is peddled assumes “social” must involve groups of peers interacting, when it can easily involve a teacher or quiet, written exchanges.) Since I as a teacher in some way attempt to impart learning (whether through a conversation or through an experience crafted for the student) the interaction between the student and me is a crucial and central aspect of the learning. Ultimately, learning occurs within a relationship.

I have long been a champion for prioritizing the student/teacher relationship above other data and information, yet for some reason it never occurred to me how central the knowledge of others was in the instruction of the most influential teacher ever to live: Jesus of Nazareth. Though, as a Christian, Jesus’ teaching about loving my neighbor has directly formed my position concerning relationships in education, I never stopped to recognize Jesus, the teacher, as a model of what I want to do.

This model struck me recently as I considered the peculiar ways Jesus used his divine power. Jesus was fully a man and he did not apply divine strength like some kind of super-hero power; orthodox Christian doctrine is clear that he overcame sin only by human strength, for example. Yet he did act in ways that revealed his divinity. His resurrection and miracles are the most obvious examples of Jesus’ using divine power during his earthly life, but they are not the only examples. The examples that currently interest me are when he used his divinity to know more about people than he otherwise could have known. Two incidents in particular come to mind here: his knowledge of the Samaritan woman at the well, who later told her neighbors, “He told me all that I ever did” (John 4.39), and his admitting to Nathanael that, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1.49). I find it interesting that Jesus felt it necessary to employ such power in these teaching relationships. He evidently thought it was crucial to know as much as possible about these people before he taught them what he had to teach them. Why?

The advantage of his knowledge appears to lie in the ability it gave him to speak with precision about what his pupil needed. He knew where he ultimately wanted his listeners to be (call the sermon on the mount his “standards” if you want to apply to the Gospel our educational jargon), and he knew generally where his pupils stood in relation to those goals (“No one is good except God alone” Luke 18.19), but what he needed to know was precisely where his current pupil was. What might their situation be? What is their position in relation to where he wanted them to be? What kinds of things in their lives were interfering with that becoming reality? Did they need encouragement or rebuke or both? With that knowledge of them, he was able to teach them not just a general principle, but precisely what they needed to know.

Similarly, if I am to teach my students anything, it appears that the most valuable piece of information for me would be information about my students. Who are they? What are they good at? What do they struggle with? What is keeping them from becoming the people I as an educator want them to become? Jesus’ divinity enabled him to ascertain such details instantly; I have no divinity, so instant acquisition is not an option, but I still need to know.

Steven Loomis and Paul Spears note that one of the most pressing obstacles in education today is what they call the technical model–the reduction of teaching to a technical procedure where action A from the teacher produces action B in the student; that is, the technical model is a tendency to believe “in the unbreakable link between cause and effect” (133). Ultimately, this model “operates within the tradition of matching the person to the machine” (138). I find their description accurately characterizes the majority of professional development materials with which I engage, yet could any approach be more opposite than what we see in Jesus’ actions? Rather than force his pupils into a grid and rehashing general principles that don’t necessarily apply to them, he knows them and alters what he delivers to them according to their need. The person trumps the system.

When the person outranks the system, human relationships assume positions of prime importance. Yet human relationships do not quantify well, and teachers’ significant bonds with students, though known and valued by parents, do not translate well to standardized tests. In fact, even attempting to describe the value of relationships can reveal the permeation of the need to quantify anything of value. One will frequently hear that relationships with students are important because students will work hard for a teacher they like; while true enough, such a statement insists that the relationship prove its value in a direct behavioral response–an insistence not unlike others in the technical model of cause and effect.

It strikes me that relationships with students should be of primary importance simply because if students are worth teaching, then they must be worth knowing. I am tempted to make it a maxim of my own classroom: to be taught (truly taught) is to be known.

One might claim that I overstate the case, but I do not think so. Without knowing my students, what I am doing is less teaching them than it is moving them through a machine in which I am a cog or mechanism. I repeat the same lessons and activities just as a machine repeats the same motions. The materials initially fit for the machine exit in perfect working order, and the materials unfit for the machine clog the parts, or get shoved through, or seep out, or are removed entirely. The machine changes over time, attempting to clog less frequently, but it is always a machine and the results are frustratingly consistent.

One clear objection to my idealism is that even when we know each of these individuals, we do not have the ability as educators to customize their education. There are too many students for such an attempt, and that is true enough. Yet I have a feeling that in identifying such an obstacle we might miss the virtue available in combating it.

My combat begins in recognizing who I am. Whatever our institution is or whatever machine our culture is attempting to create, I am not a machine. Wherever I am, I can stop and converse with my students. I can make time to learn their ways and their needs, to hear them and know them. There is virtue in that alone.

Yet beyond that virtue, my hunch is that if I know them I will not need to work so hard to convey information to them. In knowing them, I may be able to convey just what is needed; and the heavy burden for conveying everything might fall from my back. Much of the machine’s work will not be necessary.

I suppose there’s only one way for me to find out whether I am right, so I think I’ll go ask that guy who sits in the second row what his thoughts are about his wrestling meet last night.

Thanks for reading.

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  • Spears, Paul D. and Steven R. Loomis. (2009). Education for human flourishing. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
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