Teachable Teachers

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One of the most frustrating aspects of teaching is encountering students who are not really teachable. Every pastor has had to deal with people who are settled in their opinions and not open to correction. Church elders must at times pursue church discipline all the way to excommunication because the person being disciplined is not teachable and refuses to repent.

It is bad enough when students or parishioners are not teachable, but there is something even worse. I’m talking about teachers who are not teachable. These are teachers who don’t think that the words of this biblical proverb apply to them: “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning” (Prov. 9:9). In fact, this verse might be more pertinent for those who seek to teach vocationally than for those who do not. If teachers are to impart knowledge and wisdom to their students, will not the best teachers seek to grow in their knowledge and wisdom so that they will have more to teach to others? Becoming a teacher does not mean that one has “arrived” in terms of knowledge; the best teachers understand where they are lacking and seek to be taught so that they will increase in wisdom and learning.

Most of us have been blessed to sit under great teachers, whether they were public or private school instructors, pastors, Sunday school teachers, parents, or others. It’s also likely that most of us have had at least one poor teacher, one who didn’t seek to learn more about his subject or grow in the skill of teaching. I’ve known teachers who did all their work the first year they had to teach and have been coasting ever since. They made lesson plans right out of college and have used those same plans for years without changing them. Needless to say, these teachers have not been great teachers.

It’s critical that teachers be lifelong learners. No great teacher gets everything right the first time. Excellent instructors keep on revising their material and adjusting their skills throughout their teaching careers. Simply put, they keep learning.

Spend any time with a good teacher, and it won’t be long before he tells you that one of the best ways to learn is to have to teach others. By way of personal example, I learned that principle in college before I was ordained to the full-time teaching ministry. During my undergraduate years, my college inaugurated a major in philosophy, and I was the first student to sign up. In fact, I was the only person in my graduating class to graduate with a degree in that major. Yet though I was the only senior to take the major, my philosophy courses were full of other students who took them as electives but were not philosophy majors themselves.

Many of these students asked me, the philosophy major, to tutor them in preparation for their exams. Some of them thought they were imposing on me to help them. What they didn’t realize was that they were helping me to learn philosophy as much as I was helping them to learn it. The best possible preparation I ever had for my own philosophy exams was to teach the material to someone else before I was tested on it. As I explained the content to others, I quickly became aware of those areas of weakness in my own understanding of the material. This encouraged me to study even further and to become more adept at articulating key philosophical concepts.

The point is that wise teachers learn not only from their preparation and not only from other teachers but also from their students. The insightful questions of my best students have made it possible for me to become a better and more biblical theologian. These questions have forced me to reconsider things from different angles and have opened up new avenues of study that I never considered before. I confess that at times this has been a painful process, forcing me to deal with my own pride. It can be humbling to learn from students, but it’s necessary and helpful.

Over the years, I’ve learned that if I as a teacher am threatened by the questions or knowledge of my students, I will never grow as a teacher. I’ve prayed that God would enable me never to become defensive, tentative, and ultimately unteachable. I’ve prayed that for my students as well, especially those who are called to vocational ministry. Those who are willing to see the questions and knowledge of their students as opportunities to expand their learning will become better, if not great, teachers.

The only teacher who has no need of learning is God Himself. A great teacher is teachable. If he is not, he will have precious little to teach. Flee from the teacher who knows it all, and look for instructors who are teachable.

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