[This post is part of my Guide for High School Bible Teachers.]
Most teachers would agree that full-time teaching is difficult and demanding. That assertion is supported by the high turnover rate among teachers. Since I have five years experience as a full-time high school Bible teacher, I’ll focus on that particular subject, but a few of the following thoughts apply to teaching in general. So before we learn to navigate the pitfalls of Bible teaching in the next post, we’ll attempt to identify them. Here’s a list of six pitfalls that have the potential to sink the high school Bible teacher.
- The high number of classes. Full-time Bible teachers teach twenty to twenty-five classes per week. At that rate, a pastor would need to preach twice a week for forty years to equal the number of lessons taught by the high school Bible teacher in five years. The amount of required teaching leaves little time for in-depth study and lesson preparation. And a lack of study and learning usually leads to a lack of passion for the subject.
- The limitations of the academic setting. Of course, the perfect setting doesn’t exist yet, but it’s important to be aware of the limitations of the academic setting. First, many biblical topics are not easily taught in an academic environment – e.g. love, joy, peace, etc. These vital aspects of the Christian life can’t be graded. The Bible doesn’t only teach head knowledge, but relational or heart knowledge and that kind of knowledge can be difficult to convey in a formal academic setting. Second, the teacher and student relationship tends to be one dimensional. Students sit and listen while the teacher speaks and when the bell rings, the teacher stops speaking and the students leave. Jesus’ approach was different. While Jesus lectured, he also lived with his students on a daily basis. Third, the school setting makes it easy for both teachers and students to miss the point. The primary purpose of teaching the Bible is not for students to pass a test or get an A. The goal of biblical knowledge is biblical belief and action. The Bible isn’t just another textbook. Perhaps Francis of Assisi summed up this pitfall best when he wrote to Anthony of Lisbon, “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers—providing that you do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion during study of this kind.”
- Student misbehavior. Responding appropriately to student misbehavior is one of the hardest aspects of teaching because it’s full of judgment calls: Was it right for me to call out this student and not that student? Was the discipline I gave fair? Did I have the right attitude? Do my administrators approve of this discipline method? There’s enough here to make one’s head spin, but suffice to say that appropriate discipline is essential. If we don’t discipline well, we could be undermining our teaching.
- A lack of student interest poses a major problem for any subject, but especially Bible class where students must be humble and receptive for it to make an impact. Sin is a major cause of disinterest because it directs our attention away from God’s Word. However, sin is not the only factor. Poor teaching and the school setting may contribute to the problem in the following ways: 1.) To turn students off to the Bible (or anything for that matter) here’s the recipe: run class the same way every day (ideally lecturing for the entire period), don’t listen to honest doubts and questions, ignore student suggestions, act superhuman by never showing weakness in front of the class (e.g. ignorance, error, sorrow), discipline harshly, avoid students outside of class, don’t worry if the students are enjoying class, don’t bother to rethink issues in light of new evidence, teach below or above their level, don’t prepare for class, and stop reading. Basically the more we think about ourselves, the less students will care about our classes. 2.) Specifically in a Christian school environment, students who perceive hypocrisy in fellow students, teachers, or administrators may become jaded to the Bible and the Christian faith. (It’s important, however, to note that the perception of hypocrisy may not be accurate.) 3.) Because of the different levels of knowledge among the students, at times it will be necessary to teach material that some find repetitive and boring. Augustine noted, “A speaker who clarifies something that needs to be learnt is a blessing, but a speaker who labours things already learnt is a bore.” The degree to which you face this challenge depends on your school’s admission policy.
- The controversial issues in biblical interpretation. With a two-thousand-year history, we are the beneficiaries of a vast library of opinions and the library is growing daily. A good teacher understands different points of view, presents them fairly, and ideally is able to offer an educated opinion on the matter. A good teacher is also aware of where they are and doesn’t spend too much time traveling down the rabbit trails of controversy. This is no small task.
- Hypocrisy in the heart of the teacher. This is an enormous pitfall for any public speaker and that’s because it’s all too easy to say one thing and do another. In the book of James we find this warning, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt a disjunction between what I was teaching and what I was living. For example, why do I talk all day about prayer and not pray? Why do I talk about God, but not to God? This personal struggle isn’t fun, but it is important. It keeps us honest and it keeps us focused on what’s most important—being a disciple and not just talking about it.
What do you think? What pitfall would you add to the list?