I know that many among us here at Pax are teachers of one kind or another. I’ve also known the rewards and challenges of being a full time teacher of religion and theology for about half of my adult life. I don’t think that there could be a more satisfying way to spend one’s career.
But it raises the question of how to know when you have been successful at it. What exactly is the evidence for an excellent teacher? When I was in graduate school I was serving as the teaching assistant for my professor and mentor. On short notice he was unable to teach a course one semester, and so he called me in to his office, gave me all his lecture notes and told me to teach the class. I had just finished that same course as a student, so I knew something about what I was talking about. So I did my best and I think it went well enough.
But at the end of it all I realized that all I had done was to share somebody else’s wisdom and insight and assignments and research. I had been more nearly a parrot, or an echo chamber, for the one who was truly the master of his subject. There was very little of my own voice that was engaged in that class. It was more like reciting a book report than it was contributing anything of my own.
And at just about the very same time I remember going to hear a speech being given by a concert pianist—who happened also to be a Catholic bishop. He told his audience that he knew when he had been a successful piano teacher to a student. It was on the day that the student could play a piece that he could not. The great teacher, he said, is not the one who empowers a student to do just exactly as he/she does or to know what the teacher knows. No, the great teacher is the one who equips the student to do the next thing, to become more expert than the teacher through the use of the gifts that have been taught. The great teacher is the one who starts to disappear, eventually, into the background because of the excellence of the student.
I think that the same could be said of parenting, or of any kind of mentoring. Success comes not when an underling has been trained to do or to think just exactly what they’ve been told or shown, but when they have been equipped to do the next thing, to do what the teacher couldn’t do, or to imagine what the teacher never did. When the student can stand firmly and confidently in his/her own place and speak with his/her own voice, that is the fruit of success.
That, of course, requires a good dose of humility in a teacher, and also a great capacity for gratitude and celebration. In today’s gospel of Luke, Jesus is not only teaching his disciples, but he’s teaching them how to teach other—about God and about a life of integrity. And it all begins, he says, with knowing yourself, including the knowledge of your own limitations and weaknesses. Teaching other people—or parenting them, or mentoring them, or coaching them or even befriending them—does not begin by pointing out what’s wrong or deficient about them, what is that flaw in them that you have arrived to identify and remove. And it’s not about filling them up with yourself.
No, it begins with honest self-examination. Jesus speaks of it in terms of noticing the wooden beam in your eye, that which blinds you from seeing everything but the splinter in another person’s eye. It’s call humility. Presuming to be a guide of any kind for another person is really to be an agent for their freedom, freedom to be their own success story in ways that the teacher can’t be or hasn’t been. It’s like that piano teacher. Success comes not when a student can recite all the correct answers to the pre-arranged questions or problems, but rather it happens when the student is equipped and confident enough to ask new questions and entertain new visions and imagine untested responses to situations and challenges. It’s when the teacher begins to disappear.
I walk around every day bearing the fruit of every teacher I have ever had—and so do you. But it’s not because I act and think exactly as they did. It’s because from them I have learned how to confront my own questions and cling to my own integrity and utilize my own best gifts and honestly to acknowledge my limitations.
Jesus tells us today that every tree is known by its fruit, whether good or rotten. And Jesus is not the teacher of rotten. He is the mentor of good—of God. So if we have learned and practiced something other than that—especially in the way that we speak, then that’s the beam in our eye that is clamoring to be noticed. And to be removed.
Some of us here are or have been professional teachers. But all of us, every day, teach other people about who and how God is. We do it in everything we say and in our every act. Lots of us are great at it. Some not so much. To the extent that we aren’t excellent teachers in the ways of faith, well, Lent arrives this coming week—a chance to take note of our eye-beam.