To Teach as Jesus Did: A Teacher's Reflections

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Jesus taught people where he found them, he taught with authority, and his teaching held people spellbound. Tim Keogh offers reflections, classroom ideas, and some challenging thoughts on each of his answers to what it means to "teach as Jesus did." He encourages teachers to look at the classroom environment, to be authentic with students, and to walk the journey of faith with them. Keogh also discusses the need for collaboration in building a solid curriculum that is "core" and not entirely specialized or taught because of personal interests and comfort levels. In an effort to encourage teachers to look for fresh methods and "new wineskins" for the Good News, he offers some specific ideas for holding students "spellbound."

"To teach as Jesus did." It's a phrase that must have been tucked away somewhere in my mind because it sprang to consciousness when I was asked to consider writing this article. "To teach as Jesus did." What an awesome and humbling task!

You may recognize the phrase as the title of a 1972 pastoral message from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on Catholic education. I read the pastoral message more than seventeen years ago when I began my teaching career. Although I remember very little of the specifics in that document, its title inspires and motivates me as much today as it did when, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, I was asked to teach my first theology course in the school's Christian living department.

When I ask myself what it means to teach as Jesus did, three "answers" from the Gospels come to mind:

  • Jesus taught people where he found them.
  • Jesus taught with authority.
  • Jesus' teaching held the people spellbound.

I'd like to spend some time looking at each of these answers in terms of the challenges, concerns, and considerations they present to us today as we work with young people in our schools and classrooms.

Jesus Taught People Where He Found Them

"He . . . began to teach . . . in their synagogue, so that they were astounded" (Matt. 13:54). "Again he began to teach beside the sea" (Mark 4:1). "As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd . . . and he began to teach them many things" (Mark 6:34).

Clearly Jesus recognized a teachable moment wherever people were to be found. He met them where they were, rather than waiting until they came to him.

Beyond the Classroom Walls

I think Jesus' approach is important for those of us who teach religion classes to consider. We are not limited to the four walls of our classroom when it comes to what we teach. I would venture to say that a good deal of my teaching has taken place in the lunch line, in the bleachers at a ball game, on the stage directing the school play, or waiting to get to the soft-drink machine in the gym lobby after school.

Just recently I was walking in the neighborhood, and I ran into a graduate who, as it turns out, lives just a couple of streets away from me. We got to talking about what he was doing with his life. At one point in the conversation (I don't remember what I said to prompt this reaction), he turned to the person with me and noted, "See--he's still teaching me." The whole incident reminded me of the lyrics of a song from the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, "Careful the things you say; children will listen." In spite of their indications to the contrary, our students are listening to what we say, wherever it is that they hear us saying it.

The Environment of the Classroom

The classroom, though, is the place where we teachers meet our students most regularly. The guys I teach are pretty typical teenagers: they really get into "hanging out." Have you given any thought to the physical space in which you are trying to teach? Is it a place where your students can feel comfortable talking, discussing, and interacting with you and with one another? Is it possible for you to create the comfort of the lakeshore and the hillsides of Galilee?

I hate desks, and I have hated them since the time I was a student in a classroom. One of my aims is to have a desk-free classroom some day. Right now I am down to sixteen desks, offering tables with chairs and a couch as alternative seating. I will admit that my principal is not totally keen on the idea, but he has accepted that it seems to work for me. Actually, it works for my students. It creates a space that allows them freer participation, and it establishes a physical comfort zone in which we can interact. It sets up what Parker J. Palmer calls "a space in which the community of truth is practiced" (To Know As We Are Known, p. xii).

If "Where" Is "All Over the Place"

Meeting students where they are, of course, does not refer only to the physical dimensions of where we meet them. For the most part, it is about meeting them where they are at psychologically, spiritually, intellectually, and developmentally. Thus, what do we do with students who seem to be "out to lunch" or at best "all over the place" when it comes to religious background and experience? My suggestion is to use what appears to be a problem in a positive way; don't let it become an obstacle.

Here's a good way to look at such diversity: Religious education, like formation, is a process. By our very name catholic, we should expect to find a variety within our students' experiences of faith and their understanding of it; the students are all in process, and we can't expect them to be anything but diverse. (Certainly the recent debate within the universal church over whether Mary should be given the title "co-redeemer" attests to the fact that Catholics do not all share a singular understanding of the faith.) For me, in the classroom, the variety adds spice to the journey and makes for much more lively and engaging conversations.

The diversity in my students also helps me engender in them a sense of respect for differences. They get the message that just because someone acts, believes, or thinks differently from them, it does not mean that the other person is wrong. If nothing else, it may help students to appreciate their own beliefs and trust their own experiences that much more.

In my school students come from a variety of Catholic and public grade schools, and their background with Catholicism varies considerably. So we require our freshmen to take an introductory course in basic Catholic doctrine to ensure that all students have a common knowledge base from which to operate. Also, we do not offer electives. This ensures that all students at a given grade level are getting the same content. This makes "theologizing" much easier.

Jesus Taught with Authority

"Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (Matt. 7:28–29).

Walking the Walk

Last spring I was selected by the students of our school to receive the Professional Educator Award. The day after I received this honor, one of my coworkers asked me if I was surprised. I responded that I was, because I did not sense that I was doing anything differently this year than what I had been doing in past years.

As I later reflected on her question and my response, though, I realized one thing that is different from when I began teaching at DeSales: I am much more authentic in my teaching today. In other words, these days I am more concerned with and committed to "walking the walk" than "talking the talk." You and I know that teenagers do not respond in a positive way to a message that says "do as I say, not as I do." I have more consciously and faithfully worked on "letting the Word become flesh" within my own person, and perhaps one fruit of that labor is that my teaching is being received in a way that it never was before.

When our students perceive us as mentor-companions on this journey of faith that we ourselves sometimes struggle with and question, what we teach rings much truer for them. When that happens, we have gained authority in their eyes. As an unknown author succinctly stated, "As a general rule, teachers teach more by what they are than by what they say." I think this is especially true for those of us who teach religion.

A Solid Curriculum

For our authority to ring true for students, I believe we also need to have a solid theology curriculum, developed with the participation of teachers and of those in the diocese responsible for catechesis.

I had a very positive experience with this when I was responsible for overseeing the restructuring of the religion curriculum at a girls' academy where I taught. First, the members of the department generated a list of all that we thought a student should be taught during her four years of high school. We then consulted our local bishop and the archdiocesan office of lifelong education and formation for their input on what needed to be included in the curriculum. From this process our department developed courses and created a scope and sequence. Texts were then chosen according to what would be taught in each course. What resulted was a well rounded and firmly grounded curriculum.

I favor such collaborative approaches to determining what we will offer our students. We need to make sure that the subject matter of our religion courses reflects the needs of our particular school's students and the concerns of the wider church as represented by our local bishop and his staff.

At the risk of stepping on toes, I'll voice a concern. I do wonder if by offering entire "specialized" courses in, for example, death and dying or personal spirituality, core content is being neglected or left out completely. I also wonder if our own personal interests or, in some cases, our comfort levels may be shaping what we offer as a curriculum.

Jesus' Teaching Held the People Spellbound

"And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching" (Mark 11:18).

Now I don't know about you, but most days I feel it is a major accomplishment to keep all my students awake, let alone to hold them spellbound! But I do feel that it is my obligation to continually develop or find ways to present the material that my students will consider relevant and to some degree interesting, or at least different.

The Fresh Good News

Jesus warns us in the Gospels about the danger of putting new wine into old wineskins. I think that in terms of teaching adolescents, we had better avoid putting old wine into new wineskins! You've probably heard this lament at some time during the year: "This is the same stuff we've been learning since grade school!" We had better work to make sure we present the "stuff" we're teaching in ways that sound fresh to their teenaged ears.

Jesus used parables to excite the people's hearing, and I find that stories really work well with my students, especially their own stories. One strategy I use in class is to invite stories from students that put what I am teaching into flesh and blood, making it real life for them. A student tells the story, and I relate it to the teaching. If no one can come up with a story, I tell one from my own experience, and, yes, I admit to an occasional bit of Irish embellishment if it helps to make the point.

My students spend a lot of time at the movies or in front of the television. I try to check out what they're watching myself, and sometimes that is a real challenge in itself, given what passes for entertainment to them! Yet when I can bring something from their universe into what we're discussing, they seem more likely to "get it."

Of course, I have been accused of ruining a good movie or TV show by looking at it through my "religion glasses."

Fresh Methods

Over the years I have searched for methods to present material in fresh ways, such as the following:

  • using the process of putting together the school yearbook to explain the development of the Scriptures
  • turning my classroom into a map of the world to explain the results of the unequal distribution of the earth's goods
  • using the movie ET as a source for teaching Christology
  • transforming the school grounds into Mecca so my juniors in
  • the world religions course can make the sacred Muslim pilgrimage
  • teaching my social justice classes with the daily newspaper within arm's reach
  • ending each class with a prayer to offer God the "stuff" we looked at in class that day

The Mind-Heart Connection

For me, teaching religion is intimately connected with faith formation. It is important to engage both the mind and the heart of students. I am fortunate that

I get to be directly involved in the retreat program for our juniors and seniors. This enables me to connect what my students experience on retreat (which tends to be the heart dimension) with what we are discussing in class (which tends to be the mind dimension), and vice versa. It provides me with yet another opportunity to help them see that what they are being taught in the classroom relates to their personal relationship with God.

"To teach as Jesus did." It is my daily prayer as I enter the classroom. It is what I do for God, my part in building the Reign. It is what I hope to continue doing for many years to come.


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Published January 1, 1998.