My colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies might contend that the most prominent image or picture of the Christian faith is the crucifix. For me, as a teacher, it is the picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The scene illustrates the upside-down and paradoxical biblical principle of leadership: the one who leads should be willing to serve; if you want to be first, you line up last.
I endeavor to apply that picture to my teaching: if I want best to lead a class of students, I should be willing to serve them. My authority as a teacher is linked to my willingness to serve my students.
This principle is not void of content. Rather, it is practical (and sobering). For example, it seems clear that one way a teacher serves is by thorough class preparation. For me, this has meant not scheduling any substantive activities before my lectures, so I can focus my attention solely on the material and its presentation; it means mining an entire book for one small nugget: a useful classroom illustration.
A teacher serves by being available. For me, this has meant setting my schedule to have no commitments immediately after a lecture; to be generous with office hours; and to make myself available to my students at home.
A servant-teacher is not a pal, but can be a friend. The servant-teacher is an educator who succeeds because his or her students succeed.
Teaching does not come readily to me. Year after year, my stomach reminded me before each class that standing before students was not a normal, biological activity. I have never believed good teaching is a natural gift, like good hand-eye coordination. Nor am I persuaded it requires acting talents, comedy skills, or a personality of extroversion. Instead, I have looked to models, mentors, written sources, and taping of lectures to improve and develop my own classroom endeavors.
At the University of Virginia, a number of students know me as the teacher of the institution's largest class, Econ 201, Principles of Microeconomics. Because of the size of the class, and the regularity with which I have taught it in the fall semester, students might conjecture that I enjoy teaching the course. My relationship with Econ 201 is more complex. It mimics the relationship a faithful servant has to a demanding taskmaster. I "enjoy" Econ 201 the way a servant might "enjoy" completing demanding assignments.
My preferred manner of teaching is socratic dialogue, a teaching style I adopt in the spring semester with smaller, upper level courses. Here there can be electricity in the classroom. Students know they are expected to be prepared each day; there is give and take, a matching of wits; sometimes there is tension and often laughter. And each semester I witness a handful of young women and men who are almost "speechless" at the start of the term and yet they blossom into people who -- while not yet ready to appear on Firing Line -- are able to take on my questioning (and even my badgering) with a measure of confidence and clarity that surprises even them. When this occurs, I experience what I would dare call the joy of teaching and not simply the satisfaction of the task.
When I came to the University of Virginia I was encouraged to think of my job as primarily research. Teaching was going to be a sideline, the payment vehicle for the research. I have been blessed in my research and pursue it more actively now than as an assistant professor; I am grateful for the freedom to pursue my own research agenda. But I am grateful as well for four teachers I had in my lifetime, and one faculty mentor I encountered in my department at the University of Virginia, who modeled out for me the practice of excellence in teaching.
After more than twenty years, when one might expect boredom to set in, or at least the law of diminishing marginal utility to take its toll, teaching continues to be fresh, challenging, scary, and rewarding. And I have come to experience, haltingly and with many shortcomings, the paradox of the teacher who leads by service.