Most followers of my blog know that I have been a professor for most of my adult life. As I approach retirement, Whitworth University has asked me to share about cultivating relationships with students. Here are some of my reflections.
Walking alongside students as a teacher, mentor, and friend is one of the greatest privileges and professions on earth! Having enjoyed this privilege for more than four decades, here are some of the life lessons I have learned along the way.
I am frequently asked, ¨What do you teach?¨ On my better days, I strive to resist the urge to say I teach Spanish, Latin America History, or Worldview Epistemologies. These subjects are important tools of the trade, but my students are the principal object of my teaching. My main goal is to help shape and sharpen my students as they walk through life. I hope to accompany them as they aim to become mature seekers of truth.
Since each student is unique, I need to get to know them, their hopes and dreams as well as their doubts and fears. With some students we have a common faith so I can mentor them towards maturity in Christ. With others, I need to discover ¨common ground¨ so that I can encourage them to reach their highest goals. Overseas study programs are great ways to get to know students. The 24/7 activities combined with the fact that we are all out of our comfort zones lead to important shared experiences. Following the pedagogy of Jesus, we have deep reflections on these experiences and praxis.
Education is more that just information. There is a strong volitional component, of living faithfully into the truths we are discovering. How do we urge students to obey the truth in difficult times? Each major field of study (architecture, medicine, journalism, etc.) has its particular ethical challenges. I strive to help students see how those challenges have been faced in the past and how they might embrace similar touch choices in the future. I share with my students pertinent stories from my own life, my successes and failures, and my difficult decisions. Sometime my anecdotes are humorous, sometimes self-deprecating, but (hopefully) always useful.
Friendships do not end at graduation. Blessed with modern technology (email, blogs, skype, etc.) I strive to stay in touch with students after they have left Whitworth. Through my periodical newsletters, I keep former students abreast of job opportunities and my commentary on recent political events.
Our postmodern world is characterized by an overly generous ¨tolerance¨ of each other´s shortcomings mixed with horrific abuses of power in all areas of life. Many students yearn to be like Jesus who perfectly combined truth and grace. When the trust between us has grown, students readily open up and share their dilemmas of how to react to evil in our world.
Given how fragmented modern life is, I find it important to help students connect the dots of ¨isolated¨ information. For example, the land grabbing wars in the nineteenth century against Paraguay and Bolivia by their neighbors were inspired by the war against Mexico by the expansionist president Polk twenty years earlier (that Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln protested against). Learning from the past enables us to face the present with courage and wisdom. Pursuing this theme of connecting the dots, I recognize that it takes a community to mentor our students. I ask them what they are learning in other courses. How does what we are studying in our class mesh with what they are learning in other courses?
The older I get, the more I recognize how much I have learned (and keep on learning) from my younger friends. Learning from others is a lifelong activity.