We recently chatted with Michael Lawson, author of The Professor’s Puzzle: Teaching in Christian Academics. In this interview we learn about some of the challenges aspiring and new professors face in the classroom, some of the inglorious and commonly overlooked aspects of teaching, and more.
(1) What is so puzzling about being a professor? What “puzzle” are you hoping to reconstruct?
Many arrive at the teaching profession with only one piece of a professor’s puzzle, namely a reasonable handle on the content. They discover very quickly that other pieces must be brought and assembled in order to fulfill their responsibilities. The “puzzle” is my attempt to assemble in one place all the pieces a professor needs to accomplish their task. This is the best case scenario.
The worst case scenario involves those who are unexpectedly drafted into the teaching profession. I have observed this most often in secondary Christian schools and Bible schools on the mission field. Their training for the teaching role mostly involved attending many years of schooling. The shocking reality is that they simply don’t have all the pieces to put the puzzle together properly.
(2) What three things would you say aspiring professors—perhaps recent PhD graduates or new professors—lack when transitioning into a full-time teaching role?
Well, in my opinion, there are actually more than three. I would say that all the pieces except content mastery in the puzzle are missing. But, let me suggest three important ones that lie at the heart of Christian education.
First, there is little understanding of a true philosophy of Christian education. The only reason we are engaged wholeheartedly in the teaching task is our Savior’s mandate to make disciples (read: students). The question we must ask ourselves at every level of Christian education is whether or not we actually are turning those entrusted to us into students. In other words, do they want more or less of what we have done to them? This focus on moving the student forward in their following of Christ forms the rudder for all of Christian education. Let me quote a former student who serves in a secondary school but had The Professor’s Puzzle live and in living color in my class. He recently sent me an email saying, “I find myself reflecting on your class and your example quite a bit in my own position. Sometimes when I get buried in the day-to-day I go back to your main point of growing students to be better followers of Christ, and that always helps to center me.” Exactly.
Second, they lack any understanding of how people actually learn things. This is particularly dangerous since they will most likely teach something that came rather easy to them. Without at least a brief awareness of the broad range of factors influencing learning, a teacher can become rather calloused and unsympathetic to those who lack aptitude in her or his discipline.
Third, they typically lack any training in how to assess student learning. The research in assessments and particularly testing is massive. I suspect they have no awareness of that body of literature. They default to whatever kind of test they prefer and assume everyone can perform equally well with their preference. Worse, they may not even know how to construct a proper assessment with their preferred form of testing. Students simply endure whatever and move on “forgetting those things that are past” in the words of the Apostle Paul applied out of context! Most of us have forgotten incredible amounts of information simply because no attention was given to moving things into long term memory.
Let me add a caveat to this section. I do not lay the blame for these oversights at the feet of those entering the teaching profession. No one ever alerted them that they might need these (and some other) things as well as content. No Ph.D. program that I am aware of outside the field of Education requires any familiarity with these kinds of things.
(3) You cover often overlooked aspects of a teacher’s life—designing syllabi, the set-up of the classroom, and working within institutional realities. How important is it for professors to be competent not only in their subject of specialization but also in the mundane and vital aspects of being a well-rounded teacher?
If we consider ourselves servants of Christ and obligated to do everything to the glory of God, then it seems to me that we ought to become very skilled at our profession. No Christian professor would consider his service to Christ fulfilled if he were sloppy in his understanding of the content. Why would he feel satisfied with less than excellence in his appointment as “disciple maker” (read teacher)? In the current environment where evaluations and assessments have become a way of life, a teacher cannot endure very long without expanding his skill set. The pressure is on to demonstrate that what we are doing to students actually results in their learning.
(4) What’s your ultimate goal in writing this book?
I actually had two goals in mind when I wrote this book. My short term goal was to assist anyone who finds themselves in the role as teacher/professor without any training in the teaching skills and responsibilities. I have taught all over the world and found men and women who ended up teaching without any real help in understanding the broad nature of their task. My long term goal was to change the educational experience of students by helping their teachers do a better job. What if we could create classes so wonderful that students arrived in our classes eager to learn? Jesus left us with an enormous responsibility. We dare not give him anything less than our very best. May God bless every teacher representing Christ in the unprecedented educational endeavor of “making disciples of all nations.”
Editors’ note: Michael S. Lawson is author of The Professor’s Puzzle: Teaching in Christian Academics (B&H Academic, 2015). Lawson serves as senior professor of educational ministries and leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary and coordinator of the doctor of educational ministries degree.
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