Relational Teaching, Coaching, Parenting

While visiting my favorite first year college student in Minnesota in early November, I thought about the ones I teach in Washington State. My daughter’s friend was exiting their dorm as we were entering it. “How did your advising meeting go?” my daughter asked. “Pretty terrible.” “Why?” “She got pretty mad at me. Told me to come prepared next time. I had five different schedules written down, but I was just too scared to show them to her.”

Too scared.

Fast forward to the end-of-semester conferences I had with my writing students last week. One of them, Tori said, “I appreciated your stories because at first I was intimidated by you. I mean you said you did triathlons.” Academics intimidate students through formal titles, academic language, dress (including academic robes), and rituals such as convocation and commencement. And in my case I guess, by swimming, cycling, and running in succession.

Similarly, some coaches routinely intimidate athletes and some parents routinely intimidate their children. They argue that intimidation breeds fear and fear breeds respect. But when they have an athlete or child get in serious trouble they often ask, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The answer is obvious. Too scared.

Teaching excellence takes many forms. The intimidation—fear—respect model probably works well in the military, but I believe intimidation impedes learning because it contributes to students bullshitting  their way through school. Instead of developing authentic voices, students say and write what they think their teachers want to hear and read. The technical term is “grade grubbing”.

It’s not enough to say what my teachers-to-be always do, “I want to be more than just a teacher. I want to be a role model, someone students can come to and talk about not just class, but life.” Most students are so intimidated, any teacher that wants to be “accessible” has to be intentional about adopting a less formal, more personal professional persona.

One way to do that is to tell short, personal, self-deprecating stories. Ideally short, personal, self-deprecating stories that relate to the day’s content. Students aren’t interested in the details of their teachers’ personal lives. Save those for a friend or therapist.

Pope Francis is a great example of someone intentionally passing on a built-in pedestal. In part, his tenure has started so positively because he’s foregone the traditional perks of the position, including the Mercedes and posh Vatican digs. Compared to his predecessors, he travels and lives in ways that more people can relate to.

Most likely, my daughter’s friend couldn’t relate to her advisor for a litany of reasons. Reasons I doubt her advisor will explore. Many academics, just like some coaches and parents, prefer the view from their lofty perches. Teaching, coaching, and parenting is far less messy from above. Just not nearly as effective.

Feminism and Church Patriarchy

I was too young during the Civil Rights movement to appreciate the participants’ sacrifices and accomplishments firsthand. We’re in the midst of another, admittedly more subtle, radical social transformation.

The U.S. is tilting left, in large part because younger voters are more liberal on a host of social issues including gay marriage, women’s rights, immigration, gun control, and legalizing marijuana.  As one especially illuminating example of this transformation, read not-so-young Republican Senator Rob Portman’s explanation of why he now supports gay marriage.

The key word in the previous paragraph was “tilting” as in 55%. There’s still a Grand Canyon-like partisan divide on social issues. Case in point, Portman is getting ripped by the Right for abandoning conservative biblical principles and by the Left for a too little too late conversion.

This is what I was thinking about in church Sunday when Melinda, our twenty-something year-old intern, started her sermon, a history of St. Patrick, and what his life might mean for our church today. It was excellent. I drifted as always, but more purposefully. I was fast forwarding, thinking about how bright her pastoral future is. I was picturing her taking future calls and serving a series of churches extremely well. A life spent modeling the gospel; providing spiritual counseling; teaching and preaching; rallying people to serve those in need; thoughtfully baptizing, marrying, and burying the young and old; and the community and larger Church, being better for it.

And then I thought about a religious organization that’s been in the news a lot lately as a result of a change in leadership. And how, despite accelerating social change in the U.S., that religious organization is passing on thousands of Melinda’s the world over every year. How, I wonder, does any institution in the 21st Century take a pass on the leadership potential of half its members?

Also listening to Melinda was our district’s congressman who flies home every weekend to see his wife. Looking at him made me wonder, what if Congress passed on the leadership of half the population? What if schools of medicine did? Or your workplace? What if (fill in the group or institution of your choice) did?

How do my feminist friends, both male and female deal with the church’s patriarchy? That’s only one of my many questions about the Church in the news. My friends would undoubtedly say that’s just one of a long list of unresolved challenges facing the Church. They oppose the Church’s official stands on a litany of issues, but remain committed to it.

How does that work? Does religious tradition trump discordant hearts and minds? How does it hold together?