Why I Teach


I teach for selfish reasons. Maybe all teachers do, but I speak only for myself. These reasons are uncomplicated: to share the joy of what I have learned that I love; to have a chance to express and pass on my ideas about what I have learned that I love; and to keep learning about what I love, stimulated by the people who are learning to love it also, in part because of me.

I don’t have a ‘philosophy of education’: I have things I love and a joy in them that I hope is communicative. And because I love what I teach, I want other people to see what is so great about it too, so that they can feel the joy that abides in important things and that can shape a life with a surplus of meaning. So teaching becomes for me a form of testimony, a kind of patterned awe in the presence of wonderful things. I try to take people on tours of the wonderful, and if all we do in its presence is drop our jaws and say, ‘Ah…’,  I’m content.

I don’t hesitate to share what I think about what I love either—how and why I came to think it, and what I have discarded along the way. Sometimes I tell students flat out that I am right in my opinion about something (and they are not, or not yet quite as right as I am). I want them to know that some ways of thinking about things are better others. I believe that if students want to think for themselves, which is one goal of all education, they have to do that on the basis of something other than untested gut feelings or wishful thinking. They have to build a foundation, and that ‘thinking for oneself’ without such grounding is, for the most part, unreliable, not very valuable, and probably not going to lead them to anything true.

In other words, I want students to take someone else’s wisdom for a serious test drive. I want them to rent with an option to buy; to suspend suspicion and develop a bias toward faith in the considered opinions of others; to respect the authority of authorities instead of keeping up the fiction that all ideas have equal value and that all opinions count the same. In the classroom. I have, gratefully, learned more than I can say from students over the years, and I hope always to be open to their teaching of me; but I don’t understand myself primarily as a ‘co-teacher’ or ‘co-learner.”  There is nothing egalitarian about my classes.

My way is old-fashioned, I’m told. I see that it is. But I think it is also a way to treat things that matter seriously. I feel like I made a pact with important things once upon a time, and I should keep it. Besides, I don’t think there’s a teacher alive who doesn’t want to have students on a similar page: when we’re being honest about it, I think we all hope to form disciples. Not ‘clones’, although if the original is worthy, a few copies would not do the world any harm. And definitely not ‘groupies.’ No good and much harm come from personality cults. Why some teachers do not actively discourage them is beyond me. No, we don’t want groupies or clones, we want disciples. And I think if we are doing a good job, we will have them—people who end up with deeper lives because they have found a new love, the one we showed them, and been changed by its attendant joy. They may, almost surely will, end up thinking thoughts different from ours, but they learned to love good things sitting figuratively at our feet.

Teaching is the impetus I need to keep learning. As some of the people I am teaching begin to grasp the importance of what’s on offer, they want more, and I have to help them find it. Because I am a little lazy, it is a great gift to me to be urged on like this by the nascent joy of others. I also try to be open to their discovery of things I don’t know yet about all the things I love, although not merely open: in addition to gladness in new ideas or new approaches, I also have to model a critical eye, a sifting skill, so that treasures can be authenticated before they go into the treasure house. This function also keeps me on my toes, learning.

I teach for selfish reasons. But not for that is it ‘all about me.’ It is about the subject matter, it is about the love, it is about the joy that grounds and changes everything. Not all students are interested in this sort of thing; not all are capable of it; but I still try hard to give these things away anyway, and hope for the best.



8 thoughts on “Why I Teach

  1. Pingback: Some Winter Posts Worthy of your Time | When I Survey . . .

  2. Rosa

    Mary, I have never had the privilege of participating in one of your classes but I learn something every time you post in this blog and inevitably it calls me to deeper and with more courage. ¡Gracias!

  3. Allen

    I learned a great deal in the two classes I had with you, which I find of continual benefit in my ministry – and with posts like this, you’re continuing that process! Thank you Mary! – Allen

  4. Maria Anderson

    Thank you Mary. I can almost hear you say these words out loud to a class. And in one wonderful winter class in 2011 your words, your prodding and your affirmation gave me the courage to explore places of hurt and turn them into joyful, grace-filled places.

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