Column entry, “The Image of God and the Vocation of Teaching,” by Elizabeth McLaughlin

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Column Description: The term Communitas refers to an unstructured community of equal members often traveling from one place to another. Like the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we are fellow pilgrims on the road towards the Father’s house, following Jesus as the way, truth, and life. This column is a space to share common ideas about faith, communication, and culture with the intent of affirming the image of God in all persons.

By Elizabeth McLaughlin,
Ph.D. Bethel University

January 2022 / September, 2021


The Image of God and the Vocation of Teaching

Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life” (James 3:1-2, The Message)

Who is “perfect” in all communication? Who is the “perfect” teacher?

At the dawn of a new year and new semester in uncertain times, how can professors communicate and connect with students with a fresh perspective of respect, openness, and even wonder? In the face of COVID, students despair and grow weary. Our own feelings of getting it “wrong nearly every time we open our mouths” compounds. What can we do to bring hope and empathy in the classroom and offer hope to this generation?

One way is to remember who we are and who our students are as fellow image-bearing children of God (Gen 1:26–28). An imago Dei-perspective can help change our communication in the classroom by refocusing our vocation to serving our students as our fellows exploring a common topic.

What is this perspective and how does this apply to our teaching? Even with many demands, we can change our teaching focus from doing to relating. In scripture, humans are made to reflect God in two different mandates: stewarding and image-bearing. According to anthropologist Miriam Adeney in her book encouraging women to take risks for the Kingdom: “The two ideas—dominion and image-bearing are connected …In his image we are creative. So, in his image, exercising our God-given creativity, we order and structure and develop and beautify his world—we exercise dominion.” This call to create or replenish the earth is at the heart of teaching while helping to bring order from chaos.

If we can keep our intrapersonal communication focused on our sacred nature as image-bearers, then we can possibly change the “dance” where our students are concerned as we see them this way. More than seeking  greater self-care in a time of COVID, this stance echoes Martin Buber’s I-Thou perspective where we move the blur of classes becoming a checklist and agenda to get through (as an I-It perspective) to a sacred place of encounter (I-Thou perspective) based on trust and mutual respect for students and subject.

In his classic work The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (1998), Quaker scholar Parker L. Palmer says that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (10). Identity, according to Palmer, includes “the intersection of the diverse forces that make up my life,” and integrity relates to being this identity “in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death.” This identity and integrity speak to human dignity made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is our life, and apart from him, we can do nothing. He is our Teacher, and from his life, flows ours.

So, then teaching as a vocation lies in our hearts and sense of wholeness as we guide the exploration of the subject and connection with our fellow image-bearers. Practicing empathy with ourselves and students requires that we remember God’s image within each other to replenish, create, shape, and care. Teaching well starts and ends with our ability to communicate this vision of human dignity whatever our setting.

In the Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard states a practical perspective that constitutes our embrace of the image-bearing life in our teaching and living, “I am learning to live my life as he would live if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that he did all that he did” (283).

This brings every area of life—including the vocation of teaching—into an image-bearing perspective. Here are some questions to consider in this vocation:

  1. Can I see myself as an image-bearer who has a solid identity grounded in my life with Christ, and not in my popularity, status, and accomplishments?
  2. Can I set appropriate boundaries with my institution and work to honor a balanced life and relationships, to make room for a spiritual life and sabbath?
  3. Do I think of my students as problems to solve or as individuals to encourage and honor as fellow image-bearers?
  4. How can we create open, yet bounded, classrooms that allow for individual stories and discipline specific approaches?

In the coming months, this column will explore the various aspects of human communication and the imago Dei.

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