Title: Teacher-Scholar: Servant Teaching and Missional Scholarship
Entry: “Servant Teaching with Faith, Skill, and Virtue,” by Quentin Schultze, Professor of Communication Emeritus, Calvin University, and CCSN Senior Fellow
Column Description: this column explores the important inter-connections between teaching and scholarship in Christian higher education. Contributors address such questions as: What does it mean to be a “servant teacher” who is committed to transformational instruction? How can our scholarship arise out of our teaching and simultaneously improve our communication with students inside and outside the classroom? What are effective strategies and examples of faith-learning integration that encourage students to think deeply and Christianly about the subject matter, and how can such integration promote spiritual growth and faithful living? How can we find time to write and publish while teaching full time and maintaining a work-life balance? And more! Thinkpieces, case studies, teaching illustrations, and other reflective contributions are most welcome. Contact [email protected] for submission guidelines.
“Servant Teaching with Faith, Skill, and Virtue” *
A former student wrote to tell me that she was reviewing her notes from a class I had taught decades ago. I felt blessed by her kind note.
Before she was my student, however, a disheartening experience nearly drove me out of teaching. I was administering a final exam. As students finished, they gave me their exams and departed—sometimes with a whisper of thanks for the course. One student handed me a completed exam and headed for the door without a word or even eye contact. On his way out of the room, he threw his course notes and the textbook (written by me) into the metal trash can with a resounding clang. The remaining students looked up and chuckled. I fumed. That sleepless night I wondered if I had chosen the wrong profession.
Instead of leaving teaching, however, I determined to renew my calling. In the subsequent years, I repeatedly assessed my progress. Three to four times a semester, I asking students how I was doing and what I could do better (and, relatedly, what they too could do better). As a result, I broke many teaching conventions that are popular in both Christian and general university instruction. I began to see my role as what I call a “servant teacher.” I even wrote a book of 30 short (3-page) chapters that illustrate how any Christian university teachers—full- or part-time—can vastly improve their effectiveness, lower their and their students stress, and flourish in a profession that is increasingly anxiety producing and even disheartening at times.
In this and future columns, I will highlight and expand upon some of the material in my book: Servant Teaching: Practices for Renewing Christian Higher Education. I will also respond to emails and phone calls I am receiving from readers (very interesting comments and questions). I hope some of you will write entire columns as well. Even highlighting just one solid pedagogical practice can help all of us.
I will offer brief columns filled with illustrative experiences as well as biblical and theological insights. My aim is not to tell you exactly how to teach but to suggest pedagogical practices that you can adapt to your teaching style, situation, and discipline. I also reveal, as a communication scholar, how I say some things to students; I seek to capture the rhetorical flavor.
The other day I walked the halls of a university, listening in on instructors’ lectures (not a single class was engaging in discussion). I also watched the faces and other nonverbals of students. There didn’t seem to be any enthusiasm or excitement for learning. Teachers were just conveying information, perhaps even repeating material from textbooks. This is not all bad, but I know we can do much better.
My book and this column address how we can renew Christian higher education in the face of considerable obstacles. Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff says that the main challenge to Christian education “lies in the fact that many of the students whom the Christian school graduates are not at all convinced of the worth of the institution they graduated from.” One key to overcoming this challenge is to develop teaching that demonstrates the deep value of Christian higher education. My own teaching experiences suggest ways of moving forward faithfully in the face of today’s declining enrollments and financial exigencies.
Each of us has discipline-based knowledge and skill. But how can we inspire students, including nonmajors, to acquire the knowledge and employ the skills?
I believe that we can renew Christian higher education by focusing on three interwoven things—faith, skill, and virtue. We teach through faith. We teach by skill. We teach with virtue. In other words, we faithfully practice skilled teaching as virtuous persons. I call this servant teaching—serving our students by teaching them with faith, skill, and virtue. In the process, we serve God as well.
I have practiced servant teaching in undergraduate, graduate, online, adjunct, and full-time instruction. Such servant teaching is all about intentionally integrating faith, skill, and virtue. In my experience, the benefits are many, including better-motivated students, greater learning for life, and graduates who advocate for Christian education.
We servant teachers learn from our failures as well as our successes. I’ve made many foolish mistakes. I’ve also struggled with personal issues that negatively affected my teaching. I tend to be impatient, perfectionistic, and defensive. I need to work on myself in order to serve my students well. I discovered the importance of virtue—good qualities of character. I realized that my own spiritual health is a major part of my teaching. By the grace of God, the fruit of the spirit can form our characters as servant teachers (Gal. 5:22–23).
I am convinced that the best teaching and learning occur at the intersection of our students’ formation and our own formation. As faculty and students, we can shape each other to be faithful teacher-learners under God’s mercy. We teachers are not just helping students build their careers—no more than we are teaching simply to advance our own academic careers. We value the personal formation of the student in the light of the discipline being taught. Moreover, we teachers are also students, learning from our students how best to teach them for the benefit of God’s kingdom. We and our students grow together into the kind of community that nurtures current students and attracts prospective students.
My book and these columns are about how to inspire and encourage our students to become faithful, lifelong learners; about how our faith can shape our pedagogy; about what we like and dislike about our work, including matters of the heart that we rarely discuss; and about why I now approach teaching with deep gratitude—even for the student who challenged me by loudly trashing his course notes and my precious textbook. He woke me up to pursue a more excellent way, which I share with you (1 Cor. 12:31).
We must continually renew our teaching. Student culture changes; we adapt. Such ongoing pedagogical renewal is essential both for how we teach and how we promote Christian higher education to prospective students and their families. As faculty, we implicitly define the meaning of our universities as distinctively Christian endeavors. When our own Christian language and educational practices grow stale, Christian education seems irrelevant to the Christian community—an unnecessary expense.
I hung on my campus office wall a John Swanson print, The Conductor, which metaphorically depicts God as an orchestra conductor on a stage with musicians poised for direction. I posted below the art print many photos of my graduates. Periodically I added new pictures that included wedding and employment photos, and eventually consecutive generations of former students who trusted me with their children. When prospective students and their parents visited my office, I pointed to the photo collage and talked about former students as examples of God’s good works (Eph. 2:10). I wanted parents, especially, to know that I, as God’s ambassador, would nurture their children. After all, I, like you, am not just a professor, but even more importantly a follower of Jesus Christ. “Christ has not appointed assistant-professors—but followers,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55). I aim to assure parents and prospective students that I will faithfully nourish students’ hearts and minds.
I aim to address the lack of “nuanced accounts of how teaching and learning are supposed to work in a Christian setting.” Obviously my experiences are not scientifically controlled experiments. Personal teaching styles and academic disciplines will shape our teaching. There will be variations in how particular Christian schools approach teaching, partly because of different historic Christian traditions, diverse constituencies, and varied institutional parameters—from class sizes to available classroom technologies, and from the types of academic programs to assorted student populations. My examples are suggestive and illustrative.
In all cases, however, faith, skill, and virtue are three essentials in Christian teaching. C. S. Lewis said, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” I view faith, skill, and virtue as interrelated ways of irrigating our pedagogical deserts. We can teach every university subject this way. We can teach chemistry and English as well as business and computer science. We can do it in the classroom and online, in our offices and at cafés.
Servant teaching sees instructors and students as whole persons. Therefore, I consider more than just instructional skills and techniques. I address, as Perry L. Glanzer and Nathan F. Alleman put it, “how teachers perceive their students’ identities” and “understand their own motivations.” I aim to teach from my heart as well as mind, to teach relationally, and to be sensitive to what the Holy Spirit is doing through me and my students as we learn together.
When we are servant teachers, more students come to love learning. They see themselves as God’s stewards of learning, called to learn in order to delight in serving others. We break the cycle of students who have assumed year after year that education is merely about processing information and doing busywork on the way to eventual liberation from schooling.
Students and parents resonate with servant teaching. They yearn to see a teacher’s authentic faith in action. They appreciate skilled teaching that is continually improved by student feedback. They value teachers who model Christian virtue—who authentically point the way to being Christ-like servant learners. Parents desire learning that forms hearts and minds.
In my experience, students desire meaningful lives in which they can grow intellectually and affectively, navigate cultural differences, and become faithful leaders. But they are not sure how to pursue such worthy goals. We are called to model and practice it by integrating faith, skill, and virtue in our teaching.
Isn’t this what we desire in our teaching—life-giving practices rather than meaning-starved routines? Henri Nouwen, who gave up an academic career for ministry, wrote, “Grades, exams, selective systems, promotion chances and desires for awards often block the manifestation of the best man can produce.” If true, how tragic!
Academic culture frequently fails to inspire us to enjoy our calling and celebrate the Holy Spirit’s fruit along the way. Our hearts ache. We are busy but not flourishing. We suffer from the same kinds of stress as our students. Jesus says, “Come and follow me” so that we might experience an abundant life (John 1:43; John 10:10). Do we feel such deep fulfillment? Or do we miss out on this blessing by separating our spiritual growth from our teaching practices?
When we teach, what are we doing? Whom are we following? Do we sense that the Holy Spirit is accompanying us? Do we wonder why we can’t seem to motivate students to love learning? How can we help students to experience learning as part of God’s wondrous work in their lives, as preparation for serving others? For me, pursuing answers to these questions has been a joyous pilgrimage to servant teaching.
I wish to encourage you. We all grow discouraged when we face budget cuts, when we can’t motivate students, when our lectures or discussions flop, when we read unkind comments in course evaluations (which might have just enough truth in them to sting our consciences), and especially when we wonder if we have faithfully chosen a fitting profession.
I keep a folder of notes from former students to reread when I need extra encouragement. I learn much from the letters because they often highlight what I have been doing right. They too are course evaluations. Listening to students is a pedagogical gift—even when students speak by tossing their semester’s work into the wastebasket.
Thanks so much for joining me on the journey toward becoming a servant teacher. I know how busy you are, so in my book I wrote thirty short chapters with illustrative practices that you can individually or collectively read, discuss, rework, and implement as appropriate. In this column, I will adapt some of those chapters along with new, practical, engaging thoughts and practices directly related to the current state of Christian higher education.
Meanwhile, I am conducting workshops and webinars on servant teaching that identify new teaching practices for the current situation in Christian higher education. Contact me with questions about the book or to be added to my mailing list, which announces upcoming workshops and webinars (just visit my website at www.quentinschultze.com). I continue to learn much how best to serve students. You are my teachers. I will welcome your comments on my columns.
I hope you can read and discuss my columns and book with colleagues—openly, from your heart, with gratitude for the opportunities God has given you to nurture learning and learners. I agree with Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the modern Servant Leadership movement, that “the prime formative challenge of our times . . . is the nurture of servants.” This includes you and me as well as our students. The better we serve, the more likely that our former students will reread their old course notes and recommend our schools to others—rather than tossing notes and books in the trash.
* Adapted from the introduction to Dr. Schultze’s new book, Servant Teaching: Practices for Renewing Christian Higher Education.
Notes Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 158.
 My approach to teaching is similar to what Jennifer Lindholm calls a “student-centered teaching method.” Jennifer Lindholm, The Quest for Meaning and Wholeness: Spiritual and Religious Connections in the Lives of College Faculty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 210.
 James M. Houston, Joyful Exiles: Life in Christ on the Dangerous Edge of Things (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 106.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, ed. Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1999), 251.
 David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith, “Introduction: Practices, Faith, and Pedagogy,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, ed. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 3.
 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 14.
 Perry L. Glanzer and Nathan F. Alleman, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 14.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 49.
 Robert K. Greenleaf, Seeker and Servant: Reflections on Religious Leadership, ed. Anne T. Fraker and Larry C. Spears (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996), 64.