Doctrina Est Formatio: Teaching the Whole Person (My Tips and Tricks)

Written by Dr. Nijay Gupta
Originally posted on his blog, Crux Sola

Teaching is Formation

I have been “off the grid” for a while as I have been teaching a week-long face-to-face intensive in Chicago for Northern Seminary. So, right now I am in the airport, processing the exciting week of learning, conversation, and community that just ended.

Galatians: Text, Context, Theology (Sept 2020)

I am in my twelfth year of full-time teaching, mostly at the seminary level. I have learned a lot in that time. Unfortunately most of the profs that taught me in seminary did not seem to put a whole lot of thought into a well-rounded pedagogy that seeks to form the whole person. While I value that I learned a ton of information and I received expert instruction in languages and traditional biblical interpretation, by and large a 3-hour course session consisted almost entirely of lecturing.

In no way do I feel that I have arrived as a teacher, but I turned a corner a few years ago towards taking whole-person teaching more seriously. So, I want to offer some of my tips and tricks in hopes of inspiring others, and I invite you to share your own techniques here or on social media. While this blog post focuses on seminary teaching, I think a lot of what I am saying will be relevant to teaching pastors as well.

Before we get into that, I want to talk about the academic seminary culture in the US and how it hindered me from taking risks and experimenting with pedagogy in the classroom.

What Does It Mean To Be “Academic”?

When I was in seminary, there was a kind of assumption that a professor who lectured for 150 minutes straight is a “serious” scholar and teacher; and those faculty who gave time for discussion and used object lessons were on some kind of lower tier. Some students would complain when the professor tried to engage in the material in fresh ways. I tried to share some of my techniques with a new colleague recently and he told me bluntly, “My students would riot!”

That makes me think that we need to revisit what we think counts as “academic.” And I want to say that the administration and especially the faculty should determine what is academic, not the students. They can have voice, but if they are given the social power to control the conversation, then professors like me will be afraid to experiment and do things that are “out of the box.” But there are many students who value whole-person instruction and have encouraged me in this.

Silence and Centering

Thanks especially to my experiences at Portland Seminary/George Fox (2014-2020), I learned a lot about the power of silence and centering prayer at the beginning and end of class. Just a few minutes of focused silence and centering really helps students to be present. Too few of us get real silence in our day, so it is a gift and blessing. It is a chance to invite God into the classroom (i.e., acknowledge his presence). It also naturally lowers stress and anxiety for most people. Sometimes I give a centering image or verse, but most of the time I simply encourage silencing the mouth and heart and concentrating on being fully present. (Credit to MaryKate Morse and Darla Tillman-Samuelson for inspiration)

Class Ethos

Every time I teach a new course, I give my students a class ethos: RICE (I’m a good Indian!): Respect, Integrity, Care, Enthusiasm.

Here is what I tell students:

Respect: Listen and respect everyone. Ask clarifying questions and “believe the best” in the other. Don’t be defensive, but generate conversation. Be a “learner” at all times.

Integrity: Be fully present. Set aside distractions, social media, email. Be yourself and be your whole self in this place.

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