Is Teaching a Gift?

teaching teachers

I am reading Richard Wightman Fox’s excellent biography of Reinhold Niebuhr.  During the 1920s, as a young man in his early thirties, Niebuhr was the pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit.  Fox describes his pulpit presence:

Niebuhr’s preaching was the chief magnet that drew people to Bethel.  By the early 1920s he was an accomplished pulpit performer, the educated Protestant’s Billy Sunday.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: one watched him lunge, gyrate, jerk, bend, and quake.  He whirled his arms, rubbed his ears and his balding scalp, stretched his hawkish nose forward.  His whole lanky frame in motion.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: to catch the stream-of-consciousness flow of analysis and anecdote–sometime shouted, sometime whispered, but always at the velocity of an undammed flood–demanded a concentration that few could sustain during an entire sermon.  Adelaide Buettner, who joined Bethel in 1924, remembers the dizzying experience of hearing Niebuhr for the first time.  She understood only part of what he said, and ran home to look up in her dictionary some of the words he had used.  Like the rest of the congregation she was firmly hooked by Niebuhr’s charisma; in the pulpit he was fired, inspired with the Word, yet thoroughly rational, “intellectual.”  To here and her young adult friends he was “a hero,” a “father figure,” although he was only in his thirties himself.

Niebuhr’s preaching was by no means just an act.  It was a well-crafted blend of drama and arrangement, a constant dialectic of comfort and challenge….

Niebuhr was a natural.  He had charisma.  His ability to communicate this way was a gift.  But if I read historian Erin Bartram correctly, his gift did not necessarily make him a good teacher.  (I don’t know what his classes were like at Union Theological Seminary.  I am still reading!).

In a very thoughtful piece at the Teaching United States History blog, Bartram reminds us that good teaching takes work–hard work.  It is not a gift.  I read this piece a few weeks ago, but it came back to mind today as I encountered Fox on Niebuhr.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Anyone regularly reading this site already knows how dangerous it is to think of good teaching as a gift. Often those recognized as having a gift for teaching are those who embody charisma in particular ways that our culture recognizes. They hold the attention of an audience, they have a recognizable scholarly pedigree, or they look like a Google Images search for “historian,” and so are afforded some measure of respect, attention, and even deference before they open their mouths.

All those who teach history know that it isn’t a gift, including those who are seen as naturals at it by their colleagues and students. But at this time of year, when evaluations have rolled in and we’re thinking ahead to next semester, it can be tough to remember that.

Student expectations, informed by these broader cultural ideas of what a teacher should be, often conflict with what we try to do in the classroom. We explain what we’re doing, and why, but when that doesn’t work with some students – or worse, with an entire class – we fear that it’s not the methods, it’s us. We just don’t have the gift, and there’s no fixing that.

But teaching isn’t a gift, and good pedagogy – including confronting, absorbing, and managing student expectations – is a set of skills we accumulate, experiment with, and refine. This coming semester, as I teach a historical methods class for the first time, I’m going to try to remember that my struggles don’t mean I’m lacking some gift, they just mean I’m facing a new challenge in my craft.

Just as I try to remember that my teaching is a skill, not a gift, I must also remember that my teaching is labor, not a gift.

Read the entire piece here.  This is definitely something that I tried to get through to my “Teaching History” class last Fall.

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