At my mother’s funeral service, one of her students from teacher’s college gave one of the eulogies. He said that in his time in college, the students respected only two teachers, one of whom was mum. They respected her because she was an excellent instructor in the classroom but she also took pains to build relationships with her students outside the classroom. As I looked through old photo albums at home in Penang, I saw mum connecting with her students in all sorts of contexts in their lives. I remember once when I was very young (pre-school) mum rented a bus and took her students on a trip to Cameron Highlands, with me along as well.
I was pleasantly surprised when this aspect of her teaching emerged. Mum functioned mainly in Chinese (Mandarin). Not being conversant in Chinese, I didn’t have access to large parts of her life. So she couldn’t have taught me this relational approach to teaching through instruction. I must have subconsciously picked it up through how she taught through the years. The power of modelling. Indeed, more is caught than taught; something to bear in mind in a time when content can be easily transferred without any real human contact between teacher and student.
Covid has of course caused all sorts of problems for all sorts of things. Pre-covid I tried to have meals with the students of the classes I taught in seminary. I wanted to hear their stories. I knew what I wanted to teach but I wanted to connect the content with the context of their lives as best as I could. I think this approach to teaching is exemplified by how Apollos was taught by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:24–29). We are told that Apollos was a learned man and a good debater. It is to his credit that he was teachable and willing to receive instruction from Priscilla and Aquila. But note how Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos.
When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. (Acts 18:26b NIV)
First, they taught him contextually. They didn’t start from scratch. They noted what was missing in Apollos’ understanding of the faith and focused their teaching in those areas. Next, we note that they taught him relationally. They invited Apollos to their home. He probably stayed with them for a time and most of the instruction must have taken place over meals. Contrast this to a lot of the instruction that goes on today. The teaching takes place in a classroom and the teacher teaches material that he or she hopes will be of use to all the students in the class.
There are all sorts of reasons why teaching is carried out in various ways. Teaching contextually and relationally is not very efficient. You can reach many more people through social media. A talk can be sent out to millions simultaneously. Sometimes there may be a need for that. But if our aim is to see in-depth transformation of the people we teach, it must still be teaching that is contextual and relational.
I recall that during Lunar New Year, mum would receive lots and lots of Lunar New Year cards which we would hang, row by row, above the piano. The cards represented the many lives mum had touched, one life at a time. Thanks for showing me the way mum, in this and so many other things.