Monday, July 26, 2010

Jonah the Math Teacher

If he thought being a prophet was a tough gig...

OK, prophet's probably still tougher.  Pastor, too.  But math teacher is up there.

Warning:  This is probably over-synthesis on my part.

I just finished rereading Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson for a book group.  (Link to Google Books, which has the first 40 pages.)  It's a book about vocational holiness.  For many of the teachers I know, teaching is a vocation.  It's literally what we were called to do.  So the book applies on that level.  On another level, pastoral work and teaching have lots of connections, so it applies there.  But on a metacognitive level, Mr. Peterson wrote a 200 page think aloud about how he worked his way towards living his vocationally meaningfully.  He parallels this process with the book of Jonah, from the Old Testament, a story about a guy who is definitely struggling with his vocation.  It's an interesting book regardless, possibly essential for Christians or Jews and maybe Muslims (Jonah is in the Qur'an), and should definitely be required reading for vocational workers.

Mr. Peterson breaks Jonah's story up into four parts.

The first is the journey to Tarshish.  God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, an ancient and future enemy of the Israelites, and he does not want to go.  So he heads in the opposite direction, to a mystery destination full of romance.  Mr. Peterson connects this with careerism.  Before we begin, or in our fantasy moments, or before we leave to take another job, we may indulge in the fantasy of teaching.  Stand and Deliver, or Glee, or a classroom full of attentive, willing students, or the couple students whose lives are turned around by our near miraculous intervention.  I have those days and years, for sure.  The solution to this is to stay.  Teach my students that I actually have.  These guys who were complete duds and still haven't read the article/done the homework/even tried it.

The second part is the storm and the belly of the whale.  Jonah is asleep on the ship, despite it being in a life and death battle with a storm.  Somehow, this is when jonah recovers his vocation, and he tells the sailors to throw him into the sea.  This is when the big fish swallows him up.  In the whale, Jonah amazingly prays a song of praise, made up completely of lines from the psalms.  (Maybe a whale, maybe not, depending on your view of many things.)  Waking up is seeing our students for who they are and claiming them.  Mr. Peterson connects this with the need for askesis.  (This is a Greek word for athletic training - cf. Wikipedia - he uses because the idea of ascetic has some really strange stuff attached to it now.)

Askesis involves finding a mentor (or mentors) and devoting yourself to training.  That maintenance is the big thing.  Regular participation.  Peterson found he couldn't get that from the institution or the congregation, and started reading Doesteyevsky, and other classics.  He makes quite a point out of not doing what the congregation asks for, as that leads to golden calf moments.  (Not good, wrath of God situations.)  But the worst barrier by far is ego.  When I abstract teaching too much, I'm forgetting the students.  If I'm thinking about teaching in the abstract, or even focusing on what I'm doing instead of what they are learning, it gets in the way of teaching.  Sometimes terminally.

For me, askesis is the colleagues who challenge me, the reading I do, and, maybe, this online community.  Dave and Esther seriously help me monitor and think through my practice.  Reading Debbie Miller and Ellin Oliver Keene is seriously challenging.  Trying to find teaching connections to other reading (hence this post!) is also helpful.  And blogging and twitter... well, I think it helps against the incredibly strong pull of isolationaism that teachers face.  It is so easy, on most days, to close our classroom door.  Especially the weirder I get teaching.  At the end of the semester, when students are working mostly independently, and I'm sitting and watching them... I get some looks.

Peterson describes that a practical askesis has a rule, or a structure, that is supported by disciplines.  For him, his rule was a cycle:  worship with the congregation -> praying the psalms -> individual recollected prayer -> praying the psalms -> worship with the community.  It's a real question to me what a practical rule or structure would be for teachers.  The workshop structure is central to my class; is it some variation of that?  For him, the pslams are where you learn how to pray.  Where do we learn how to teach?  Maybe that's our teaching frameworks?  So for me the rule could be:

The rule would be supported by teaching disciplines.  What do you see as the disciplines which improve teaching practice? 

The third part of the Jonah story is Nineveh.  He finally goes to meet the people he's supposed to reach.  He's obedient.  He walks a day's march into the city, not even just shouting the message in through the gate.  Peterson connects this with getting to really know his congregation for whom they are, and differentiating his work with them based on where they are.  He describes being pulled into being either a messiah or a program director.  The messiah is looking to help, and never allows struggle.  The program director recognizes strengths, and plugs people into service whether that would be good for them or not.  It was easy to recognize both of these traits in my own teaching.  The solution to this is what he calls eschatology.  This is usually used to refer to study of the end times, but Peterson uses it to talk about being goal-oriented.  As teachers, if we keep the learning goals in mind and combine it with authentic assessment, we'll see our real congregation and stay as their teacher.

The final part is the unpredictable plant.  In what is the least known part of the story, Jonah has finished his message and goes up to a hill above the city.  To watch it be destroyed.  God even grows him a shade plant for his comfort.  When God takes away the shade plant, Jonah loses it.  Argues with God, complains repeatedly, and whines that he is angry enough to die.  Jonah rejects the mess:  the city has repented, Jonah doesn't accept this and doesn't know what to do.  Peterson points out that pastoring is essentially a creative activity, and that requires mess.  Easy to apply that to teaching.  "In any creative enterprise there are risks, mistakes, false starts, failures, frustrations, embarassments, but out of this mess - when we stay with it long enough, enter it deeply enough - there slowly emerges love or beauty or peace."  It helps in this to have a simple statement of what it is that you are called to do.  For me, it's something like "Support students to learn how to learn."  Math or math teaching is the context, but not the mission.

The Jonah story ends open to interpretation - the Inception of its day.  Will Jonah see his mistake or die from his anger in rejection of his calling?  I'd love to imagine him descending back into the city, meeting his class where they are.

PS> I'm always interested in comments, but this really felt like going out on a limb for me, and I would especially be interested in if it was worth your reading or not and why.


  1. John -

    Peterson really does set up a model that can be followed for disciplines other than ministry. Teaching is a logical extension for his model - makes me wonder if any vocation that involves leadership and engaging with people would overlap with these concepts of career dreams, connecting with the audience, disappointments, re-connections, etc. I like the teaching "rule" that you developed. It makes practical sense for teaching. Sometimes we need to think about the models that work and then reduce them to simple thoughts and even pictures to reinforce them when we wander!

    Thanks for the analysis and synthesis. Gives me new material for chewing on for awhile

  2. John, this is fascinating and I absolutely see so many connections between pastoral life and issues and the craft of educators. I especially liked the notion that it is a messy process! It is!
    This gives me a lot to think about!
    Thanks for sharing, and I love your blog.

  3. Got this interesting comment by email. Thanks to Bev and Joanie above, too. Interesting.

    Although I am of course not a teacher I was able to get a glimpse into a true teachers mind and intentions in this writing. I find it interesting to use what you've written about the goals or aimed for cycle of teaching and use that as a reference to align next my experiences in the classrooms I've been in the past few years (volunteering and subbing). It certainly casts a more illuminating light on the classrooms and probable reasons for their successes and stumblings. No shock then that my favorite teachers over the past few years (and even way back to my learnin' days) seemed to definitely be "called" and always connected to their students as individuals, AND they made it seem as though this connection was their goal --academic growth and success in the classroom was just the happy by-product. These teachers did not just give to the students, but were also willing to receive from them -much more difficult most likely . These are the classrooms were I saw the teachers laughing with their kids and crying with them.

    Mostly though, I thought this spoke volumes to me on being a parent. Similar goals, struggles, triumphs, retreats, day long marches, occasional shade, so much whining (mostly me), and so much dependent on success..... And of course it is messy. Figuratively, literally, daily messy.