By Daniel Schantz
I used to think there was one, well-guarded secret to good teaching, and if I could just figure out what it was, I could become a Socrates.
Now, after a lifetime of teaching, I can see that good communication is more about the practice of a few basic principles of leadership.
Take my Sunday school teacher, for example.
His college students call him “Mister K,” and he is as gentle as Mister Rogers, smarter than Mister Chips, and more fun than Mister Magoo.
Most people just call him “Dick,” but I call him “Sir Richard,” because, to me, he is a nobleman, a knight in shining armor.
Richard Koffarnus is teacher of the Master’s Servants class at Timberlake Christian Church in Moberly, Missouri, where I attend, and he is professor of history and philosophy at Central Christian College of the Bible, nearby.
Although he is gifted, his success seems to be more about following some simple principles of communication available to all of us.
These days it’s hard to recruit Sunday school teachers who will commit to more than a month at a time in the classroom, but you can’t build a relationship of trust in four Sundays.
Richard, on the other hand, has been showing up for almost 30 years. His reliability is like a magnet. Just knowing he will always be there, with good things to say, makes us want to be there, too.
I once had a college professor who was tardy to his own class almost every day, and he missed more of his own classes than his students did. Soon we students lost all interest in his class ourselves. If he didn’t want to be there, why should we? He didn’t last long as a teacher.
But it’s more than just being there physically. A good teacher also has presence. Richard has this. He is fully alive and engaged in his task. He loves people and enjoys both learning and teaching. During the class he is animated, smiling, laughing. Dressed in a sweater, slacks, and loafers, he strolls back and forth because it’s a wide classroom filled with 60 middle-agers, and he likes to keep eye contact.
Part of his presence is his sense of humor. He’s no clown, but he has a dry humor that we watch for, because it’s easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. Even his handouts are multiple-choice questions that make us smile:
Simon Peter was often in trouble because . . .
1) He had body odor from fishing
2) He was too soft-spoken
3) He had foot-in-mouth disease
Even better than being funny himself is his way of laughing at our cute remarks, making us feel a part of the fun. Laughter is like a fine oil to relationships.
At times, we middle-agers can be real dragons. We have strong opinions and we aren’t afraid to express them. We growl, we roar, we breathe fire. It doesn’t bother Richard. He just smiles, cracks a joke, and says, “OK, let’s move on.”
A certain amount of classroom tension is stimulating, but too much generates anxiety. Richard always seems to know just when to say, “OK, let’s move on,” and we dragons settle down.
Although Richard is a scholar and lectures his college students, he prefers to teach us primarily with the Socratic method. Middle-agers have a good grasp of the Bible and just need some help in expressing their thoughts.
For example, in telling the story of the woman caught in adultery, Richard asks, “Why do you think the Pharisees brought this mortified woman to Jesus? What was their real motive?”
Our answers vary, but he accepts them all. He never makes us feel stupid for trying. He salvages the kernel of truth in our answer and let’s the chaff blow away.
“What do you think Jesus wrote on the ground?” he continues. “Was he just doodling, or making out his grocery list, or what?”
A shy woman raises her hand, just a few inches, but Richard sees it. Being in his class is like being at an auction. You don’t want to make any sudden moves, or you will be recognized.
On rare occasions, Richard doesn’t know the answer to his own question. “I really don’t know the answer to this, I was hoping some of you would!” he admits. We laugh. It’s comforting to see that even a scholar struggles now and then.
The big danger of the discussion method is that the class will be left “hanging.” I once had a teacher who encouraged conversation, but we never came to any conclusions. I left the class feeling more confused than when I came.
Richard doesn’t make that mistake. If we can’t come to a consensus, he will always give us the best answers that are “out there.” Why should a teacher waste his training and experience, when the class can benefit from his wisdom? We want to know what Richard knows, from years of study.
Although Richard has strong convictions, he understands that some of us are still grappling with basic concepts.
A visitor holds up his hand. “I really don’t see the importance of baptism,” he says.
We all glare at the visitor.
Richard will never “nail a student to the wall,” just because the student lacks information. Instead he will say something like, “Well, you are in good company. Many scholars have wrestled with the issue of baptism. We have a whole lesson on that subject in a couple weeks, and I will be glad to give you some Scriptures to read before then.”
Some of Richard’s students are amateur politicians. They see every truth through the lens of “Republican” or “Democrat” or even “Libertarian.” Even though Richard has his own political views, he never lets the class become a political forum, which would alienate some students. He sticks with the Scriptures, and lets us make our own applications.
There are also some very smart people in Richard’s class, like Bible college professors and community leaders. Richard is not intimidated by these types because he sees them as valuable assets.
“Professor Pelfrey,” he says, “you are an Old Testament man, what’s your take on this proverb?”
Above all, Sir Richard is a gentleman, who treats everyone with respect, even those who may be mentally or physically disabled. He listens to the disabled with the same intensity with which he listens to Professor Pelfrey, and he always finds that kernel of value in their answer.
I can hear his gentleness in his opening prayer. “Lord, we ask you to be close to those who are suffering, who may feel that God is far away and that no one cares. Keep them from despair, and help us to know how we can help them.”
I blink a lot during his prayers. It’s probably allergies.
I have spent most of my life training teachers at Central Christian College. If I could sum up what I have learned in 43 years, I would say, “Just be like Richard, that’s all there is to it.”
“It’s not me,” Richard insists. “It’s the class. We have some really sharp students in that class.”
Well, maybe. But we wouldn’t be much without our leader, who draws out our strengths.
“I wonder if he knows how much he is loved and appreciated,” my wife, Sharon, says at lunch. “All these years he has been my spiritual leader. He is truly my hero.”
I nod. “We are so fortunate to have someone like him for our teacher. Someone should tell him just how we feel.”
And so, I wrote this little story about him.
To Sir, with love.
Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.