Book Review by John Shortt
First Class: The calling and impact of a Christian teacher
(There is also an Afrikaans version called: Eerste Klas: Die roeping en impak van ‘n Christen-Onderwyster)
This book is a real gem. It is packed with practical advice for the teacher but, at the same time, it is not merely a how-to manual or a book of tips-for-teachers because it goes behind methods and techniques to probe the attitudes of our hearts as Christian teachers. Again and again, as I read it, I found hearty ‘Amens’ arising within me but I also found it challenging me deeply about my walk with God among those I teach.
Werner Cloete, the author, is a science teacher at Paul Roos Gymnasium, a secondary school for boys in Stellenbosch, South Africa. He clearly loves his work in his school and he conveys the excitement of it in clear language and with an evident desire to be Christ-centred in everything he does. He is a wise person and indeed (I think I am old enough to add this!) wise beyond his years. He is also a humble person with a true servant heart.
I could attempt to summarise the contents of the 20 chapters of the book but I think it may be more helpful to let the book speak for itself through the set of quotations from it that follow (chapter titles in brackets after each quotation):
“Our teaching is an extension of our lives and if we truly wish to represent the Lord with integrity, we must see to it that the priorities in our personal lives become more and more aligned with His priorities. Jesus will not be Lord of your teaching if He is not Lord of your life.” (Desires)
“Remember that your competence comes from God — even your competence to communicate effectively.” (Discipline)
“God can use the tedious task of marking to train us to become more Christ-like and to become individuals who are willing to serve others while we sit with their tests or assignments in front of us.” (Servanthood)
“Are you clinging so tightly to your elevated position that you forfeit the authority that accompanies humility?” (Servanthood)
“If you are only willing to serve a person in order to have a greater say in his or her life, it may well be a desire for self-exaltation that drives you to servanthood.” (Servanthood)
“People open up more easily and are more receptive if they know that they are of significance to you. Find ways to communicate to people that you value them. Willingness to serve, the right choice of words when you speak, eye contact, attentive body language — these are all things that can easily be implemented to convey this sense of value. … Do keep in mind, however, that we should not let people feel important just so that they will listen to our message. Rather, it should be the conviction of our hearts that they truly are important — infinitely important.” (Initiative)
“Social interaction … with children should be managed with discretion. Remember that we, as Christians, socialise out of an already established identity and not as a means to acquire identity. This difference is important and teachers who attempt to find identity and acceptance through good relationships with the learners in the school, sometimes fail to do so.” (Equipment)
“At one stage I thought I could make a difference, on a personal level, to a large percentage of the school by myself, but, I realise now, that it was only a result of self-centredness. There is no way that I can be a mentor to every individual who is in need of a mentor figure. If I cannot do something myself, I can at least rely on my relationship networks to ensure that it gets done.” (Networking)
“How often do you judge the behaviour of children before you give the Lord a chance to shape your own attitude towards them through prayer?” (Prayer)
“A prayerful approach may also brighten up examination invigilation, which otherwise could be rather boring. One has to pass repeatedly between the desks in any case, so the opportunity might just as well be used to take the needs of the children to the Lord. In doing so, one of the most boring parts of our job might become quite exciting.” (Prayer)
“Different people reflect different aspects of God’s character — some serve, some proclaim and some are shepherds. Different Christian teachers will act in different ways to make a difference within their school situation.” (Gifts)
“It is our challenge, as guides of teenagers, to help them develop a critical way of thinking about God within a safe environment. Querying and asking questions are good things and often lead to a deeper understanding.” (Maturity)
“Be an epistle, written by God to your school community and others — a letter that conveys clearly the message of liberty that is found in service to the Lord.” (Letters of Liberty)
“You don’t know what God is doing with what you are doing.” (Despondency)
“Somebody who has not yet considered all the strategies discussed in this book, but whose heart is overflowing with love for the people in his school community, will probably make a greater impact, than someone who knows every technique and idea in the book, but has no love in his heart.” (Love)
I could quote much more but space does not allow me to do so. You can access the contents page together with six sample pages at www.calledtoteach.co.za. You can also place an order for the book as hard copy paperback, Kindle version or e-book version through that web page.
In closing, I heartily recommend this book but I think I should not do so without mentioning a respect in which I wish Werner Cloete had said more. His book is almost entirely concerned with the teacher’s relationship with God, with our students and colleagues and with ourselves. These relationships are all of immense importance. However, there is another relationship of immense importance, one that also calls for Christ-centred humility and love in our service of God and that is our relationship (and that of those among whom we teach and learn) with the aspects of God’s wonderful world that we are studying together. In a chapter on Knowledge, Werner writes: “God is the source of all knowledge and reveals Himself in creation, people’s abilities, history, et cetera. The different subjects therefore, study different aspects of God’s revelation of Himself. As a Science teacher, it is easy for me to understand how my subject represents different aspects of God’s character. There is a certain beauty in the order of creation and the mathematical models describing physical laws represent, among other things, the fact that God is a God of order. This type of subject content can also be used to explain to learners that there are certain principles and laws, which are valid in nature, but also have spiritual parallels.” (p.127)
At this point, I say another hearty ‘Amen’ but I also want to hear more, not about ‘subjects’ as such but about what Parker Palmer terms (in The Courage to Teach) ‘the grace of great things’ in which we are joined together in community around a ‘great thing’ in God’s world that we are studying. As teachers, we are opening windows on God’s wonderful world and we are called to do so in a four-fold relationship – with God, others, self, and with God’s world.