Teaching That Motivates

Successful teaching not only opens the mind but also stirs the emotions, fires the imagination, galvanizes the will.
Teaching That Motivates

While milling around at conferences, I occasionally bump into pastors who say to me, "Prof, you once changed the whole course of my life."

"Fantastic!" I reply. "How did it happen?"

"Years ago in class you made one statement that opened my eyes to a whole new perspective on ministry."

I never cease to marvel how powerful truth is—even one sentence of truth—and how profoundly teachers can motivate others. Successful teaching not only opens the mind but also stirs the emotions, fires the imagination, galvanizes the will. If I didn't embrace that, I would despair, for I live not just to teach truth but to change people.

Help Listeners Identify with You

My wife belongs to a fraternity of journalists that some time ago sponsored a talk by playwright Arthur Miller. She got two tickets, and I jumped at the chance to go with her. After his presentation, Miller invited questions.

"Mr. Miller," someone asked, "How can you tell when you have a good play?"

"When I sit in the audience during one of my plays," he answered, "and in the midst of it I want to shout. 'That's me!' then I know I've got a good one."

Miller has hit on one of the most important principles not only of great plays, but of motivating teaching: our soul is moved by what we can identify with.

People want to see themselves: their dreams, their needs, their problems, and their heartbreaks. Nothing moves listeners more than their reality, their experience, their emotions, their struggles. They don't want to hear something brand new as much as something relevant to them. They want to feel, This teacher understands me.

There are several things we can do to help people identify with us.

Tell it like it is. Shun euphemisms, candy coating, fluff, party line. On the other hand, direct, honest speech is powerful. They want gutsy, realistic truth.

I'm not advocating shock teaching but forthright teaching. People identify with real-world advice, not Utopian, spin-control sayings. They're less interested in the way things are supposed to be than in the way they are.

Major in human interest material. Master the commonplace, where 99 percent of people live. I try to relate my teaching to the frustration parents feel about their preschoolers, the discouragement business people feel in their careers, the anxiety young couples have about money, the crazy and cute things kids do, the fun of playing softball.

Share your own struggles. After attending one seminar, a friend said to me, "I wish just once the teacher would have admitted he had sinned or at least had a tough time. Either he plays in a different league, or I don't know what the Christian life is all about."

A super pious, ultra spiritual teacher often does more to discourage people than to motivate them. By the end, listeners feel, I guess I just don't have it. I can't cut it. I could never be like that.

On the other hand, I find whenever I share a failure or mistake, my students come out of the rocks to tell me how much it meant to them. Suddenly they feel, Hey, there's hope for me.

I'm not talking about an emotional strip tease, revealing things that are intimate, but teaching as if I don't have everything down pat. The approach is "Look, I don't have all of the answers about prayer, but I'm sure involved in the process. Let me share what God is teaching me about this."

Build rapport. The more I am involved with my students, the greater my long-term impact on them. Sure, there are a few initiators who simply take what I say and run with it. But most of my students need personal contact and rapport with the teacher.

Establishing rapport isn't difficult or mysterious; it's a matter of getting to know students and letting them know me. Even if the teacher is vastly different in personality and interests, listeners will identify with the teacher if he or she acts like a friend.

Use humor. One time a bell interrupted a choice discussion in class. I looked at the clock and grimaced, "Sometimes I wish I could shoot that thing off the wall!" About a week later at the end of another class session I warned, "We're going to get caught by that clock again!" A student stood up and fired a rubber arrow at the face of the clock while the class roared in laughter. I played it to the hilt.

Humor helps people identify with a teacher for many reasons. People bond when they agree about what's funny. Humor also gently and indirectly shows people's foibles. And humor puts everyone on common ground.

Since daily life is filled with humorous circumstances, people have trouble identifying with someone who is unfailingly serious. Humor shows that you're real.

Express Confidence in Learners

Affirmation has a tremendous power to motivate people to learn and achieve great things. And I've found when I follow seven guidelines, my affirmation has its greatest impact.

1. Base it on fact. When affirming learners, we can't blow smoke. That backfires every time. If we toss out kudos indiscriminately, eventually we lose credibility. Furthermore, mention specific things that indicate progress or potential: not "I like your work" but "Your writing is punchy and clear."

2. Begin with the positives. Teachers and preachers often get in a critiquing rut; we're often bothered by the negatives and unimpressed with the positives. Negatives need to be mentioned, of course, but in due time. For example, more than the 27 things wrong with his sermon, a learning preacher first needs to know the two things he did right. He's got to start somewhere.

3. Repeat the affirmation. I met Tom Landry when he was coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Having observed that he had more walk-ons who became all-pros than any other coach, I asked how he did it.

"First, you've got to see potential," he said. "But I don't stop there; I start there. Then I keep telling them that they're going to have to bust their tail to get that potential into action."

I've never forgotten what he said next: "I discovered that I've got to repeat to a player over and over again what his strength is. He may hear me but not to the extent that he needs to hear me. I keep telling him, 'You can, you can, you can.' "

You can't break a student's habit of negative thinking overnight or with one compliment. For years they have been thinking hundreds and thousands of negative thoughts. They are deeply ingrained—and reinforced by their failures, which will happen to anyone. In addition, even as we affirm learners, new failures keep on coming and weaknesses will endure. Only ongoing, repeated affirmation can counteract that.

4. Encourage learners to set their own goals. Once students have their momentum going, I try to motivate them to outdo me. I can't do everything well, but I can motivate others to realize their gifts and potential in Christ, kicking them out of the nest and urging them not only to fly, but to soar.

5. Affirm publicly. I attended First Baptist in Dallas one day when Pastor Criswell called a woman from the congregation to the pulpit. "I'd like you people to know," he said, "that Mary has been teaching in our junior department for seven years. And I just got a report that in the last month three girls have come to know Jesus Christ in her class." The whole congregation broke into applause.

This not only gave the teacher a boost, I could just see people thinking. Where do I sign up?

6. Get excited about their discoveries. We express confidence in learners by treating them with respect. For the teacher, that means taking seriously the ideas and discoveries of students. If we speak enthusiastically about what we know but indifferently about the student's insight, we make them feel like dummies. We undermine their confidence in what they can understand about the Bible, sucking the wind out of their sails.

Instead, I treat students as though they are incredibly smart. I work up a heavier lather over what the learners are discovering than over what I have discovered. I write all over their papers, hold them up, and tell others, "You've got to read this!"

7. Highlight potential. Not only competence, but potential competence motivates. If I know there are skills in me that lay like an undrilled oilfield, I will be stirred to start some wells and get pumping. Recognized potential enables learners to say, "Yes, I'm stumbling around now, but someday I will be a good parent," or "Someday I will win others to Christ," or "Someday I will be able to counsel others."

Equip People with Skills

We conducted studies at Dallas Seminary and elsewhere, and found that the number one problem among students is a lack of confidence. They are hindered, paralyzed, and discouraged by insecurity. Yet these are high caliber people, serious students with a B minus average and above, graduates of quality schools.

I think they are a product of our culture. Confidence comes not from easy living but from overcoming adversity. Most of our students have known the good life; they haven't endured a major economic depression or overcome a significant personal adversity. Few have faced anything that tested them to the core of their being, that stretched them to the maximum, to the point where they had to rely totally on God.

Motivation comes from the confidence that "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." Paul said those words in Philippians after describing in the preceding verses all the adverse circumstances he had overcome with God's help. Paul had proven to himself that God could work through him.

Speak to Needs

What spurs a teacher to teach and what motivates a student to learn are usually two very different things. Teachers often find inspiration in a body of knowledge or experiences, significant truths that they want others to know about. Learners, on the other hand, are generally motivated by their felt needs; that's usually the grid through which they see the world. As a result, teachers are often answering questions that learners aren't asking.

However, teachers never lack motivated learners when they speak to needs. But felt needs—for a new job, for a less hectic life, for a harmonious family—are frequently only symptoms of ultimate needs—for meaning, for security, for companionship. The Bible specializes in ultimate needs. The motivating teacher surfaces those ultimate needs and ties them to felt needs.

Many teachers are good speakers but poor listeners. I encourage pastors to take churchgoers out for breakfast, ask questions, and keep quiet: "What's going on in your life? What are you losing sleep over? What are you disagreeing with your wife about? Where do you feel inadequate? What are you struggling with?"

Even something as abstract as doctrinal teaching can be approached from needs. Few in our day could care less about theology, but whether they know it or not, they do care passionately about it. When a man's wife has just died, he is vitally interested in the subject of the sovereignty of God. He just might not be able to phrase his need that way.

Therefore, I've found it best to teach theology by a case-study approach, relating life situations to specific doctrines. For me theology is not the study of a seamless, systematic body of knowledge but of answers to life's most troubling questions.

But there is one more element. As John Stott once said to me, "I've discovered it's not hard to be biblical if you don't care about being contemporary. And it's certainly not hard to be contemporary if you don't care about being biblical. Being biblical and contemporary—that's the art of Christian communication."

And that's also the key to motivating people to learn.

From the bookMastering Teaching,

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