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DAVID: Some years ago, I was teaching an intensive graduate class in curriculum studies to a group that included students from multiple countries. The first significant written assignment came a few days into the course. I asked students to write about how their upbringing and identity were likely to bias their curriculum work. Which of their experiences and perspectives were most likely to nudge them toward creating learning resources that would be easier or harder for students from different backgrounds to access? Were there ways in which their own formational experiences might be a resource or make their curriculum work less hospitable?

One student in the class was Joyce Nash Azaki, a school leader from Nigeria with a vision for reshaping curriculum to better serve diverse learners. She wrote a thoughtful reflection on her own school experiences with large classes and a prescribed curriculum focused on memorization. I wrote to her recently to check my memory of what happened next against her perceptions. She agreed to tell her side of the story in her own words.

JOYCE: My beloved country, my motherland Nigeria, is a country located in West Africa with a current population of about 200,000,000 people. The nation has struggled to stand on her feet since independence from the British on October 1, 1960. The British had politically empowered groups whom they believed were more friendly, and this contributed to underdevelopment, incompetent leadership, and socioeconomic strife. Nigeria, as with every other people group, has always had its own cultures and beliefs, as well as its traditional system of governance. The British, on getting to Nigeria, fought the indigenous people and their native systems to impose British imperial rule. Those who vehemently opposed the occupying power were subjected to humiliation and ill-treatment. Some were executed or dehumanized by the British, while others were favored and utilized. Social tensions arising from British colonial actions have contributed to underdevelopment and socioeconomic strife. Incompetent leadership has contributed its own problems. Due to my own experiences and position in Nigerian culture, I associated Britain strongly with past colonial violence.

DAVID: As I read Joyce’s reflections, I was in new territory. My knowledge of Nigerian history was close to zero. I was educated in British schools and received a solid dose of history classes, but I do not recall being taught about this facet of Britain’s involvement in the wider world, or much about the history of African countries in general. But this was not a history class. It was when Joyce went on to describe how her sense of history affected her ability to participate in my class that I began to panic.

JOYCE: EDUC 522 was a class I looked forward to, especially since it was a curriculum course, and I would always sit and try to listen to Professor Smith as he lectured, but as hard as I tried, I would always hear his British accent bringing back horrible images of British colonial history in Nigeria. As much as I was ostensibly listening to his lecture, deep in my thoughts the portrait of a colonial past was what was standing before me. My perception, and not what he was teaching, dominated what I was hearing and seeing. In essence, what I was supposed to be learning from him was not happening.

His commanding presence in the class as a professor succeeded in reminding me of the British colonial exploitation and how it contributed to present injustices, political problems, and inequalities. Ethnic tensions fueled by the British “divide and rule” political strategy contributed to post-independence challenges in Nigeria. Because of my own relationship to this history, I resented the British Professor standing before me.

DAVID: I confess that in the first moment my reaction was not admiration for the courage and relevance of Joyce’s comments. At first, all I could hear was rejection. I was a bad teacher and a bad person. I was too ignorant of the world of my students to serve their needs well. There was also some self-pity and resentment in the mix. I had never even been to Nigeria. I was not the one who committed crimes of which I knew nothing. It was not fair to bundle me together with folk with whom I had a tenuous connection beyond my genes and my accent. It was not my fault, and I was being stereotyped. There was a lot of insecurity too. How could I even continue teaching the class if this is what my voice sounds like to this student, and if these are the perceptions my presence is evoking for her?

I think my outward response was polite, but like Joyce, I had to work to process my inward reactions. Pausing to think the matter through and move out from the knot of my own vulnerability, I began to wonder what my options were. I could start researching Nigerian history to see if I could find loopholes in Joyce’s account, since the social tensions it mentioned implied that there would be other versions of the story. I could insist that she is in America now and needs to buckle down to learning. I could protest my personal innocence and ask to be treated based on my individual virtues and defects. But pausing gave me prayerful space to wonder what story my response might tell about my own relationship to power, to hospitality, to learning. Responding in a manner that appeared to confirm the stereotype did not seem a promising path toward changing it. My responses to difficult moments with students are, like it or not, part of what I teach.

When we next met, I asked Joyce if she would be willing to lead the class for a short time at the beginning of our session on Monday morning. Knowing her gifts and strength of personality, I thought it could work. I suggested that because the whole class was working toward an understanding of how identity can shape teaching and learning and affect access to curriculum, it could be very helpful for everyone to hear Joyce’s reflections on how her perspectives were affecting her learning. We would not be off topic. I asked her to explain to the class how her understanding of the British role in Nigeria had impacted her ability to learn in a curriculum class in Michigan led by a British person. I asked whether she was comfortable with the idea. She agreed, and I gave the opening minutes of the class session over to her.

JOYCE: Now, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea that Prof. Smith asked me to share my thoughts with the larger group, but what I am certain of is that I remember a few of my colleagues who sat close to me whispering admonitions that would have discouraged me when I started to speak. The atmosphere became tense, I guess some thought I was directly attacking the Professor but I was just expressing myself in relation to my awareness of what British people had done in Nigeria and how this class came across to me as meeting with the colonialist.

DAVID: I remember consciously reflecting on where I should be while Joyce led the group. If I stood hovering to one side, I would not be yielding the floor. Joyce’s voice would be visibly curated and framed by mine. I wanted to model a humility that showed a willingness to yield the center and make space for a perspective that did not flatter me so that we could learn from it. The room where we met had a low ledge running around the walls, about a foot from the floor. I went to a corner and sat on it until Joyce had finished her story. I was conscious that where I positioned myself was also curriculum.

JOYCE: One good thing that sharing with the larger group did for me was to afford me opportunity to ventilate vestiges of British colonization in Nigeria, which sincerely lightened the burden I have carried over the years concerning the impact of the British on my people. That British accent in the classroom was until now for me a symbol of pain and injustice. Nevertheless, talking about it and having a class discussion around it without obstruction made me see a Briton who was ready to give me the opportunity to let others at least hear my story and perspective on how my roots and identity were shaping and contributing to my learning, notwithstanding whether my history and related feelings and pains were the subject of discussion or not. I was and am thankful for this opportunity as my learning for the rest of the semester was never the same again.

DAVID: I was aware of risks. My lack of relevant background knowledge meant that I could do little to expand on what students heard about Nigeria, even if other accounts might complicate the picture; the topic firmly removed me from the position of expertise. But the center of attention was on understanding the learning process, not Nigerian history. I had no guarantee that this experiment would change anything. But the purpose was not to fix everything, merely to create an opportunity for Joyce to be heard and for the rest of us to think with her about how her history, experiences, and perceptions impacted teaching and learning. There is no guarantee that it would go the same way on another occasion, or with a different person, or in a different class. This is a story, not a recipe.

My own interest here is in how my faith interacts with my teaching decisions. Pausing to reflect and to pray interrupts at least two processes that are otherwise at risk of determining most of what I do as a teacher. One is the persistent patter of my instinctive thoughts and feelings. Though I trust that some healthy formation has happened over the years, and I have more capacity for sober reflection than when I started, my first reactions and responses do not always arise from the ground of my faith or my best virtues. The other is the rushing routine of habitual teacher behaviors: the way we always do things, the way I did it last week, and the need to get to the next task. Unless I actively choose to pause, what I do next is likely to echo the pattern of what is always done, for good or ill. Pausing lets me question the obvious options. It creates a little space to ask myself questions. What does it mean for this moment that this student is made in God’s image? What might it look like in teaching terms to not “lord it over one another,” or to “consider others better than yourselves” (Matt. 18:1-4, Phil. 2:3-11)? What might count as humility, as care, as justice? How might all of this flow together with all my other teaching and learning goals?

The pause does not make space for God, who is present in everyday words and actions as much as in thoughtful silences. The pause makes space for me to take God and the others in the room into account. The pause does not guarantee that I will choose wisely. Yet in this instance, it was with gratitude and wonder that I learned from Joyce later in the course that our interaction had cleared the air for her, that she had been able to learn more easily for the rest of the course.

JOYCE: I did not imagine that this one opportunity of letting my voice be heard in a class would mean this much to my learning and thinking as an educator, but it did in many ways.

Coming from a system of education where the Professor and teachers know it all, my experience in EDUC 522 taught me that as an educator I will need to learn about my individual students in order to make a difference in their learning. Humility from my Professor is one thing that I learned from the class, I learned the need to pay attention to what my students might be saying or thinking by listening more to my students and by giving them opportunity to express themselves. Hence, as a teacher, even when I might feel I am in charge, listening will only help me be a better educator and not an educational dictator/prescriber.

Creating a learning environment where every learner can be free to share without being judged or ridiculed is a lesson I cannot forget. I am striving to be that educator whose learners will see schools as the safest place they can flourish irrespective of where they are coming from or what they think about themselves.

David I. Smith

Calvin University
David I. Smith is Professor of education and Director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin University. He writes on teaching and learning at

Joyce Azaki

Joyce Azaki is currently homeschooling her two children and works as the Director of Yahweh Outreach Ministries in Nigeria. This pet project was founded seven years ago with the goal of putting back smiles on the faces of Widows and getting out-of-school Orphans back into the classroom in remote villages in Nigeria. As wife to the Rev'd Dr. Nash Azaki (Senior Pastor ECWA Wuse II Abuja - Nigeria), she combines leadership and teaching roles for pastors wives and women in the denomination.


  • Gordon Moulden says:

    That may have been the “best class you never taught”, Professor Smith. Marvelous. I realize that the flip side of “Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom of knowledge”, is that these treasures are not in our minds; our own wisdom is so fallible. Naaman’s refusal to bathe in the Jordan, the Samaritan woman’s initial reaction to Jesus, and the religious leaders’ cultural contempt of Christ and His disciples from Galilee are a warning how dangerous our own cultural and even spiritual lens can be. I need to pause and look in the mirror before judging those from outside my own culture, as well as their history.

  • Barbara Carvill says:

    Thank you for sharing this extraordinary educational exchange. Thank you for being so honest about yourself and for having the prayerful courage to give Joyce a voice where she could unburden her soul. What a profound learning event!

  • Barbara Carvill says:

    Thank you for sharing this extraordinary educational exchange. Thank you for being so honest about yourself and for having the prayerful courage to give Joyce a voice where she could unburden her soul.

  • Laura Hoekstra says:

    “Schools as the safest place.” That is a wonderful goal.
    Safety first was a slogan from my past. I don’t know where it came from, maybe the Red Cross life guard training. But in many situations when I remember it things open up and go well.