I once heard a seasoned professor talk about curating his summer reading, intentionally including at least one book about teaching. If you’re similarly inclined, add Christina Bieber Lake’s The Flourishing Teacher: Vocational Renewal for a Sacred Profession to your list.1 I was delighted to interview her and learn more about her work.

The book is structured according to the academic calendar, beginning with “the-month-that-shall-not-be-named”[i.e., August]  and concluding with July. You emphasize the “deep logic” of the seasons and encourage the reader to contextualize their experiences in light of both the academic year and the seasons of their own lives. How does attending to rhythms contribute to flourishing as a teacher?

I was fortunate to learn early in my career that teaching is all about bringing energy and love. I also learned that I had different amounts of energy at different times of the year. This meant that I needed strategies to plan ahead for March and April. Of course, the Christian calendar encourages us to think similarly about walking with Jesus; there are times when it’s a joy fest and times when it’s a soul-searing struggle. So from the beginning, I thought, what can I do as a teacher that will make February better for my students and me?

Related to this, you suggest two approaches for maintaining stamina—tapping into the energy of the students and creating energy-sustaining habits. How have these patterns buoyed you during periods of low energy and even despair?

Probably my favorite chapter in the book is the May chapter entitled, “What Momentum?” In it, I relate how a friend taught me something essential through a simple question. I had just finished my first year at Wheaton and was worn out. But I told her that I needed to power through and get on with my scholarship while I “still had momentum.” She laughed, and I learned. I learned that it was better to take a vacation from teaching and scholarship for at least three weeks. When June arrived, I’d be ready to work and with greater focus.

Also, I cannot say enough how important it has been for me to have a writing group, not just for the accountability, but for the times when I can’t seem to do anything. Because the women in my group are all scholars and mothers, they never tell me to “get the lead out.” They give me permission to have whole seasons of fallowness. I need scholar friends to remind me that it is not good to try to be super productive all of the time.

Probably my favorite chapter in the book is the May chapter entitled, “What Momentum?” In it, I relate how a friend taught me something essential through a simple question. I had just finished my first year at Wheaton and was worn out. But I told her that I needed to power through and get on with my scholarship while I “still had momentum.” She laughed, and I learned. I learned that it was better to take a vacation from teaching and scholarship for at least three weeks. When June arrived, I’d be ready to work and with greater focus.

Also, I cannot say enough how important it has been for me to have a writing group, not just for the accountability, but for the times when I can’t seem to do anything. Because the women in my group are all scholars and mothers, they never tell me to “get the lead out.” They give me permission to have whole seasons of fallowness. I need scholar friends to remind me that it is not good to try to be super productive all of the time.

Throughout the book, you connect deep self-insight with tasks necessary for flourishing including nurturing realistic self-expectations, receiving grace during periods of personal suffering, and building a “soul shelf” with reading that draws you back to the things that matter. Why are these practices particularly important for teachers?

Realistic self-expectations are hard for us professors! After all, we were the students who were destined to become teachers. But when you are a teacher and not a student, this is your life, not just four years. This means there will be good and not so good seasons. Some years you will love teaching and some years you will barely survive it. Fortunately, God promises to give Christ’s energy when we need it and abundant grace when we fail. We need to give ourselves that same grace during off seasons.

Lately, I’ve been learning a lot from Thomas Merton about what we are on earth for—to love God and others. Most Christian teachers know this in our heads, but we struggle to draw it into our hearts. It means that you don’t have to write an award-winning book to love your students in a way that only Jesus may see. The books on my soul-shelf give me this perspective about my teaching and writing. I just found a new one—a book by Patricia Hampl delightfully entitled The Art of the Wasted Day. It’s about learning to slow down and pay attention to the dailiness of one’s life. It’s also about how hard writing is, and how the best writers have a bit of the air of a flâneur about them. Most teachers and scholars need to learn to lounge more. Breathe. Read outside of your discipline. Write every day that you can, but if the words don’t come, don’t sweat it. God’s mercies are new every morning.

Can you explain what you mean by “classroom creativity pays back in energy what it costs in content?”

The biggest mistake that young educators make is to over-emphasize content. Yes, it’s important to teach content. But there are two things that are far more important: that your students learn the way of seeing the world that only your discipline can offer, and that they learn the sheer joy of discovering how God’s world works. Those outcomes are difficult to assess but are what we are here to do. Some days that means doing something totally different. Ask yourself, what is something new we can try that will help students to see that this material is life-changing/fun/exciting—or all of those things at once? Walker Percy has a great essay called “The Loss of the Creature” that describes the ruts most educators get into. He points out that if you dissect a specimen in an English class, you’ll learn more than if you do it in biology class, because you’ll see what’s actually there instead of what you think you are expected to see. Likewise, he says, if you study a sonnet in a science class, you’ll learn more than if you do in a music class. Creative passion is required to give students access to the material in a way we know they need.

Finally, you write about the nearly-universal tendency of educators to want to please three groups—their  colleagues, students, and larger guilds. But you caution that caring too much about what these groups think can be a pathway toward vices like envy. You advise educators to “stay busy caring for them [students] out of the core of who you are and the rest will follow.” Can you explain more about what you mean by this?

I love this question because it represents what I am trying to achieve myself. I struggle with envy of scholars who have bigger audiences than I do, so I’m preaching to myself when I challenge us to remember that no one can love your students the way you do. God put them in your classroom for a reason, and if you’re too busy worrying about tenure or popularity or having impact in your discipline, you’ll sacrifice your best chance to love others for the sake of the kingdom of God. Envy is a huge joy stealer, but it also can distract you from exercising your gifts in your unique way. I’d love to be known as a great lecturer. I’d love to write for the Times Literary Supplement. But the fact that I’m not doing these things doesn’t make me a failure. Instead, I’m going to lean into what I’m good at—leading discussions and challenging students to do their best work. Whether I make a huge impact or a small one, I’m willing to leave up to God.

Footnotes

  1. Christian Bieber Lake, The Flourishing Teacher: Vocational Renewal for a Sacred Profession (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020).

Lisa Hosack

Grove City College
Lisa Hosack, PhD, LCSW, is Program Director and Associate Professor of Social Work at Grove City College