Occupation as missional field

Teach from the Heart: Pedagogy as Spiritual Practice
Jenell Paris
Wipf and Stock

Reviewed by Arisnel Mesidor

What is the subject?

Teach from the Heart is about teaching as a spiritual practice. The author describes the book as a pedagogy. However, rather than being about teaching techniques or becoming a better teacher, the book is a pedagogy of love consisting of making teaching a spiritual practice and the classroom a sacred place.

Who is the author?

Jenell Paris, PhD, is professor of anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Paris has written other books including The Good News About Conflict (Cascade, 2016), The End of Sexual Identity (IVP, 2010) and Introducing Cultural Anthropology (Baker Academic, 2011).

In addition to teaching, Paris researches and writes about gender, sexuality, race, faith and culture, reconciliation, anthropology, spirituality and the teaching life.

Her work has also appeared in several journals and magazines including the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Christian Ethics, the Journal for the Sociological Integration of Religion and Society, Working Mother and The Pittsburgh Gazette.

Why this book?

Several things drew me to this book.

Before I came to Canada from Haiti in 2004, I was a teacher. I had the privilege of teaching at both primary and secondary school levels for a combined duration of 11 years. I still consider myself a teacher: I teach in the church and I want to believe that I teach my children at home. A book about teaching naturally draws my attention and piques my curiosity. It’s like bumping up on an old friend you have not seen or heard of for a long time.

A second reason I was attracted to this book is because of the subtitle: Pedagogy as Spiritual Practice. Since I read Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God more than 10 years ago, I have become fascinated with the idea of making anything we do a spiritual practice. I was interested in seeing what Paris had to say about practicing spirituality through teaching, knowing that whatever she says would probably be transferable to another occupation.

Comment on the book’s argument in light of the MB Confession of Faith.

In the digest version, Article 15 of the MB Confession of Faith on stewardship reads as follows:

We believe the universe and everything in it belong to God the Creator and that we have been entrusted by God to manage its resources. All God’s gifts, including money, time, abilities and influence, are to be received with thanksgiving, used responsibly and shared generously.

I believe that Paris would say that those who are entrusted with the gift of teaching are to see this as their spiritual gift. They need to be grateful to God for it and use it as their way of serving God. They should hold on to that gift and consider every class they teach, every student they touch as something done for God for the betterment of this world. In the face of difficulties, they should persevere as God is counting on them to be faithful and obedient servants.

Key insight

This book brings to mind 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” For me, this verse invites us Christians to always keep God in mind and consider him present no matter where we are and what we are doing. Whatever we do, we should do it with an attitude of worship considering it as our service to God. Wherever we are, we are placed there by God himself. This place and occupation become then our mission field and missional activity.

We are there to witness God and be his eyes, hands, and feet. When we do that we will be able to look at our profession through totally different lenses. Wherever we find ourselves as God’s servants becomes a sacred place. We should always remember that God lives in us. And when in the presence of God, all that we do is – or should be – worship.

Downside

Paris seems to assume that everyone who is a teacher has made a definitive choice to be a teacher for life. Throughout the book, very little concerns those teachers who are simply testing the waters to find out whether  they should commit to the profession for the rest of their lives.

This category of teachers would benefit from some encouragement from the part of the author. I believe that it is important to acknowledge this group of teachers and let them know that it is perfectly legitimate for them to simply try out the profession. It would help to know that they should feel free to move on to a different ministry should they come to the realization that they may not be at the place where God wants them.

This being said, however, Paris has every right to decide that her target audience for the book is only the group of teachers who have entered the field of teaching for the long run.

Who should read it?

In the first line of the book’s introduction, the author makes it clear whom the book is for: teachers. In Teach from the Heart, Paris addresses fellow teachers, offering them encouragement for sustaining a rich inner life despite all the challenges that come with their profession. She also invites them to take up teaching as more than a service to provide, a profession to master or a job to perform, but as a path to become more fully who they already are. Teachers from any context – preschool, K-12, college, or university – will benefit.

This said, any reader who considers him- or herself a servant of God would greatly benefit from the book. Teach from the Heart reminded me how my present work as the Migration and Resettlement Program coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Manitoba is my ministry – the means through which God wants me to witness him in this world.

I’d encourage everyone to read the book.

Favourite quotes:

“Teachers, too, should pay attention in class, not only to students and their learning, but to ourselves and how the work of teaching shapes us as human beings.”

“Approaching the classroom as a sacred space for our formation as teachers and as persons enables us to bring more peace, gentleness, kindness and love into the world by growing these fruits in ourselves, sharing them with our students, and sending our students out into the world.”

“When a teacher insists on continuing to learn, and opens her hear to being changed and shaped each year with students, she is being the change she wishes to see in the world.”

“Like pregnancy and childbirth, spiritual journeys are very personal, but not private.”

“Your life is your practice. Your spiritual practice does not occur someplace [sic] other than in your life right now, and your life is nowhere other than where you are.… Live the life in front of you, be the life you are, and see what you find out for yourself.”

“Teaching has the potential to become spiritual practice when we encounter within our own depths our fears and desires, our real relation to our students and subjects, and the sacred in and among us.”

[Arisnel Mesidor is Migration and Resettlement Program coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Manitoba, and a member of Eglise Communautaire de la Riviere Rouge.

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