The Lead Climber
Once we agree that it is the relationship between the teacher and the student which is central to good teaching, there are many different analogies and models out there in the literature which we can use to understand it – such as teacher as host, midwife, friend, paraclete.
One I came across recently is particularly useful, that of the lead climber – the one who climbs the rock face first, belays the rope and then makes available his skill and the safety of his holding of the rope to those who climb after him. I saw it first in a book review of Care to Dare a book on contemporary leadershipbyKohlrieser, Goldsworth and Coombe (and one good way of describing out task vis a vis our students is leadership).
Doing biblical studies and theology as a Christian student whose previous encounter with either has mostly been sermons by their minister and talks on discipleship by their youth leader, is quite a mountain to climb. It may well be exhilarating but the rarefied atmosphere of academia is not without its dangers and there are slippery rock faces to traverse. What makes it worse is that our students generally begin their climb while only starting to learn the basic skills needed.
No model of teacher/student relationship is adequate on its own. They should be regarded as actors on the stage of understanding – sometimes one steps forward to emphasise one idea, then another, but we need them all on stage at one time or another in order for the strengths of one model to plug the weaknesses of others. The model of lead climber, however, says something we need to hear particularly carefully at the moment in theological education.
It is that “assurance of faith” is one of the key gifts we can give to our students. In the midst of academic work on scripture and theology, faith may well be challenged but there is no reason for it to take a fall. We know, we have been there. Safety can never be absolute but the skilful climber who has already done the climb and is now holding the rope above them is a re-assurance that makes their studies free and open and without fear. It encourages them to go and continue to explore. Some would prefer that we take away the difficulty of the task and the exhilaration simply by keeping their feet on the ground and telling them what to learn and believe, but that is hardly a recipe for safety because one day they may well be stuck on the mountain on their own. Better to climb it now while you are above them holding the rope.
No teacher can abdicate from the duty of care towards a student. This is especially true in respect of their faith.