The Prodigal Son: Reflections on Teaching

ProdigalSon As the semester winds down grades are submitted and the usual exodus from the dormitories begins.  A certain silence permeates the campus offering a time to reflect.  While the details of each semester may differ, the type of students and problems remain very much the same.

At the most basic level you have three types of students.  The A, B/C, and the failing student.  The A student typically does not see the need for your help, rarely comes to office hours, but from time to time will ask a question or two in passing.  They often take very little of a professor’s time.

The B/C student typically realizes their great need for help to understand the material.  More often than not they populate your office, send frequent emails, lack confidence when they begin to struggle, and tend to view your help as a necessary part for them to succeed.

Ironically, the failing student you rarely see and, when pressed, admit that they felt guilty to come to your office and ask questions.  Often you’ll see them after a failing exam (or semester) soliciting advice, too often it falls on deaf ears.  The student is not ready to forfeit themselves over to your guidance, guilty of showing their full weakness or lack of understanding.  In turn, they see your role as a helper once they get to some level of sophistication and comfortability with the material. In other words, they have to go clean up first!

In reality each student needs additional schooling in the material, even the A student has not fully mastered the material.  In fact, holes can easily be identified in any relevant discussion on the mathematical topics.  They are all in that same need and when they seek that help are welcomed.  In fact, you rejoice in that moment.  There is no greater happiness watching a once struggling student begin to be helped to their feet and stand on their own.  Comparably, it is a remarkable moment when the top student begins to bridge the material together in ways that may even surpass yourself.  These are wonderful moments.

Of course, this similar to the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) .  In fact, each of us have a need for our heavenly Father in our lives, however we may not be at the point to freely admit it.  However, when we turn our attention back to Him, we find those arms outstretched, welcomed regardless of the circumstance. The prodigal son was filthy, dirty, felt unwanted, guilty of his current circumstance.  However his father wanted to hear nothing of this, rather to rejoice that he had returned.   In other words, the son did not have to explain and get cleaned up first before being accepted back.  The rejoicing was now, the clean-up can be done later.

Regardless of the student’s story or ability, they are always welcome in the professor’s office.  Similarly, regardless of your own circumstance, we are always welcome back into God’s arms.   And for that, there is always rejoicing (Luke 15:7).

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