I’m Right, You’re Wrong
By Lemuel Sandoval
Leadership in theological education requires teachers empowering students through dialogue.
“I’m big and you’re small. And I’m right and you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.” That’s one of the most iconic lines from 1996 film “Matilda.” Miss Trunchbull, the school principal, will not stand young Matilda correcting her. “Am I wrong? I’m never wrong,” the Trunchbull goes on. “In this classroom, in this school… I AM GOD!” What happens just then is so hilarious. A small lizard jumps to Miss Trunchbull’s coat and she starts gasping and spinning, trying to get the animal off. You have to watch the movie!
As funny as that may sound, those two lines are still the undercover motto of so many schools, colleges, and universities. Just look at how traditional education is. The teacher possesses all the knowledge and the student has none of it. So, the teacher’s role is to provide the right information for the student to swallow. And, voila! Learning has happened. Students just need to take whatever the teacher says as true and that’s pretty much it. Now, I’m not minimizing all the effort that is required to pursue formal education. There’s homework, and assignments, and projects, and long sleepless nights. Students develop discipline and organization. They make sacrifices and miss out on many things. I know that and celebrate those students who really care enough about their education.
Traditional education tends to consider the teacher as the ultimate source of true information, “In this classroom, in this school… I am God.” This leaves the student as ever lacking at least some of that knowledge, until they become knowledgeable enough to occupy the role of the professor.
This model is repeated in seminaries and theology schools, as well as churches and Sunday School classes. There’s a particular interest in these contexts to make sure the “right” knowledge is passed on to the pupils. I think this is partly because they are dealing with the sacred and the divine. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding God and none would like to fall into heresy trying to explain the divinity. But, without doubt, there are also commitments made to denominations and confessions to keep the so-called “sound doctrine,” whatever it may be. So, teachers and professors are required to have the correct knowledge, the correct information, to impart to their classes and correct whoever walks, knowingly or not, down the path of heresy. New opinions are silenced, alternative interpretations are Bible-slammed, tough questions are left unanswered. Students must repeat the correct formulas, the right arguments, the orthodox creeds to be approved. Even teachers who think differently get pushed aside if not removed from their positions. Theology students, whether seminarians, undergrads, or just your regular Sunday School attendees, are boxed in whatever the doctrine, posture or tradition of the educational institution is.
Granted, a good amount of reverence and humility is due when thinking about God. And it is healthy and wise to follow a specific doctrine or theological position for the sake of consistency. But then again, the point is that the typical model starts with the teacher giving the right information and ends with the students accepting it. The teacher remains all-knowing, unaffected. The student ought to be the receiver only, conform to the status quo or suffer the consequences. Because “I’m big and you’re small. And I’m right and you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
This model should be called into question.
My biggest concern with this kind of theological education is that it fosters a view of God in which God reveals almost exclusively to a certain group of people, in this specific case to educators. They and only they have the right revelation, the right interpretation, and the right answer. However, a God who is open and relational is present and continually revealing God’s love and nature to everyone. Teachers are not the only ones who can bring insight or a valuable point of view to the classroom. Students who are sensitive and respond affirmatively to God’s prompts may have one or two interesting things to say in a theology class. Apart from that, a God who loves everyone teaches us to consider everyone’s experience as equally important, so every question, every life story, every concern brought into the room is sacred.
But most of all, the God who always loves, self-gives, and empowers others is an example for teachers to follow in the classroom. The role of the educator can no longer be the know-it-all, right-information provider. A radical change must happen if one is to follow the path of the God who reaches out and touches humanity and all creation. Teachers must become partners with their students in the discovery of the divine. They must empower the pupils for their personal journey with God. Teachers must be liberators.
So, how exactly does a teacher become a liberator? How should professors, educators, faculty members and even school boards lead in theological education? Brazilian educator Paulo Freire proposes a model called critical pedagogy that fits nicely into an open and relational view of God. While Freire didn’t focus on theology as an academic discipline, I believe his ideas are helpful in sorting out leadership in the classroom.
First, the teachers and educators ought to have a loving, humble attitude. They must think of themselves “the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.” (Phil. 2:5-6) An open and relational model puts the student at the center. The teacher empowers the student in a humble, serving manner, focusing on the student’s needs and not on the academic program. This also means that the educator is humble enough to tolerate a student doubting or even challenging her or his ideas.
Second, the educator’s role is to identify the context of the students. Where do they come from? What do they already know? What are their aspirations? Their fears? What problems do they encounter daily? What is their own view of God? How is their faith experience? This goes beyond a mere icebreaking exercise. The objective is to make students aware of their situation and guide them into thinking critically about it. This reflection will actually be the basis, the raw material from which the teacher will work in class. That means the lesson plans will undergo constant change to fit the students bring to the table.
Third, the critical open and relational model should be based on the dialogue. Many teachers, if not all, encourage their students to participate in class. Most of the time, though, the participation will consist of doubts or questions, which implies more correction and information giving. The critical dialogue, on the other hand, aims at students questioning themselves and ultimately the typical doctrinal, “orthodox” answers. When the whole group, with the teachers as partners, engages in critical dialogue, they can propose a theology that moves into action, solving the problems they found in their communities and making their efforts relevant to today’s world. The teacher leads in this exercise, but in a non-coercive manner: the critical dialogue. Everything counts when it comes to constructing solutions from the exchange of experiences, quotes from books, wild ideas, and previous knowledge. There are many methods to foster dialogue, but the important thing is to recognize that an essential part of the answer to the question is already in the students’ hearts and minds. A relational teacher allows herself or himself to be affected by the dialogue, and responds to influence, but not coerce, students to analyze their personal situations, communities, beliefs.
Following this simple and basic clue, teachers and educators can lead their students from every level —college, seminary, Sunday School— towards a well thought, relevant, meaningful, encouraging, and loving theology. Whether it comes to speculating about the Divinity, facing the ethical issues of today’s world, analyzing a particular system of beliefs, interpreting the sacred books, or any other theological task, the open and relational model makes space for creativity, respect, hope, unity, and love.
It may be scary at first for teachers and educators not to control what happens in the classroom. Instead of control, classes will be full of self-realization, constant learning, mutual trust, collaboration, happiness, and liberty. Even Miss Trunchbull would attend class.
Lemuel Sandoval is a pastor in Mexico City. His degrees are in Theology and in Music Composition and Arrangement. One of his biggest interests is theological education and promoting critical thinking among the youth. Lemuel loves spending the afternoons out with his wife and daughter, and just discovered a passion for baking sourdough bread.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.