A teacher’s legacy


I don’t like math much. Maybe it’s better to say that we have a disagreement about what makes sense. It might be my fault but, except for a brief foray into geometry (seemed logical), math was a source of stress and confusion during my school years. It’s strange then that, short of college, Mr. Hankins was my most happily memorable teacher.


Burl Hankins, a Baptist layman, taught seventh grade math at Woodland Junior High School. He was pretty old (somewhere past 40) to us and a little scary. He would wheel up and down the aisles of our classroom in his desk chair and look over our shoulders, offering advice and quirky comments as we worked out our ciphers. I remember his chair dragged a chain behind it, “to keep me from being struck by lightning,” he would say. We looked forward to his class because he obviously looked forward to it also. We paid closer attention because he was vigorous and unpredictable. His students understood that the little funny things he did were in service to his goal of teaching us math.


He expected a lot from us and seemed to think that math was a pretty useful thing. Amazingly, he showed us why. He showed us, for example, that multiplying or dividing any larger number could be simplified by breaking the multiplier or divisor into more manageable pieces. Multiplying by 15 is not as easy as multiplying by 10 and then by five and adding it all together. We can at least give a fair estimate of larger numbers by applying this method. I can do a lot of everyday math in my head because of Mr. Hankins. I seem to remember being convinced that he was telling us secret shortcuts that other adults wouldn’t want us to know. It helped.


It may not sound like much, but few teachers left something so distinct in my mushy skull. Our class really liked Mr. Hankins and he liked teaching us math. To me, that simple phrase sums up the gift of a good teacher.


As a seventh-grader, it didn’t occur to me that my teachers were anything but teachers. I didn’t think of Mr. Hankins as going to church or having a family. Still, I assumed that he was a Christian. His demeanor and relationship with his students was in contrast with some of his colleagues. Although it is not necessary to be a Christian to be a skilled and caring teacher, some characteristics should always be found in Christians who teach.


A good teacher knows and loves his subject. Mr. Hankins liked teaching but he also liked math. Many have noted the trend in preparing teachers whereby they learn about the educational process and about the phases of student development but far less about the subject they may teach. I wonder why you have to be an education major to teach teachers but you don’t have to be a science major to teach junior high scientists.


I wouldn’t hire (if hiring was my business) an education major to teach history to my children unless he could also pass the same grilling I’d give a history major applying for the job. By the same token, those who graduate with Christian education degrees from our seminaries are sometimes unqualified to teach Bible in our churches because they learned too little of it in seminary. If they can’t demonstrate competence in biblical and theological studies they are not ready to oversee the discipleship of a youth or children’s group. Mr. Hankins was a great math teacher because he knew enough math to make me understand some of it.


A revolution is called for in education schools, Christian or non-religious. Either reform them or close them. Their focus on process rather than knowledge is toxic?replacing nourishment with inert packaging.


A good teacher also cares for his students. It seems obvious that this should be so but it isn’t always. The stress of dealing with other people’s kids is not for everyone. I had a few of those teachers also. I remember them as harried, crabby, and obviously unhappy. These teachers’ discomfort was obvious and soon we students were uneasy too. Caring for students is more than just liking kids or being a buddy. A good teacher cares enough to think we should know the important things he’s learned. He cares enough to exert himself so that we understand the “what” and the “why” of his message.


One who teaches, in any context, is giving something to students. Well done, it is unselfish and gratifies both parties. That could be why many Christians are drawn to a teaching vocation. Christians can be better teachers because they can understand the joy of servanthood better than non-Christians.


A good teacher keeps the connection between his students and his subject clear. Some people are just happy to be around children. They like the energy of young people and the affection younger children offer so freely. These are nice things but are not the goals of education. Others think they want to be teachers because they like being students. They love the world of ideas, the respect that comes to those who know something useful. The problem is that they don’t much enjoy students. I had a few of those teachers in my first year of college. Again, it was obvious to the students where we stood in the teacher’s world?we were something he had to put up with so he could have an academic job. A teaching relationship is one with a purpose. You’ve got to love the relationship and the purpose. Otherwise you should be a babysitter or researcher.



Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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