I was in a new city, a new country, a new house—and that first day of class, Dr. Bennett welcomed his students with a pot of tea in the front room as the morning sun made its way through the bay window. We barely knew one another, except for a few short days of touring Oxford together upon arrival. After those first romantic moments of excitement, we were left to settle into our rooms and start classes and live in a foreign place for the next five months.
But I’ll never forget that tea pot that Dr. Bennett brought out on the first day of class. About eight of us sat around a table with our C.S. Lewis texts, not quite sure how to discuss with one another in such a new and strange place, but Dr. Bennett understood a simple truth: before we could offer hospitality and understanding to Lewis and his work, we first had to commune with one another.
Maybe it was because we were in an old Victorian house, in the front sitting room, or maybe it was because our professor knew the power of hospitality in a strange place, but that experience forever changed my view of teachers. Teachers, rather than being mere imparters of knowledge or guides in the land of learning, are hosts.
The teacher has the ownership of the classroom. Even if you’d like to think of your class as “student-centered,” it only becomes so at the word of the teacher. The teacher has the sole right to change the layout of the classroom, to make the rules about what can and cannot be consumed during class, and to decide what is to be offered to the “guests.”
Why go to the trouble of comparing the role of a teacher with the role of a host? Why not just discuss what a teacher is? It turns out that teachers function within an assumed role, a pre-conceived metaphor. The most common may be a coach, then a babysitter, and then a drill sergeant. And it also turns out that these underlying notions of our role deeply affects pedagogy.
There are several reasons for my affinity for this particular metaphor. The first is simply because I love food, and hosting is often joined with feasting. Secondly, the terms “host” and “guest” tend to humanize and bring personality to the student/teacher relationship. Lastly, “be hospitable” is a common command in Scripture, and we are called to this task for friends, strangers, and enemies (I think that covers all possible students?). There is also the sad reality that for most of us, students are travellers that will move on from our classrooms after a short period of time, and we have the privilege of hosting them for a few brief months.
So with this metaphor in mind, I’d like to suggest four responsibilities of a host.
1) A host welcomes
My parents are masters of hospitality. I loved when people came to our home when I was a child—I fondly remember the smell of lemon-scented Pine Sol, freshly melted queso, and brewed sweet tea as the prelude to these events. The door was not to be knocked: my parents would rush to open the door as soon as they saw a car pull into the driveway, waving and greeting before our guests had time to get out of the car. Y’all might call this overdone southern hospitality, but for them, it was the only way.
In the classroom, how does this responsibility affect the role of the teacher? I’m sure you’ve seen the viral videos of teachers who have individual handshakes with each student, and that’s not a bad thing—but welcoming goes much deeper than shaking hands with somebody. Is the host prepared for the arrival? Or dreading it when the bell rings? Is the host assessing the needs of the guests? Or focused on his or her own agenda? Does the host actively greet the guests as people, or shrug them off as mere students?
2) A host introduces
Perhaps when you think of hosts, you remember that the narrator of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a host. It is he who suggests the friendly competition of telling the best tale, and it is he who makes a group of friends out of strangers. If you consider the responsibility of a host during an event or dinner party, you’ll realize that a large part of his or her job is to facilitate new relationships among the guests.
Who might be the stranger in the classroom? Is it a new student? Perhaps we are introducing our guests to a new idea, a new author, or a new concept. What will we say about the item we are introducing? How can we best facilitate relationships within the classroom in order to teach them how to welcome others? Who would we like for them to meet?
3) A host provides
I’ve been reading through David Copperfield, and there’s a delightful scene when David obtains his first private dwelling and hosts his first dinner party. It is completely overdone, with food enough for a dozen when he’s only hosting four, and enough rounds of toasts that he ends up regretting the night drunk. Soon after, he hosts another party, but has learned his lesson: hosting is not about extravagance, it is about providing for the needs of the guests. In this second dinner party, he even goes as far as providing lavender water for his female guest, and near the end of the evening, the guests participate in finishing the dinner preparation.
What might students–in this metaphor, guests–physically need? What might our guests intellectually need? Spiritually need? Are we as teachers anticipating these needs? Do we provide only out of a desire to impress?
4) A host serves
Of course, one of the central images we know of a host is the Lord washing his disciples’ feet. Though he performed this task as a servant, as there was none there, this act connected the job of the host at the Passover meal (breaking the bread, pouring the wine, leading prayer) with the job of the lowest servant. Christ showed us that the leader is to be one who serves, not glorifies himself.
Are our classrooms places of service, or of self-glorification? Do we stoop to do the dirty work at times, or do we always demand that those below us do it? Do we approach our task with humility and patience (think of being patient with a student like Peter!), or do we teach from a position of pride and mastery?
I have failed to act as a gracious host many times to my students (and discovered these moments mostly through examen), but being explicit and considerate of how I think of my role as a teacher has shaped my classroom, my curriculum, and the interactions with my guests. And it all started with a simple pot of tea.