This morning—perhaps even as you are reading this—I’ll be beginning the new academic year. My 30th as a college teacher. And fittingly, I think, I’ll be in the same course at 8 a.m. as I was in the fall of 1990 when I, just 3 months past my own college graduation, stepped into the 1st year composition classroom as a graduate student at the University of Washington. My teaching assistantship put me in sole charge of 22 young minds—a huge responsibility that I feel afresh with each succeeding group of students.

Especially this year—with our masks and socially distanced desks and cleaning protocols and so much else, it’s easy to focus on all that has altered. And of course, since that very first class, I’ve witnessed many changes in technology, in pedagogy, in the accessibility of materials, in the ways students interact with me as their professor.

But even as I’ve spent hours this summer converting each of my three courses to accommodate in-person learners, learners who will be joining by livestream, and asynchronous learners, I’ve also thought about how, no matter how the circumstances change, good teaching at its core remains the same.

Essentially—for me anyway— teaching well means connecting with students and convincing them that they and their learning matter to me as the teacher. It’s about cultivating a conversation built on mutuality. In fact, teaching is so deeply relational that when a class seems like merely content delivery, something very profound is lost. (Don’t get me wrong—all of us can definitely learn from things like YouTube videos, but that’s auto-didacticism, not teaching.) That one can connect with students in a large number of ways is certainly true—whether I’m interacting with students on a discussion board, through an email, over a video connection, or during an in-class discussion. However it happens, though, it is the students’ humanity, the recognition that one is interacting with beloved children, images of God, that needs to lie at the heart of our connection. These are my brothers and sisters as much as they are my students.

In the classroom, then, I want to practice incarnational pedagogy: making sure that what I say matches what I do (knowing that that will demand humility and grace as I fail to live up to my own ideals as much as I would like). That I enflesh my words with the kind of teaching I would hope bears witness to my deepest beliefs.

Yes, there’s a good deal of content I aim to cover with them. But here’s what I hope my students hear as we begin our time together this week—and continue to hear across this entire semester:

  1. You are welcome as you are.

Your grade does not define you.

You are already enough.

I say often after I’ve returned papers and tests: you are not this grade. This grade is the assessment of your work on one particular thing on one particular day. That is all. Good or bad, it is not who you are nor does it measure your worth as a human being or the affection and respect with which I hold you. And nothing can separate you from the love of God.

2. I want you to succeed.

Too often, students come into an English class already decided that they are bad at writing or at literary interpretation. Grammar or organization or analysis has eluded them in the past—and their confidence may be low. And though they certainly might not be as proficient as they could be, I want them to understand that I am not here to reinforce what they can’t do but to show them how they can thrive. For example, I ask them to come to our student-prof conference time with their own ideas about what is ailing their writing. Turns out their diagnosis is almost always spot on—and then, we work together to figure out how to address it. Even that small step of yielding authority over their writing to them provides them with a boost of self-assurance that we can build on. All professors know that it’s super easy to write an assignment or exam that shows what students don’t know—I want students to know that I expect them to succeed because I know they can. And I tell them so.

3. Your voice matters.

And why do I want them to succeed? Because we need every single one of their voices in our civic life, in our churches, in the places where we work, in our broader communities. This semester, I’m starting my 101 class with a recent New York Times essay by Min Jin Lee, entitled “Breaking My Own Silence,” in which Lee traces out her long journey towards finding the power of her own voice. I hope my students are encouraged by Lee and feel motivated to take further steps along their own road–even if they, too, feel like their voice is too small, too inconsequential. Yes, the writing we’ll be doing in class is hard because thinking is hard, nuance is hard, conversation and engagement are hard. But like any workout, the longer one exercises, the fitter one become. I want students who ultimately are fearless in speaking truth, in speaking consolation and restoration, in speaking hope.

Words of life the world is desperate for.

It’s rather fitting that pearls—the symbol of the 30th anniversary—are formed by irritation. Schooling is probably a bit like that, too—but what beauty results from all that molluskular kerfuffle.

Here’s to making some pearls this semester.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

14 Comments

  • Dale Cooper says:

    Your reflections blest me, Jennifer. May you and your fellow pupils/teachers know the Lord’s favor as you, together, again begin the adventure.

  • Kristen VanderBerg says:

    I miss classes at Calvin and professors like you 🙂

  • Jim Brink says:

    Thank you for your reflections, Jenn. You are a blessing to your craft and your students.

  • Phil says:

    When I started teaching, and was probably visibly nervous about what I was facing, a colleague gave me what he described as a cliche with a lot of truth. Of my students, he told me: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I tried every time I walked into my classroom to have that thought front and center in my brain. I suspect your students saw it in you 30 years ago and do so still today. Blessings on the journey.

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    I took a CALL class from you and saw how you enjoyed interacting with your students, much older and eager. You loved the active discussions, your whole being beamed when you talked with us.

    I wish I had had more teachers like you. I also mourn for that face to face talk that is now so strained by online classes.

    I have two children who are teachers and hear their trials. May God use this time for all to appreciate the value of teachers who led their students to discoveries of their worth. I pray that those of us past school age may support you and colleagues in your mission.

  • George Vink says:

    Thank you for an encouraging article. I read it as a former High School English teacher who “converted” to being a pastor/teacher, probably more the latter. I believe your emphases apply to pastors. Wasn’t Jesus referred to or called “Teacher.” It’s the attitude you reveal that needs to be experienced by pastors, if not, they’re in the wrong place. Just a thought or two from one now “retired.”

  • David Hoekema says:

    A fine reflection on the profound responsibility we carry when we have the audacity to try to teach young people! It actually makes me miss the opening of the semester, a feeling I have not experienced since I retired in 2018.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    You have a real teacher heart. Thank you. As you begin this 30th year of teaching, I pray that you are blessed as surely as you bless your students on the other side of desks or computer screens. My heart warms with thankful praise to God for you and those of your kind. I am forwarding this beautiful and encouraging blog to my teacher son.

  • Bob Crow says:

    Amen! I wish I was your student. Rich blessings on a productive and healthy semester!

  • Matt Harrison says:

    Such a great reflection on teaching, building relationships and incarnational ministry. All of which I learned so much about during my time as an English major at Calvin. I was reminded of Dale Brown in particular as I read this. Thank you!

  • Kathie Van Hoven says:

    Oh, that all teachers shared your philosophy!

  • Anneke says:

    What a wonderful thing to read. I miss your classes! Blessings on you all as you teach and learn in this strange time.

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