The Encounter: Why We Need Great Teachers

A hugely important person in my life died this week. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what a professor can mean to a student — throughout life.

Real education just isn’t going to happen from a computer on the kitchen table, or from massive lecture halls. Real education takes space and time where the professor and the student can pour over great material, together.

That’s education. It’s a mystery at times. It is profoundly human. It is life-shaping. If it is done right, it is the place where world change begins.

My teacher’s name was Dr. Simpson. Dr. Simpson contracted polio when he was a child, losing the bulk and use of one of his legs. Because he was forced to use crutches all of his life, his shoulders and arms were massive. He was a big man, in so many ways.

We often stood in fear, as he swung through one of his strides, that he would lose his balance and fall. But never did we imagine he would lose his steady, penetrating insight into life and living. His wisdom was huge and sweeping, breathtaking.

Though he focused with a specialist’s intensity on literature and the Scriptures and history and culture, he taught me to be a generalist. He would always subtly and suddenly leap from the particulars to talk about big things, things that matter.

He taught me to love good and nuanced language. He taught me that literature will open wide big doors toward understanding. He taught me to revel in the complexity and beauty of texts.

He always anchored his thinking in metaphors. On the day he died, I counted probably ten metaphors I could remember from speeches he had given thirty years ago. I’ve tried to shape the speeches I give around metaphors (not always successfully); I’ve tried to shape my life and my leadership around metaphors. I learned this from my teacher.

His reach of thinking and reading and curiosity was expansive. He treated all kinds of books and texts with love and respect and endless fascination. When it comes to learning and exploration, he had no fear.

He told a story one time about a young boy in the men’s restroom in McDonald’s in Nogales, Arizona. There in the restroom, this little guy noticed that Dr. Simpson was on crutches and asked him about his leg: “what happened?” Dr. Simpson patiently explained, and the boy left the restroom.

Suddenly, in a moment of spontaneous compassion, the little guy burst back into the restroom — returning precisely so he could swing the door wide open to assist Dr. Simpson. “In that very moment,” Dr. Simpson said, “the glory of the Lord appeared, right there in that restroom, in Nogales, Arizona.”

Dr. Simpson knew that God could shine out of the ordinary at any moment. He knew, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out like the shining from shook foil,” often when we least expect it. And so we better stay attentive and expectant. That’s what I learned from my teacher, Dr. Simpson.

I thank God for this powerful teacher in my life. In whatever ways we must change education in the future, adjusting our economic models, we cannot lose sight of this special, sometimes mysterious, encounter between the professor and the student.


Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. Teachers, professors, lecturers, mentors – the list could go on and on. I cannot begin to echo the words and thoughts of President Eaton on this blog enough. The impact a great teacher can play on a young mind is incredible and memories of their powerful lectures will last a lifetime.

    I am fortunate to know firsthand the impact of a great teacher – not only in the classroom but at home as well. I come from a family where my father (now retired) was a teacher in the local community where I grew up. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend high school where he taught English and a fun elective course, sports communication. The unique experience to learn from your very own father in a public classroom environment was quite the experience. Yes, I was on my best behavior day in and day out – but that’s not the part that I remember the most. I remember the way he engaged with my fellow classmates and encouraged them to learn and to continue to learn as they moved on through life. It’s been many years since I was in high school, but to this day I still have students of his asking me how he is doing and I cannot be more proud that he is my father.

    A teacher can change a life. I hope every young person gets to meet someone like Dr. Simpson and my father.

  2. German psychologist, Erik Erikson, states that, “Hope is both the earliest and the most indispensable virtue inherent in the state of being alive. If life is to be sustained, hope must remain, even where confidence is wounded, trust impaired.”

    From skimming your bookshelf and reading your blog on why we need great teachers, I was reminded of this quote. Though I haven’t read much of N.T. Wright and have only read a few poems and texts by Wendell Berry, both are such teachers…sharing their hope (and caution) with our generation.

    I specifically look forward to reading how Berry’s “Hannah Coulter” shares her wisdom with me. I’m curious if it sounds anything like the voice and teachings of my long deceased grandfather…a Mississippi farm boy who learned the hard lessons of a disconnected business world in 1920’s and 30’s…Chicago style.

    Thanks, President Eaton, for some great reading suggestions.

  3. I am very sorry for your loss, Dr. Eaton. I’m young yet, but I know the impact an important teacher can have, one who encourages you to learn, and teaches you to love it. I still sit down to coffee with an old math teacher of mine every time I visit my home town, and he asks me what I’m reading and when I’m going to get my Master’s.

    You’re right too – I have heard all sorts of opinions about SPU from my fellow and former graduates, and the number one thing people have to say is that here we have received a quality education, and we know this because all of us have at least one or two professors we have regularly had coffee with. They encourage us to learn, not just to compete assignments, and they teach us to love it, which is why I just bought a copy of Durkheim’s Suicide instead of groceries – I can’t help myself! They also have taught us that learning is not an isolated hobby – it is meant to change our lives, and to help us change others’.

    Thanks for that.

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