Teaching at a Faith-Based College

03/31/2010
faith-based education
J. CARROLL SMITH, Ed.D.

I was asked to share the joys of working at a faith-based college. Although the last nine years of my career have been as a professor of education at a private Christian college, Gardner-Webb University, I started my educational career as an undergraduate in a large state university. I spent my next 21 years working in the public K-12 educational setting, teaching first in a rural North Carolina middle school, then in a Virginia inner city elementary school and then working as vice-principle and principle at schools with a student economically disadvantaged rate of 70-75 percent.

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I loved working with those inner city kids. Despite the times of roaches crawling out of mothers’ purses or the continual battle to conquer head lice, I loved the challenge of helping teachers cope and grow professionally. Both my graduate degrees came through studies at large state universities, so my time at Gardner-Webb University, a small liberal arts, faith-based university, is really my first span of years in the non public sector. Working at a faith-based college has its own unique joys.

I am a practicing Christian and find great intellectual integrity to the Christian faith. Exploring the depth and richness of a biblical world and life view for all areas of life is a never ending and deeply enriching pursuit. I believe biblical thought speaks insightfully and relevantly into today’s culture. 

Teaching at a Christian faith-based university involves more than just beginning a class with prayer. It allows the unhindered pursuit of exploring the Christian faith and its outworking into all of life. “As a man thinks, so is he” or put another way, things that happen in the external world begin in the internal thought world of a person. Working at a faith-based college, I can explore with my students Christian ideas and their consequences. Rich, reflective discussions can be shared about such worthy issues as what it means for a child to be made in the image of God and the everyday implications of that for his education. Teaching at a faith-based university does not mean propagandizing my students or moralizing with them, nor being unchallenged by their diversity of opinions, but it does mean I have the wonderful freedom to pursue thoughtful discussion without worrying about violations of church and state.

As a Christian, I understand relationship to be at the heart of the Christian message — relationship to God and relationship to each other. Relational living and relational learning are therefore priorities, especially challenging to live out in our increasingly fragmented, sound-bite culture. I find the dynamics of a smaller, faith-based school community more supportive of the priorities of relational living and learning. 

Relational learning is more easily achieved in a smaller class size that encourages the possibility of better relationships between professor and students. I have the same students in different classes for several years and I value getting to know them, not as a list of class numbers, but as persons, each with his own gifts and warts. I value sharing life together as we take time after class or later over a cup of tea to discuss an idea or problem. I can have my classes of students over to my house for a meal because there are 20 of them rather than 50 and there is something about sharing homemade soup together that breaks down barriers and fosters substantive conversation. Having those personal connections then helps me to know how to encourage my students to dig deeper into content and understand better themselves, the children they will teach and the world they live in.

On a small faith-based campus where students are important members of the community as fellow Christians, their life situations matter and relational living is fostered. One of the convincing reasons I took this job at Gardner Webb comes from the casual comment of a college student. When I came to campus to interview for my job, we stayed at the campus apartments and one day my wife casually asked one of the students sitting on the balcony how she would describe Gardner Webb. The young woman shared that she had some tough problems and poor choices her freshman year, but then what struck and stuck was her comment, “Gardner-Webb is a good place to make a mistake.” Now that was a place that appealed to me!

Relational living seems less arduous in the context of a faith-based university where Christian compassion and care are expressions of many peoples’ faith. Our campus has a minister for the university staff whose job is to pastor and care for us. When I had serious surgery, he visited me, prayed with me and e-mailed my health updates to the faculty who encouraged me with cards and visits. Many of the financial managers of this university take seriously their responsibility to handle budget and monetary matters in a God honoring way and do not overspend. When the economy hit bottom in fall ‘08, our university did not have to lay off people.  At a campus wide meeting to discuss possible days without pay, I was deeply moved by several faculty who expressed concern that employees on minimum wage not be cut, as there was no margin in their lives.

A young professor on our campus, whose wife worked part-time at the university, recently died. I was so impressed with our campus administration that approached her, suggesting moving her job to a three-quarter time so she and the children could have insurance coverage and other benefits. People wanting to live out their faith does not mean that no faculty ever quarrel, but it does seem to generally promote a more hospitable and less destructive environment.

With the emphasis for the faculty on teaching and building student relationship, I am released from the pressure to “publish or perish” and have freedom to pursue my educational interests which has produced publishing anyway. I am interested in the educational philosophy and practice of Charlotte Mason, a late 19th century and early 20th century British educator. While she had a profound effect on education in her day, she is little known today so my academic pursuit of her can appear rather eccentric and, as a result, doesn’t always pad the pocket book or bring to the university great notoriety. But at Gardner-Webb University because big numbers of students are not the final goal, I am encouraged to keep pursuing my interest.

While a smaller, faith-based university has unique opportunities for relational learning and living and exploring ideas and faith, I do not want to imply that larger public institutions are bad. They have different opportunities and challenges and I have professor friends doing a fine job of teaching at these institutions. As a Christian, I have lived out my faith in the public educational sphere and now in the private educational sphere where I am enjoying very much the fertile relational environment available at a smaller, liberal arts faith-based university..

J. Carroll Smith, Ed.D. is Dean of the School of Education at Gardner Webb. For information, visit www.gardner-webb.edu.

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