The following review was written by Laura K. Simmons and was published in Teaching Theology & Religion, vol. 10, issue 3, July 2007, p. 211-12.
The first sentence in the preface to The Way of the Teacher is compelling: "This book is for the dissatisfied teacher" (vii). But it is abundantly clear that this is no traditional book on teaching. Soon we learn that, while the book aims to help teachers improve, "You will find no arcane techniques here that might suddenly transform you into an enthralling presence in the classroom, a beloved mentor to your students, and a revered member of your faculty. All the technique in the world can little help your students, unless your attitude is pure, and if your attitude is pure, then you will find or invent the techniques you need" (vii). How can this be? Every book on teaching is about technique, isn't it? We need to know what to do to be better teachers, not how to be—right?
J. M. Haile is a scientist who writes mostly on molecules and thermodynamics. Perhaps it is not unusual, then, to find a global approach to thinking about teaching. Upon first glance, The Way of the Teacher looks like poetry: short lines, spread out on the page, interspersed with quotations by thinkers ranging from Francis Bacon to Richard Feynman to Lao Tzu—even one from an anonymous student evaluation in which a student flunking a class tells the teacher it isn't the professor's fault! Some challenges are familiar: "Let's stop teaching the courses and start teaching the students" (15). Others may be especially difficult for professors helping students prepare for ministry careers: "Learning is not the same as professional practice. … To restrict teaching to the actions of professional practice is to train, not to educate" (33).
Some books about teaching are instruction manuals. Others are like philosophy texts, and this is one of those—Haile intends it to be "not a map but a signpost" (ix). This is a book designed to make you think about teaching:
What do you believe about students, and how does that drive your teaching style? What do you believe about teachers, and how does that inspire your work in the classroom? Whose input is feeding your approach to learning and teaching? Why might it be important to teach in one way or another? What is the larger picture of the academic enterprise? The preface to The Way of the Teacher recommends different ways to use this book:
Section breaks are accompanied by oft-abstract figures: some look like people, some look like arrows, some look like … ? At the end of the book, one is rewarded with an appendix explaining the illustrations. Each is a tangram, our old friend from geometry class. "Every tangram is composed of seven plane figures called tans … From the seven tans, literally thousands of evocative tangrams can be created, illustrating that even a small number of objects can be organized into a multitude of meaningful patterns and that the patterns are more important than the objects from which they are composed" (107). What a helpful reminder that teaching need not be—indeed, must not be—a regurgitation of material presented in the same way every time to every group of students, and that we dare not become so consumed in our course content that we neglect the process of learning.
Haile admits that in constructing this book, "… if I've felt that you might not be sufficiently stimulated by a particular idea, presented in one way, I've sometimes reached for an alternative presentation or even its negative … there are as many possible ways to mastery as there are Master teachers" (ix).
Haile's readers are challenged to move beyond simple ways of teaching. Exploring how learning happens, for example, the author exhorts, "In addition to attending lectures, students must explore and exercise new patterns of thought. They can do this by observing and using, reading and writing, questioning and answering, combining and dissecting, computing and simulating, discussing and presenting, playing and thinking. Education is not a spectator sport" (45). Professors are encouraged to read beynd their disciplines, in order to broaden their teaching: "Do you think knowledge should be taught and learned in separate, compartmentalized chunks? Or, do you believe all knowledge is interconnected and that today's societies need citizens who have integrated knowledge from diverse domains?" (viii).
A written review in paragraph form is insufficient to capture the enchantment and challenge inherent in this book: you must see it, wrestle with the poetic format, seek to understand the illustrations, interact with the quotations, savor the material in small pieces. The Way of the Teacher is not an easy read. We may find ourselves alternately frustrated, angry, challenged, delighted, confused … but never bored. This book may serve more as inspirational literature for teachers than any other sort of educational tome.