Being Open With My Students


Ken Elzinga,
University of Virginia

[Jan 25, 2009 ] — It was a Jewish colleague of mine, a very dear friend, who, early in my career told me that I owed it to my students to let them know what made me tick as a professor.

He said, “You have colleagues who are avid sailors. And the students know that eventually through the semester, just through the way that professor teaches. Professors who are avid musicians—students come to know that. Why should Christians be exempt from that?”

I could think of two reasons. One is that it’s scarier for some of us to concede that we follow Jesus than telling students that every summer we take a sailboat down the intercoastal waterway. Boating seems like a hobby, or maybe an eccentricity. Being a born-again Christian to some people seems like insanity, or at least a short-coming.

Nobody Complains If

And the second reason, I told him, is that nobody complains if you tell your students that you’re a sailor. There’s no constitutional separation of sailing and state the way there is of church and state. But he pressed me on this, and he succeeded.

If you’re at a secular institution, and the institution is paying you to teach molecular biology, it would be wrong in my opinion for you to teach systematic theology—no matter how good you are at it. But I do think, and in my instance particularly at the end of a course, if you’ve taught molecular biology, and the students see that you have worked hard, and you have desired to be their servant, and you have a concern about them, they would be upset—they would be concerned—if they thought you believed you could not share something personal with them.

I let students know that I’m a follower of Jesus on the last day of a large introductory class that I teach of over 1000 students. I know there are people who would say to do it on the first day, but I choose to do it on the last day.

I have said this very brief and carefully-thought-out statement to over 20,000 students. And I’ve never had a student complain to me. On the other hand, I haven’t seen hundreds of students come forward and accept Christ, like at a Billy Graham crusade. But I have had people tell me of how touched they were by this.

I Thought You Would Want To Know

More than once, I will get an e-mail or a letter from a student—it might be five, six, or seven years later—that said, “I became a Christian, and I thought you would want to know about that, because I know you are one.” I’ve had students tell me that they have been left in tears by this very brief testimony that I give on the last day of class.

What I do at the start of a class is I tell students basically what my teaching philosophy is, but I don’t use the word “Jesus” and I don’t use the word “Christian.” I tell them that I’m going to teach out of a Biblical model of leadership. And that Biblical model means that I’m to be their servant, and they have every right to expect that of me, and they can call me on that if I’m not doing that. And I tell them that’s what the Biblical model of leadership is all about.

[Excerpted from a lecture at the 2008 National Faculty Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C.]

© 2009 Ken Elzinga

Comments are closed.