Teaching outside the Classroom: The Power of Relationship

by Mike Nichols

After describing his own experience in teaching and mentoring in different contexts, Nichols shares ideas for developing the student-teacher relationship outside of the classroom.

 Every child spells love T-I-M-E. Quantity and quality time between parents and children are essential to building an effective relationship. The same is true for teacher-student relationships; however, teachers and students are often intimidated by each other and unsure of how to interact outside the classroom.

After reviewing thousands of student feedback questionnaires in different disciplines and geographic locations, Stephen Brookfield says being an effective teacher, in the eyes of students, boils down to two basic traits: credibility and authenticity (2006, 56). The key to strengthening these is through intentional interaction with students outside the classroom. 

Brookfield reports “personhood” as one of the common indicators of authenticity in teachers, defined as “the perception students have that their teachers are flesh and blood human beings with lives and identities outside the classroom” (2006, 72). Using autobiographical examples in the classroom or disclosing personal struggles with the material can help build personhood with students—but only up to a point.

Interacting with students outside the classroom will go much farther. Parker Palmer is convinced “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (2007, 10). Good teachers must know and trust their selfhood, making it available and vulnerable in the service of learning. 

Teaching as a Youth Minister
My first teaching opportunity came with my first employment as a youth minister. Although I did plenty of “classroom” teaching during my five years in youth ministry, in retrospect I realize my greatest influence came from outside the classroom. I drove a school bus for extra income and became an assistant basketball coach because of my love for the sport. I ate lunch each day in the school cafeteria because I hated to cook. These activities provided my students a close-up of their teacher—they could see for themselves if my Christian faith made any difference in the way I responded to disrespectful kids on the bus, a referee’s bad call, or subpar macaroni and cheese. Thirty years later, I still have relationships with young people from this first ministry. 

Teaching as a Missionary
My next teaching stint took me to the Democratic Republic of Congo. After working with one youth group for the first year, I felt the Lord calling me to launch a regional youth ministry movement. This plan involved teaching two Congolese men, Lwahira and Jean Pierre, who shared my calling to reach the youth of the Congo. I wanted to pour all I knew about young people into these two men so youth ministry could continue without me. During my first term on the field, the three of us traveled to nine different regions of Eastern Congo, and shared many life experiences, from digging our jeep out of mud holes to sleeping at closed border crossings.

Teacher-student relationships outside the classroom are mutually beneficial. Some of the greatest lessons teachers learn come from students. I will never forget a lesson Jean Pierre taught me during one of our teacher-training seminars. Jean Pierre, Lwahira, and I had been training new youth leaders all day, and we were very tired and hungry when evening came. The designated Congolese Mama in the church would bring supper to our tent each night. This particular night, however, no one came. I kept looking to see if our supper was on its way. It started to get dark and still no supper! This was when Jean Pierre began to playfully tease me, asking in Swahili, “Bwana Mike, haven’t you ever gone to bed hungry?”

The question cut me like a knife to the heart—I could never remember going to bed hungry. That’s when Jean Pierre broke out laughing, recounting numerous times he went to bed hungry as a child. His mother was the third wife in a polygamous marriage—the children of the first two wives were always fed first and many times there wasn’t enough food for Jean Pierre and his siblings. Jean Pierre taught me the reality of life for many African children. Good teaching is reciprocal.

One of my life’s greatest joys was hearing that Lwahira and Jean Pierre had continued training youth workers while I was in the States on furlough. Over twenty-five years later—and after a decade of war and instability—youth work in Eastern Congo is still being carried out by these two faithful men. I believe this is partially due to the time we spent together out of the classroom investing in each other. I marvel at how different we were in terms of language, culture, and economics, yet how intimate our bonds of friendship became.

Teaching as a Professor
Since 1994, I have been teaching intercultural studies at Lincoln Christian University (LCU). The responsibilities page of my annual contract includes two sections on teaching: the first lists the courses for which I am responsible each semester; the second lists my teaching responsibilities outside the classroom, including academic advising, leading a spiritual formation group of students, and conducting a service week off campus during the spring semester.

I resonate with a statement made last year by our newly-installed provost, the man ultimately in charge of the curriculum for all three schools under the university umbrella. He said, “The curriculum is not a list of courses—it is the faculty itself!” Referring to the results of a longitudinal study of college dropouts, Alexander Astin writes, “Frequent interaction with faculty is more strongly related to satisfaction with college than any other type of involvement or, indeed, any other student or institutional characteristic” (1999, 525).

Experience-based Learning
Much has been written about the value of “experience-based learning” or “service learning” in higher education. According to Thomas Ehrlich, the basic theory of service learning can be traced back to philosopher John Dewey, who believed interaction of knowledge and skills with experience was the key to learning. 

According to Ehrlich, “Students learn best not by reading the Great Books in a closed room, but by opening the doors and windows of experience” (Jacoby and Associates 1996, Foreword). Experiential education requires students to engage in intentional out-of-classroom activities that promote student learning and development and address human and community needs. An important key to this approach is helping students reflect and process their real-world experiences.

For several years, LCU has required all undergraduate students to be involved in an annual week-long service trip as part of the regular curriculum; most are faculty-led trips. I have wonderful memories from leading trips to the Philippines, Mexico, Poland, Quebec, and inner-city St. Louis. I have loved watching “learning light bulbs” turn on for students, whether during or after the trip. Students graduate having experienced four or five different contexts of service, and most rate these trips as highlights of their education.

Classroom teaching is extremely important and should be done with scholarship and excellence; however, as I reflect on experiences with my students over the last seventeen years, I see potential for a deeper level of learning that is transformational in the lives of students.
It’s one thing to teach about engaging at-risk youth; it’s another to have your students watch you play soccer with a troubled kid with purple hair, tattoos, and piercings at a youth drop-in center. It’s one thing to use Swahili as a “laboratory language” in a language acquisition class; it’s another to speak Swahili to recent immigrants from the Congo while serving at a food bank. It’s one thing to teach about racism and injustice; it’s another to walk with students through the gas chambers and barracks of a concentration camp in Poland. 

Much has also been written on the value of “mentoring,” especially in the fields of business and higher education. By definition, mentors have more life experience and life skills than those they are mentoring, so they serve as role models, providing encouragement, counsel, and wisdom. Good mentors are sounding boards, helping the mentee process what he or she is learning.

Besides the annual service week, LCU also requires students to do a field-based internship in their major. Every intern is assigned a faculty mentor, as well as a field mentor. I have been the faculty mentor for numerous intercultural studies students over the years. I have also had the privilege of participating on the field for internships in England, Ghana, Niger, and the Czech Republic. It is hard to overstate the educational value of these internships. It’s one thing to give a class lecture about the Muslim world—it’s another to be sitting with my students in Niger, West Africa, talking to someone about Jesus who has never before heard his name. 

One student shared this about his internship: “Now I know why those non-traditional, older students sit in the front row and take notes!” His time in the real world motivated him to study harder in the classroom. Unfortunately, the world of academia has often separated itself from the experience-based education associated with “vocational/technical” schools. 

Simple Ideas for Interaction

Below are a few ideas for developing the student-teacher relationship outside of the classroom.

Field trips. If the budget allows, youth ministers, missionaries, and professors should consider taking their students on field trips to enhance learning. I have taken my urban youth ministry class on trips to inner-city Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis and witnessed how books, lectures, and films come alive for students in those contexts. It’s one thing to pray before class starts—it’s another to pray over the city of Chicago after spending the day interacting with inner-city ministries.

Table fellowship. At the university, it takes courage to ask students if you can sit at their table. They’ll be surprised—but mostly impressed and appreciative. It’s ironic when you consider how intimidated professors are by students and how intimidated students are by professors outside the classroom. And yet the student you befriend in the cafeteria may listen better and get more out of the class lecture you give later that day. A minister or missionary may be surprised how simple table fellowship over lunch changes attitudes and enhances learning receptivity.

Prayer and pastoral care. Many professors see academic advising as an added burden to their already full plate, but it doesn’t take much time to ask a student for a simple personal prayer request before he or she leaves your office. Ministers and missionaries can also make it a regular practice to pause in the midst of hectic days to take time to pray for someone they are trying to influence for Christ. 

Several years ago, I received a thank-you note from a student who was graduating. He was not in my program and I had not spent much time with him, but he shared that he will never forget the day I popped into his dorm room and asked how he was doing. A short pastoral call may deeply influence the life of a student. An essential quality of a good teacher is his or her ability to like students. Small, intentional gestures of interaction will communicate your interest in students. 

(Caution: Ministers, missionaries, and professors can’t become close to every student. They must have wisdom to create healthy boundaries. Burnt-out teachers or mentor are no good to anyone.) Realizing that it is hard for many students and professors to schedule personal interaction time, my teaching colleague and I created a weekly “hang out” with students in the intercultural studies program; we call it “family time.”  Students can relax and talk with their professors in a group setting. Sometimes, we have no agenda other than hanging out; other times, we choose a relevant topic to discuss.

Every teacher must find a way to balance classroom preparation with out-of-class time with students. If he or she sees that his or her ultimate goal of effective teaching is directly linked to interaction with students outside the classroom, the teacher will find more ways to do this intentionally. Your most memorable lessons will not likely be taught in a classroom.

Biblical Precedents
Of course, all the recent talk about mentoring and experience-based learning is exemplified in the methodology of Jesus, the master teacher, and his relationship with the disciples. Following the Rabbinic tradition, they “did life together” for three years. Eugene Peterson says, “A disciple is a learner not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God, but skills of faith” (1980, 13). 

Recently, I reread every reference to Timothy in the New Testament, focusing on the dynamics of his relationship with his teacher/mentor, Paul. They did everything together—traveling, preaching, teaching, making tents, going to jail, facing angry opposition, etc. I noticed new details—like in Colossians, where the letter states it is from Paul and Timothy, and then in 1 Timothy 1:3, where it says “we always thank God when we pray for you” (emphasis mine).

I picture Paul and Timothy on their knees praying together. Paul was not content in teaching Timothy about the concept of prayer—they experienced prayer together! He was able to challenge Timothy to set an example for other believers in speech, life, love, faith, and purity (1 Tim. 4:12) because he had first done that for Timothy in the context of their own relationship. 

Undoubtedly, Timothy heard hundreds of speeches, lectures, and sermons from his mentor; however, scripture hints at an amazing intimate and influential relationship between the teacher and student. They bridged a generation gap and an ethnic/cultural gap (Timothy being part Jew and part Greek), and Timothy ultimately became Paul’s dear and true son in the faith (1 Tim. 1:2 and 2 Tim. 1:2). Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:2 touch four generations: “…and the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” Relational teaching has ripple effects.

Becoming a Student Again   
While teaching as a full-time professor, I have also recently become a student again in a rigorous PhD program. It has been a privilege to study with world-class professors and experience things from the other side of the lectern. I have been challenged by excellent lectures, class presentations, and discussions. But I have to admit that my favorite times are when the professor announces he has brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from home and would love to eat lunch with any student who wants to join him in the cafeteria. Henri Nouwen suggests, “Perhaps no teacher can be a true teacher unless he is also to a certain degree a friend” (1971, 11)

Astin, Alexander W. 1999. “Student Involvement: A Developmental Theory for Higher Education.” Journal of College Student Development 40(5):518-529.

Brookfield, Stephen D. 2006. The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ehrlich, Thomas. 1995. “Taking Service Seriously.” American Association of Higher Education Bulletin 47(7):8-10.

Jacoby, Barbara and Associates. 1996. Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 1971. Creative Ministry. New York: Doubleday.

Palmer, Parker J. 2007. The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Peterson, Eugene H. 1980. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.


Mike Nichols is professor of intercultural studies at Lincoln Christian University in Lincoln, Illinois. From 1983 to 1993 he was a missionary to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with ACM International. Mike is a doctoral student in the intercultural studies program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 46-51. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.



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