Essay / Education

Paul Spears, Master Teacher

“Master Teacher” sounds like some kind of superhero, or ninja elder, or cult leader, or maybe the first line of a contemporary praise song. But today Paul Spears won his university’s “Provost Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching,” and if that acclamation from his peers doesn’t qualify him as a Master Teacher, I don’t know what does.

As an associate professor in the Torrey Honors Institute, Paul specializes in not specializing. He is a fearless generalist, working at the undergraduate, general education level across the full range of the humanities: Philosophy, literature, history, theology, and anything else that gets in his way as he relentlessly draws young minds to become educated. He leads students into direct encounter with the greatest books of western civilization.

The basic unit of a Torrey education is a three-hour seminar session in which the tutor never lectures and rarely makes a declarative statement. Instead, he peppers the students with questions, forcing them to reflect deeply on the book they have read, and on their own presuppositions. I estimate that Paul Spears has taught at least 1,250 of these sessions in his ten years at Biola. If Paul asks 25 questions per session (a modest estimate), he has asked more than thirty-one thousand questions of his students during his time as a Torrey tutor. Day in and day out, during semesters and summers, with a great book in his hand and a few students gathered in a circle around him, Paul Spears has been teaching by finding the right questions.

Sometimes a Socratic tutor can hide behind his questions: Sometimes Socrates did. Sometimes a Socratic tutor asks questions because he has nothing to say. But Paul Spears is our shining example of a tutor who asks questions precisely because he has something to teach. After all, he is the author of a dissertation on educational theory, in which he painstakingly traced the effect of the German research University model on American higher education. And he has an important book coming out this year from IVP Academic on the Christian philosophy of education. But Paul Spears doesn’t pontificate on his pet theories, or talk people into accepting his theoretical accounts of the pedagogic process.

Paul Spears is a philosopher, and he has a carefully worked out view of what education is. But he doesn’t bark out his principles and draw attention to them in their theoretical form. Instead, he puts them into practice, works them out in his own classroom behavior, and commends them to his colleagues who can see that what he does, works. The hallmark of Paul Spears’ teaching is that he treats every single student as a valuable, unique person, who is capable of learning and understanding because, because each of them is in the image of God. That kind of consistent intellectual love of students is hard for any college professor to sustain, but it’s especially hard for an educational philosopher who has thought the theory out to the finest of fine points. Paul’s PhD and his publications have not led him to increased abstraction, but into greater reality in his daily engagement with real students.

Paul brings everything he has to the classroom, he treats students with respect, and he is on fire (a long, slow burn) to make learning happen. He is always available to talk with colleagues about how to teach; he has invested himself in program design and curriculum oversight and administrative process, all in the interest of increasing the odds on students learning lessons that will shape their character, direct their lives, and change their worlds.

Paul took to his life work like he was made for it, because he was. I’d call him a natural teacher, but after a PhD in education and more than 31,000 questions, that would be a backhanded compliment. We’d better stick with the title, Master Teacher.

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