05/06/2013 02:05 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

What I Learned From a Master Teacher

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My freshman year of college, I bounced up the stairs of Blanchard Hall -- Old Main -- to a corner room on the third floor. There we waited. He entered the classroom in a three piece wool suit (those were days of formality), plunked his briefcase without a word on the desk, turned to the chalkboard (yes, you read that right: chalkboard), and wrote:

panta ischuo en to endunamounti me

He turned to us and asked, "Who knows what this means?" It was Greek to us: a verse from the Bible, the New Testament, which was written in Greek 2,000 years ago. He gave us the reference (Philippians 4:13) and asked whether any of us knew it. The hands of the home-schooled, Christian-schooled, Sunday-schooled kids shot up: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Learning from a master teacher began there. "Can you?" he cajoled us. "Can you pass calculus without studying?" "Or chemistry?" "Can you master anthropology through faith?" Then he suggested another translation, one which the home-schooled, Christian-schooled, Sunday-schooled kids may not have liked very much: "I can face anything through the one who gives me power." Not your typical translation -- but better. More realistic, true to life.

This snippet led us down the chute of learning into a discussion about theories of translation -- in our first 10 minutes of the new school year! There are word-for-word translations: "I can do all things..." Then there are dynamic equivalent translations: "I can face anything." My teacher preferred the latter. (He was right. A Dutch friend uses an expression, "You can't have your goat and cabbage as well." Makes no sense word-for-word in English. We need a dynamic translation to make sense of it: "You can't have your cake and eat it, too.")

My teacher started with a puzzle -- and had us. We were hooked. Sure, in the days ahead we'd stumble over declensions and squirm over prepositions. We'd lose it altogether over participles during the dark days of January. But we knew why we were there. Not just for declensions, prepositions and participles, but to puzzle over how to take ancient words from another culture and make them mean something in ours. We were learning to translate cultures, not just words -- a skill we need every day in our complex world. We were, in fact, learning to question, to wonder, to imagine new world views and not just new words.

I've taught hundreds of classes since that autumn day in Chicago. I never start with a syllabus or course outline. I never begin with classroom expectations. I'm a driving instructor for the mind, but I never, ever lead off with rules of the road, never begin with blinkers and seat belts and oil changes. I tell my students instead where they can go once they drive: the mountains, the movies. What they gain when they take the wheel: independence, dates, loud music and open windows. Once they know that, the nuts and bolts mean something.

Instead of a syllabus, I start off my classes with a puzzle -- always a riddle of sorts -- because I want their guts to twist the way mine did when a master teacher strutted into our classroom and walked right into our lives with discipline disguised as delight, with vocabulary concealed as joie de vivre, with participles hidden in the cloak of puzzles.