The Parable of the Office Hours
© 26 Aug 2018 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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A somewhat lengthy parable about communication with deity.


As you may have noticed, I have removed posting herein from my daily routine; I found I wanted the time for other purposes. But I wrote a parable for a talk I gave in church today, and thought it would do no harm to replicate it here.

The Parable of the Teacher’s Office

Once upon a time there was a very skilled teacher, a master teacher, one who had more success than any other. She always knew each of her students personally, and had very high goals for them. In class she would teach them clearly and well, but also with great depth and density of presentation, so that there was always more than they originally noticed and value in revisiting her lessons. But her true genius lay in her assignments. They were complex and nuanced and simple and elegant and ever so challenging and ever so doable. Some were given to all of the students, and some were customized, different for each one, but each was carefully tuned to help each student learn.

Each class, this teacher would make a promise. “‍As you are working on the class material, both assignments and study,‍” she would say, “‍I invite you to come visit me in my office. I know the material, but more importantly I know how to help you know the material. Together, we can open new doors of knowledge and settle your every question.‍” Many students took her up on this, and many students did not, as students are not always what even their best teachers want them to be; but she never ceased to make the offer.

Now, when a student visited this teacher in her office, they were often surprised by how she reacted to their questions. Sometimes they would ask a question and she would answer it, clearly and directly; but far more often she would not.

She might smile and say, “‍That’s a great question. What’s the answer?‍”

And the student would often reply, “‍I don’t know. That’s why I asked you.‍”

And she would reply “‍I know the answer, of course, but I believe you do too, or at least you can. What might you do to figure it out?‍”

Many students found this response unsatisfying. Some, who lacked the larger vision of the teacher and saw only the impossible assignment they could so easily complete if only the teacher would answer the hard question for them, would depart in a huff and tell their friends, “‍you can talk to the teacher but she doesn’t really answer.‍” Some of these students would struggle through the assignments as best they could on their own, falling ever further behind and looking with fear at the final exam to come; others would give up even trying, frustrated that they were unable to get the guidance they felt the needed.

When asked by one or another of these students why she did not answer their questions, the teacher would often merely re-invite them to spend time in her office; but sometimes she would explain. The explanations varied by individual, but two explanations were particularly common:

  1. “‍Sometimes when a child is ill,‍” she would say, "a swollen throat makes swallowing liquids painful. The child’s mother asking the child to drink is seen by the child as torture, adding pain to pain. But the mother understands that without drinking the child will add dehydration to illness, which can even lead to death. The child’s goal is present comfort, and the cup appears an obstacle; but the mother’s goal is future health, and the cup appears the only way.

    “‍Like the child and the mother, you and I have different goals. Your goal is to get past your assignments and out the other side with an A. My goal is to get you into the assignments and out the other side with understanding. Just as the child cannot understand dehydration and the importance of drinking, you are failing to see why my giving you the answers you ask for will lead you to an unpleasant future; but I can, and I will no more give in than will a loving mother let her child die of dehydration.‍”

  2. “‍You’re asking me why you are not getting personalized instruction is symptomatic of the reason. You feel entitled and proud. If I were to give you a personalized lesson, you would feel that it meant you were somehow special and important, and that sense of self-importance would get in the way of your learning and, if you decided to boast about it, also the learning of your fellow students. Until you are humble enough to accept instruction as correction and not compliment, to act on requests that seem to you lame was well as those that seem important, I’m afraid that my teaching you one-on-one would hurt, rather than help, your learning.‍”

Many students, however, would not rebel when the teacher did not give a direct answer, but instead respond to the teacher with an idea for how they might answer their own question, and with a smile and nod from the teacher find themselves with more work than they came in with. But not going away with more work; the teacher welcomed them to stay, to work in her presence. There was comfort there, seeing her, hearing her murmurs of encouragement, being able to voice frustrations to her when the answer was not coming out they way they thought it would and share joy with her when new understanding dawned and previously hard problems became easy.

The best students this teacher had were those who took up the habit of spending every day in her office, working through not only the problems she gave them but also all of their other classes’ work. These students came to learn things about their teacher that were never hidden, but that took familiarity to notice.

They would start to notice how in lectures she would sometimes shift her gaze to one student or another, indicating that the point she was making then, a point she was making to everyone and had made in several previous lectures as well—that this point was a key to that particular student answering a question the student had been struggling to solve.

They would start to notice that she did not interact with all of her students who came to her office the same. Some of them she would coo and murmur comfort to, but without much content; others she would interrupt with new problems to add to their plate; and still others she would explain things to as if in a private lecture all their own. And the really observant ones would notice that those seemingly lucky few who found her very vocal were not all the same, either; some were very advanced and were given material far beyond their peers; others were very behind and were given material their peers already knew; and many were getting both, having learned unequally before they came to her class and needing some hand-holding and some advanced vistas.

Sometimes a group of students who found the teacher to be comforting but rarely very open would corner a few of the students who received a great deal of instruction from her and ask how they did this. Sometimes they’d say “‍I don’t know, it just always is like that for me;‍” or they might describe as best they can how it they have interacted with the teacher. And the other students would very often try to emulate their peers in hopes they would get more instruction in her office as well, but it rarely worked.

Often if a student had been getting little personal instruction early in the term, but was getting a lot now, would say something like “‍I just kept trying to listen as closely as I could and eventually I started to hear her say more than before,‍” and this was true enough, in a way, but not because they got better at hearing but because they kept trying, and thus learning, until they reached a point where their own abilities, combined with the guidance the teacher was giving the entire class, was insufficient for their education and they needed a bit more personal instruction.

But the very best students often give seemingly contradictory advice. “‍Always go to the teacher’s office,‍” they would say. “‍Spend every moment you can there, and ask her about everything.‍” But if asked, “‍does she speak to you a lot?‍” they’d say “‍not very often, not in sentences and so on. But,‍” they would add, “‍her little smiles and nods and frowns sort of magnify your own intelligence; you sort it all out yourself, but are only able to do so because she was there. And every once in a while, she does give a bit of actual advice and saves you from going down really long dead-ends.‍”

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