To Teach as Jesus Taught

By Thomas Turner, Director of Bishop Sullivan Center

"Jesus gives all teachers a good method to use for helping people learn. First, start with the listener’s experience. Second, use the listener’s experience to lead him or her to a deeper or other reality. Third, let him or her figure it out."

“Does your school have a rule that you think is unfair?” When I asked a sixth grade class this question at a Catholic school, nearly all of the kids’ hands flew up.

Their responses included the following: “We can’t play tackle football.” “I don’t like that we can’t wear socks that come up below our ankles.” “I think it’s unfair that only honor-roll students can be on student council. Some of us don’t make the honor roll, but we work just as hard as those on the honor roll. It shouldn’t mean we can’t be on student council.” “We are not allowed to tie our sweatshirts around our waist. Some days start out cold so we wear our sweatshirts, but the weather warms up by afternoon. When we carry our books from classroom to classroom, it gets too hot to wear our sweatshirts. What’s the big deal about tying them around our waist?”

This discussion was part of a series of social justice lessons I teach to sixth-grade students. Social justice is about laws, policies, or systems in our society that are unfair to people, especially to those who live in poverty. Before discussing unjust social rules with a group of children, I want to find out what these children believe is unjust in their own world. Talking about unjust rules in their world makes the transition to talking about unjust rules in the world of the poor a lot easier.

Jesus taught in parables. His parables describe experiences that the average “Joe” at the time could relate to, such as looking for a lost coin, separating sheep from goats, inviting people to a wedding, running low on oil for your lamp, hiring workers, going after a wayward lamb, planting seeds, and building a house. The Gospel of Matthew goes so far to say that Jesus did not say anything to the crowds without using a parable.

Jesus took stories from the lives of the people he taught, and used these stories as a way to teach his audience about a deeper reality. For example, while talking to farmers, he used the image of something they all could relate to — planting seeds. And then he used that image to teach them the different ways that people cultivate the Word of God.

Another interesting aspect of Jesus’ storytelling is that he wanted his listeners to figure out the message on their own. A perfect example is the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” In our Western society, we like direct answers, so a Western teacher would have answered this question with a very clear definition of the word “neighbor.” Jesus, a teacher of the Eastern tradition, told a story. When he finished telling the story, he didn’t explain the meaning of the story to his listeners. Instead, he threw the question back to the person who asked it, “So, which one do you think was neighbor in the story?”

Jesus gives all teachers a good method to use for helping people learn. First, start with the listener’s experience. Second, use the listener’s experience to lead him or her to a deeper or other reality. Third, let him or her figure it out.

After the children talked about the unfair rules in their school, I told them a story about someone who lived in poverty and how laws in our state were adversely affecting her from living a decent life. I then asked the children to tell me how the story of unfair rules in this person’s life was similar to unfair rules in their life. When the students start making the connections on their own, they not only understand injustices intellectually, but emotionally as well. They know what it’s like to feel treated unfairly and can, therefore, empathize with another person’s experience.

Teaching social justice must be aimed at a person’s heart as well as a person’s mind. If a young student can memorize and recite the main principles of Catholic Social Teaching, the principles will soon be forgotten. But, if a young student can feel the injustice that the poor feel, the learning is deeper and more likely to form the student’s attitudes and behaviors in the future.

Using stories as Jesus did is a good way to help people learn and take action in their lives.


Thomas Turner is the author of “That’s Not Fair!” , a curriculum designed to help students (6th grade and up) understand the main themes of Catholic Social Teaching. The program, having been endorsed by Bishop Raymond Boland, Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, includes activities and materials to help students gain a realistic understanding of the poor. The final outcome of “That’s Not Fair!” is to involve students in advocacy on behalf of people who are less fortunate, or who cannot speak on their own behalf.