After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So, if I, your Teacher and Lord have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13: 12-15).

Jesus is the teacher par excellence. And that is not simply because He is God and knows everything, but it is because He knows His students.  With all due respect to teachers and professors at every level, we have all sat through classes in which we knew the teacher was not connecting with his or her students.  Sometimes a teacher has taught the same material for some many years that he has become so bored of hearing himself speak that he drones on with snooze-inducing lectures. Or sometimes, a teacher is so well educated in her topic, but she just doesn’t know how to “translate” it for first-time learners.

So, what does Jesus do differently and what do we learn from Him?  First, He speaks to His students in a language they can understand.  In other words, He doesn’t just lecture them with data and information. He filters His knowledge through their vocabulary and lived experience. He demonstrates concrete actions (washing feet), He grabs their attention (His washing feet is shocking), He challenges them to practice what they’ve learned (“do what I have done to you”), He establishes a moral framework (you should do this), He asks them if they are understanding the lesson (do you know what I have done?), He confirms them in their growth in knowledge (you are right). And lastly, He leaves them with something they will remember.

Nobody forgot the night Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and nobody forgot that He told them to do this in memory of Him. In fact, 2,000 years later we are still repeating the symbolism liturgically and practically. We are incorporating that same gesture in our care for the sick and in our hospitality to others in one cultural form or another.

Teaching is hard work. It is both art and science, but it is also a charismatic gift freely given by the Holy Spirit. It challenges the teacher to know his or her students as the starting point of education. Teaching in the 21st century, granted, has many differences compared to the 1st century, but students still want to understand, to be challenged, to see their progress, to have a moral compass and to have concrete experiences to remember; that is the exciting part about being a teacher. And when one learns pedagogical methodology from Him who is both Teacher and Lord, then one’s lessons become unforgettable.

—Father Lance Harlow is rector of St. Joseph Cathedral in Burlington.

—Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.