Lessons on Teaching from Prof. Todd Bolen: A Brief Interview

Posted on June 19, 2013

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Todd Bolen is a professor, mentor, and friend — the kind of teacher and advisor I want to be around and be like. In 2002 I took my only class with Todd — History of Ancient Israel — and then toured Israel with him in summer 2005. Both experiences fostered true education: my understanding and my passion multiplied.

From 1996 – 2007 Todd served as Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the Israel Bible Extension of The Master’s College in the Judean Hills near Jerusalem. From 2007 – 2013 he has studied at Dallas Theological Seminary and is now returning to The Master’s College to teach Bible (this time in Southern California). He is the founder, photographer, and online curator of BiblePlaces.com, author of the BiblePlaces blog, and creator of the expansive Pictorial Library of Bible Lands. No series of interviews on teaching would be complete without his insights.

What are your main pedagogical principles?

Teaching for me is primarily about clarity. I think the episode in Nehemiah 8 captures well what a Bible teacher should be aiming for. It says that they gave the meaning of the Scriptures so that the people could understand what was being read. There may have been some language (translation) issues involved there as well, but whatever they did was successful for the people “celebrated with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Neh 8:8, 12).

My efforts in preparation are geared towards getting the subject clear in my head. That often takes a lot of work. I think I am slower to understand than some of my peers. But once I can get my head around something, I feel that I am able to communicate that clearly to others. I rarely use notes when I teach and that’s because the subject is clear in my head.

Another important principle is that of self-discovery. I learn, remember, and understand so much better when I figure things out for myself. I want to give that opportunity to my students. A student will have more passion and conviction about those matters that he has learned in study as opposed to what he has been fed.

I also believe that it’s a sin to be a boring Bible teacher, and the best way to not be boring is to be excited about what you are teaching. If you are genuinely passionate about your subject, that enthusiasm will be contagious. Students who believe the subject is important will work harder and learn more.

What are common weaknesses of young teachers?

I think one of my significant failures was in not preparing students for what’s ahead. I’ve learned that if I tell them that I’m the hardest teacher they’ll ever have, they usually won’t get upset when the class challenges them. My goal is not to be hard; my goal is to teach them the subject in a satisfactory way, but some of them find that more challenging than what they’ve encountered before. I have a similar approach when leading field trips. If I tell them there are no bathrooms on the trail that day, they’re thrilled when we find one. If I did not prepare them appropriately, they would have a different attitude.

How have you developed as a teacher over the years?

I think I understand the Bible and its world better. There are classes I’ve taught that I wish I could re-do because of what I’ve learned since then. My long-time favorite at IBEX was History of Ancient Israel, but because I didn’t know other parts of the Bible as well, I did not communicate the importance of the Davidic covenant as I should have. I think it’s very important for teachers to know the broader context of whatever subject they’re teaching. That’s not easy, especially when new teachers are often scrambling just to get the next lecture ready. But without that they are susceptible to errors. On the other hand, I think it’s important to observe that God uses unworthy teachers all the time and despite failures that make me cringe today, the Lord was gracious to accomplish significant work in the lives of students in those classes.

Thanks, Todd, for your passion, diligence, balance, and abundant common sense. May many more generations of students see the Bible come alive through your ministry.

1. Lessons on Teaching from Dr. Rob Plummer: A Brief Interview
2. Lessons on Teaching from Dr. Abner Chou: A Brief Interview
3. Lessons on Teaching from Prof. Grant Horner: A Brief Interview
4. Lessons on Teaching from Prof. Todd Bolen: A Brief Interview

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