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My Greatest Teaching Failure that Became My Best Teaching Moment

Blog Series: Embodied Teaching
December 13, 2023
Tags: embodied teaching   |   Failure   |   Roots   |   Silence   |   Together

My first year at Fuller Theological Seminary, teaching Introduction to Black Theology, I failed myself and my students. I opened the class with a twenty-one minute clip of the most brutal scene  from the television mini-series Roots, which aired in January of 1977. The clip showed Kunta Kinte, brutally beaten with a whip, being hung from a post while other Africans were made to watch. He was beaten near to death and made to renounce his African name and refer to himself as Toby. With every lash of the whip the students squirmed in their seats. The lights were out in the room, I knew something was happening but I couldn’t see, literally and figuratively. 

When I cut the lights on after the clip had played, the students were crying. One student got up and ran out of the room, wailing. The clip had traumatized my students. The students were not prepared for the clip. I had not expected this response. I had not prepared them. They were a mess. The classroom was in disarray and I was paralyzed.

I was not prepared to handle this level of emotion. I stood in front of the class stunned, and feeling like an incompetent professor. How did I allow this to happen? Why didn’t I know better and do better? What now? What do I do? I don’t know. I stood helpless, in silence as the students wept, wiped their eyes, sniffled and sat. Sat, still yet squirming, and I couldn’t move. I looked at them, with no direction or leadership to offer.

No words of comfort.

No instruction.

We sat together.

As we set listening to the sounds of our emotions, there was an eerie feeling that came over the room. A feeling I couldn’t name. It was in the silence that we found our way. We wept together in this moment. This moment, pregnant with failure, birthed a new beginning. Not the beginning for the class I had anticipated, but something else. We sat in that moment, talked about our feelings. We felt in that moment and it opened a door. A door I didn’t see and could not predict. 

The door was a new opening to what teaching could be. Teaching could be emotional. The door of the classroom as a space of embodied experiences. Students and professors gather in the sacred space of the classroom not to be taught, but to experience the presence of the Spirit. The classroom is not just a place we experience in our minds. It is a space to be embodied, to be felt in our hearts, our emotions, our cries, our tears our love. Our love for those whose stories we revisit that shape our own.

This is my story; a story I pray I never forget.

What is your story of failure?

A failure that led to a breakthrough. 


Ralph Basui Watkins

About Ralph Basui Watkins

Ralph Watkins is the Peachtree Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Seminary. His work focuses on building bridges between young adults and the church in order to develop future leaders for the twenty-first century church who work for justice. As a scholar, professional photographer, documentarian, pastor, sought after speaker and workshop leader Dr. Watkins seeks to help the churches live into the new networked world. He is known for being a leader in teaching with digital media.

With over 20 years of pastoral, teaching, and administrative experience, Watkins is an active teaching scholar with over 250 publications and conference presentations to his credit. He is the author of The Future of the African American Church (co-authored with Justin West) (2014), Hip-Hop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and the Rhyme (2011), Leading Your African American Church Through Pastoral Transition (2010), From Jay-Z to Jesus: Reaching and Teaching Young Adults in the Black Church (co-authored with Benjamin Stephens) (2008), The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation (2007), and I Ain’t Afraid to Speak My Mind (2003). He is presently working on his next multimedia project Stratline: My Atlanta.

Dr. Watkins is television producer and documentarian. His show Talk it Out with Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins was one of the top rated show on the Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasting network for over four years. He is also the producer / director, cameraman and editor of three full length television feature documentaries: She Is The Pastor (2012) and Our Journey to Palestine: A Story of the 43rd Delegation of Interfaith Peace Builders (2013) and Africana Theology and the Roots of Our Faith: A Journey Through Egypt (2018). Dr. Watkins’s has had two solo photography shows and his photographs have been published in numerous publications.

In recent years, Watkins has received an artist in residence at the Velvet Note and St. James Live, both nationally recognized jazz clubs. He has received Governor’s Teaching Fellowship, Lilly Teaching Fellowship, Fulbright Hayes Fellowship for study in Ghana, a Wabash Teaching Fellowship, and various awards and grants to study the African roots of African American theology in Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Ghana.

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