Teaching is a world of its own: a place only the most courageous dare to tread. For in this strange world of service and instruction, one opens himself up to seeing things he never imagined and exposing himself in ways he never thought he would.
When I decided to move to Charlotte to attend seminary, I thought the only teaching I’d be doing was Bible teaching in my homiletics courses; and after that, the pulpit. Then this job teaching 9th grade history and literature opened up, and as a way to pay my living expenses, I took the job. And it excited me. Having a bachelor’s degree in literature, and having enjoyed doing youth ministry at my church for years, I thought it was the perfect job to help me get through seminary and keep me on my intellectual toes. I figured I had plenty to offer my class with my knowledge of literature and my love of teaching, but I didn’t realize that I’d be offering far more than literary interpretation and historical facts–and that this class of 14 9th graders would have a lot to offer me as well.
It hasn’t taken me long to realize that the classroom is a magical place. Like Mary Poppins’ bag, far more is drawn out of it than one ever thought possible. It’s a place where sorrow, anxiety, conflict, failure, success, joy, laughter, friendship, repentance, and growth all coalesce into a glorious microcosm of the human pilgrimage through life. It’s where saints are formed and sinners find their playground. It’s where a person’s greatest insecurities are rubbed raw. It’s where student #3 becomes a name carrying a broken past and a fuzzy future. It’s where every primal survival instinct comes out for all to see.
I anticipated that these 5 months would be spent primarily staring at homework assignments and grade reports; instead, I’ve gazed at eager eyes and open hearts, and had the opportunity to walk with these kids through some of the most important life lessons: from belligerent students who need a lesson in humility, to crying students who just need to know their world isn’t collapsing, to home-wrecked students who need to know that they don’t have to be perfect, to insecure students who need that encouraging word that their grades don’t define them, to lazy students who need to know that working heartily unto the Lord is far more important than a B-average.
And as I’ve had the opportunity to make use of these moments to teach them life-truths far more valuable than the name of the 1st Roman emperor, I’ve started to understand why teachers are some of the most important, life-defining figures in one’s life. A good teacher can change a person’s whole future and deeply affect their very person, guiding them into truth and righteousness and challenging them to grow in character and love; he can lead a sinner to become a saint, lead the shy to confidence, the proud to humility, the foolish to wisdom. And a bad teacher can let go of those opportunities to instruct; or worse, he can lead the student astray or take advantage of him. And so from week to week, I swing from deep confidence and excitement for how I get to influence these kids, to deep terror as I understand the gravity of such a role. And the only thing I can do is constantly come before the Lord and confess to Him my deep inadequacy. Who can bear such a responsibility without His power and guidance?
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I’ve now gotten into the habit of always looking for opportunities to go beyond the academic material and engage their hearts–whether it’s through themes in the material we’re discussing, or through circumstances that arise during the course of the day. At the beginning of this semester, I gave them a review quiz of the material we had covered at the end of last semester. It was one essay question: and they all bombed it. But instead of turning it back to them and chastising them for their failure, I decided to make it into an object lesson of sorts.
I wrote my own answer to the essay question and then graded it: I made a 100. 🙂 I came to class with 14 copies of that essay answer and handed each student a copy, withholding from them their own quiz answers. After explaining to them that they all bombed the quiz and had in their hands a perfect quiz answer, I gave them two choices:
1. Take their own quiz back and accept the grade they earned.
2. Take my quiz answer as their own and accept that grade instead.
Most of them didn’t know what to do, and approached my deal with suspicion. Some thought it was a trick. Some felt bad for wanting to take my answer, feeling like they didn’t deserve it (which, of course, they didn’t). Some thought that I wanted them to reject my offer and take what they earned. But after assuring them that it wasn’t a trick and that it would be foolish to take their own quiz instead of the perfect quiz I offered them, all but one of them decided to take option 2. They were so thankful and happy, and it gave me a perfect opportunity to relate that scenario to the Gospel and how Christ has met the perfect moral standard when we have failed miserably, and He has offered up grace instead of what we rightfully earned (His justice). I can only hope that things like this will stick in their minds long after they leave high school.
But even if it doesn’t, I know that it will stick with me. Forcing myself to think of ways to mirror for these kids the grace of God, or what it means to walk with integrity, or the importance of humility, helps me understand it that much better.
And it makes me wonder if I’m the real student in this classroom.
Stay tuned for more to come…