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Finding Success in the Strain

I ran across a quote recently that has been widely—and falsely—attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” The quote was actually referenced by Roosevelt in his autobiography, but the person he quotes is one Squire Bill Widener, a community servant who lived a rather obscure, but nonetheless valuable, life. This quote has been precisely what I needed to hear as school has begun.

After a faculty meeting last week, I had a teacher express a difficulty to me, one among many that my fellow teachers face, and not one that I had thought much about, unfortunately, in the chaos of trying to make school work right now. This teacher shared with me that, while he has been trying to guide his students appropriately this school year, he has found it challenging because the classroom that he calls his “homeroom” isn’t really his; he doesn’t have ownership of it. Under normal circumstances, he has his own classroom, and students visit him. He is on his own turf. And when they enter, they come as subjects in his domain, and he can be the king of his kingdom. Now, he feels much the opposite: this room is their kingdom throughout the day, and he, a mere visitor from time to time. Combined with all of the schedules and rotations he has to remember and the hurried transitions to make it from class to class on time, he feels a little powerless to establish his authority.

I understand a little bit of what he is feeling. My very first year of teaching—twenty-one years ago, long before Covid was even in the global vocabulary—I was a traveling teacher. I taught part-time that year, instructing three different classes in three different locations each day. I did not even have a cart to call my own. I walked into someone else’s classroom, taught my students, then left, constantly feeling like an outsider and hoping that students would recognize my position as the leader in the classroom despite my apparent lack of place.

This is just one of the many hard things facing teachers right now. I have heard teachers comment that it feels to them like they are first-year teachers this year, even though their resumés demonstrate that they are veterans in the field. We all feel a little out of place, significantly discombobulated.

Just before Roosevelt quotes Widener in his autobiography, he makes the statement that “the greatest happiness is the happiness that comes as a by-product of striving to do what must be done, even though sorrow is met in the doing.” In one of my favorite speeches, Roosevelt begins, “I wish to preach…that highest form of success which comes not to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” In contemplating all of this, I can’t help but think of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The Lord brought this Scripture to my heart as I was praying this morning, and as I read it later in the morning, I noticed a phrase that I tend to skip over rather quickly: “For the sake of Christ…” There is no question that we—I mean educators, here, but we could apply this to society at large, I suppose—are facing weaknesses and hardships, perhaps even insults and persecutions and calamities, too. And it is quite easy to get wrapped up in the immediate cause of all these things, our current pandemic. What is a little more challenging is to remember that I am enduring these things…somehow…for the sake of Christ.

James reminds us that “[n]ot many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Implicit here is that the position of teacher carries with it a sense of authority that is answerable to God alone. As an educator, I know that, and it is a truth I rely on heavily when I find myself faced with an angry parent who wants to challenge me, but this morning it struck me differently. This teacher who feels kingdom-less right now has authority, not because of a place to call his own, but because of a position granted to him by the Lord.

In these challenging times, we educators must remember this first and foremost. The calling to teach does not depend on circumstances that make it easy to do so. What is more, the difficulty that we face in answering that call right now will somehow serve to strengthen our resolve in living out the call. Eventually, as Roosevelt says, we will meet with the ultimate triumph. But we will not experience that triumph because we have classrooms to call our own, where our authority is unquestioned and where we have ultimate domain. We will find triumph because of the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, we who have authority because of the position in which He has placed us.

Right now, we are all doing what we can. My headmaster has said several times in recent days, “Let’s focus on what we can do, not on what we can’t.” What we can do right now is to educate children, to impart to them truth that will lead them to virtue. What we can do is love them and understand that they, too, are trying to make sense of the craziness right now. What we can do is show grace and understanding to others as we all try to navigate these waters together.

To do these things, we must use what we’ve got. If I am truly called to teach, then I must know that God has equipped me to do that work and to do it well. What I have is intellectual knowledge and practical skill that will make that knowledge come alive for students. I commented to someone just this morning that our school is blessed to have some beautiful outdoor spaces that we can use right now. They have always been there, but I have taken them for granted. What else do I have at my disposal as a teacher that I could be using to face this difficult situation?

As we do what we can with what we’ve got, we must learn to do so where we are. We may not be residing in our own little kingdoms anymore. Perhaps we are roaming sovereigns, hoping that the subjects in the foreign lands we are visiting each day will somehow acknowledge our right to rule. But we must never forget that our lack of kingdoms makes us no less kings. That position—with all its rights and responsibilities—is granted to us by the One who rules over all.

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