Teaching: a job where you must constantly be “on.” Yet not just “on,” always one step ahead, because if you’re not, you lose control of the class and find the drum of voices getting steadily louder, and the calm of focus evaporating. A job where you must always be excited about grammar, composition, math, handwriting, spelling, and everything else—because the kids watch you and everything you do. A job where you have to smile and be pleasant even when you’re physically and emotionally exhausted and what you really want to do is sit on the couch with a book, afghan, and cup of tea.
I began teaching 3rd-grade last week. Aside from Sunday school during my senior year of college, I’ve never officially taught anything before. I wasn’t entirely unprepared (many of the people I love most are, or have been, teachers, and I’ve learned much from them merely through conversation over the years), yet there are always things one doesn’t anticipate . . . like being utterly exhausted at the end of the day.
I’m sure a lot of my exhaustion stems from having to do everything for the first time. I’m not in a consistent rhythm yet, though I’m sure I will find one, and spending the whole day with sixteen eight and nine-year-olds can make one just a little weary. In a few weeks when I’ve found my routine I’m sure much of my exhaustion will abate. Though, I am also sure that not all of it will. For here is what I have learned in my first two weeks of teaching: teaching is a constant giving and emptying of self.
Unless you’re a saint or an extremely holy person, emptying yourself for the sake of others is draining. And, as I am drained at the end of every day, I suppose it is logical to say that I am neither.
How do I cultivate these things in children when I’m still trying to cultivate them in myself?
I knew before I began teaching that it would require me to give of myself. But, like all things, I didn’t know the truth of this until I began. My first day I was nervous, but not for the normal reasons. I wasn’t nervous to stand in front of a class and speak nor of the unannounced visits from the headmaster to my classroom. I wasn’t even nervous about getting angry e-mails from parents because their child made a bad grade. No, those would be easy nerves to get over.
I was nervous because I looked at those sixteen children with their wide eyes and sweet faces and saw myself holding their souls in my hand for the next year.
Their souls, whether I am a good teacher or a bad one, will be shaped. That is the scary part. I am called to teach these children to love what is good and spurn that which is base, to see the beautiful and adopt it, to search for truth and dwell in it. That’s a high calling. Cultivate the moral imagination through story, cultivate wisdom, and virtue . . . How do I cultivate these things in children when I’m still trying to cultivate them in myself?
I don’t yet know the best way to teach grammar or math, nor the best way to deal with students in class who don’t pay attention because they’re always talking (I have several of those), but I do know that I’m already in love with these kids. I know that I love their sweet smiles, their funny laughs, and even their never ending stories that constantly interrupt lessons. I love it when they get excited to read stories, to hear poetry, and to weed our little garden plots. (One of my kids is so excited to start planting that he ran up to me during lunch after eating a plum and begged me to let him plant the seed in the ground. He was thrilled when I said he could, and his smile made my day.) I love it when I ask for a volunteer to help me and they all raise their hands and bounce in their seats. I love it when they shyly walk in the classroom at the beginning of the day and bring me flowers, and when I walk back to my desk to find a note there waiting for me with a huge heart and the words saying “I love you.” (Mind you, this note was written as I was teaching a lesson and, therefore, I can safely assume that that student was probably not paying very good attention. But I love it all the same.)
I know too that because I love them I will be sad when they are sad, and I will rejoice when they are happy. One of the little boys in my class didn’t make any mistakes on his math sheet and he was so excited he ran to tell his mom who was in the next room. His whole face lit up in a huge smile and I wanted to scoop him into a hug. Yet, at the same time, a few of my students suffer from difficult family life at home, and my heart aches to know that such young children have already experienced much brokenness and grief.
Teaching is hard, it’s scary. I’m scared to be the adult those kids are around the most—to be the adult that, for seven hours out of the day, they are watching. The Jesus prayer is ever on my lips as I realize how much these children watch and look up to me: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
In a recent post in this same space entitled “When Your Students Do Not Get Better”, Joshua Gibbs writes that all we can do as teachers is present the truth to our students in love and pray that God will do the rest. He quotes Paul who writes:
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.”
Gibbs goes on to write, “Never mind success. Never mind growth. Never mind change. Satan will accuse you of accomplishing nothing. He will accuse your piety and labor of being a waste. However, your portion is to pray and hope to Christ for the souls of your students.”
I cannot guarantee the growth of these kids in virtue, I cannot ensure that they will grow to love goodness, truth, and beauty. But I can love them. I can love them through every math lesson and poetry reading, through every recess and bruised knee, and through every reprimand and office visit. I can strive to be an embodiment of all that I desire for them to become, and I can pray without ceasing that God will raise these children unto Himself.