It is often said in the teaching profession that the first year is the hardest and the second is far easier: You have a better idea of what you are doing, of what is expected, and of how to deal with students. As I reflect on the school year thus far, however, I realize that I am learning just as much, if not more, than I did last year. Perhaps the fear and unknown of Year One no longer exists, but I am still a brand new teacher. Here are a few musings from this school year.
1. To teach is to name.
This truth came to me as I was reading A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle. One of the main characters, Meg, must pass various tests to defeat the Ecthroi, the UnNamers. Most of her tests involve naming someone. She discovers that in order to name, she must love. As I read, it struck me that the way in which I teach gives my students a name. Perhaps I should say, the way in which I teach determines the name I give them. As I lead them to truth, I must seek to name them as the Father names them. I must name each student Human, Bearer of the Image of God Most High. I must affirm the reality that they are sinners, bearers of an image bent by sin, in desperate need of love and salvation from God. I must declare their identity as God created them to be and name their destiny to be men and women, ladies and gentlemen, mighty warriors in the kingdom of God. How dare I treat them as any less!
In Walking on Water, L’Engle says, “But we, the creatures, are named, and our names are part of our wholeness. . . . and to be given a name is an act of intimacy as powerful as any act of love.” In order to teach my students rightly, in order to name rightly, I must love. I must love God best of all, and then I must love my students. For only when I love them can I teach them, name them, as image bearers of God.
2. Teaching is an act of emotional sacrifice.
This year, more than ever before, I have felt the intensity of the emotional demands that come with the job of Teacher. A couple months ago, I thought about the story in Plato’s Republic of the philosopher king who climbs out of the cave and beholds the blinding beauty of Truth. In order to lead the people out of bondage to the Truth, the king must climb back down and re-enter their world (to give a loose paraphrase). Christ, being fully God, beholding the dazzling beauty of Truth, embodying Truth himself, became a man and walked with us. He sacrificed on every level imaginable to come be with man and lead him to Truth.
There are many precious things a teacher gives up to serve students—time, mental energy, physical energy, and sometimes sleep. Yet I find that I must also lay my emotions on the altar. I am continually coming alongside my students and, in a sense, supporting them emotionally. People feel. There is no way around it. And, toward my subject matter at least, there is often great emotional aversion: Latin is hard. It takes hard work, and who wants to do something hard?
As their Latin teacher, I must figuratively (and sometimes literally), stand beside them and work through the emotional resistance with them. When they experience a victory, I must celebrate with them. When they fail, I must acknowledge it, but lavishly encourage them nonetheless. When the tears stream down their faces as they experience their inability, whether perceived or real, I must bear it with them so that I may tell them Jesus loves them, and I love them. Loving 70 children and adolescents 30-40 hours a week is hard work. It wearies the soul. Yet I must do it. Jesus did.
3. Teaching requires an iron fist that rules with compassion.
In the gospels, the writers frequently mention Jesus’ compassion. Although I am not Jesus and I never will be Jesus, I bear his image and therefore I ought to imitate him and strive to become like him. If he has compassion on so many people, should not I have compassion on my students? And if Jesus holds everyone to the discipline of the Law, should not I hold my students to the discipline of the same Law? God expects perfection. He must. He is God. Yet he is at the same time overflowing with grace, love, mercy, and compassion. As I stand my ground in the classroom on a matter of discipline or a difficult assignment, everything about me must radiate love and compassion. I must give grace for failure, even when discipline is necessary. I must hold my students (and myself) to the standard of Jesus, while realizing that they (and I) will fail. In everything I say, assign, and do, I must stand with firmness, love, and compassion.
4. As I love my students, I am utterly incapable of giving them what they really need.
Last quarter, I had to chat with one of my middle schoolers after class. This particular student had shed tears during the quiz that day, not an unusual occurrence. During our talk, this precious student opened up parts of his heart that he had not shared with anyone. His was lonely and did not feel God. The burden to perform weighed heavily upon his young shoulders, and he felt very keenly his inability to be perfect.
I was grateful for his honesty, but as I drove home that afternoon, my eyes welled with tears. I realized that I could not give him what he wanted. Only the arms of Jesus could give him the rest and acceptance he so longed for. It was in that moment that I realized how utterly helpless I am. God has called me to love these students, but it is His love that saves. I merely try to point them in the right direction. Often, I fail. I teach in a way that unnames my students. I do not want to sacrifice my emotions. I do not love unconditionally. I do not discipline enough.
Yet in all of my failings, in all of my victories, it is God’s love that they truly need, that they really desire. It is only this love that will transform their souls, break their chains, and give them the name they were created to bear. I may play a small part in God’s plan for their lives, but it is his work that creates whole humans from disordered ones.
In fact, he is naming me too. My repentance and humility should perhaps be even greater than that of my students, for I am God’s agent in their lives. Teaching is no light matter. The souls of children are looking for direction. How will you love them? Where will you lead them? What will you name them? The answers to these questions are of eternal significance.