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When Your Students Do Not Get Better

We want to change people. When we make people change, when we bring others into new beliefs, when we persuade others to adopt the habits and practices we have described… we feel our own power. We like to see our opinions become the opinions of others. As we speak, we enjoy seeing our students undergo enlightenment, conviction. We say, “Taste this,” and we love to see others say, “That tastes good.” We hit the play button and say, “Listen to this,” and we love to hear others say, “This is beautiful.” We preach sermons about chastity and prudence and we long to hear the young say, “I will do what you say. I have not done this before, but I will do it now. I will do it now and be joyful instead.”

As teachers, we are embarrassed at the rarity of such moments.

We have taught for many years and we have not often seen students change under our teaching. We have students who are lascivious and selfish at the beginning of the year— and during the year we preach and teach, confess and prostrate, beg and plead, wildly gesticulate and weep over the lives of St. Agatha and St. Anthony— and at the end of the year, the same students are lascivious and selfish. As our students enter the classroom, so they exit.

Our peers have asked, “How should we measure our success?” We are embarrassed by this question, for while our students now know the names of the Stuart line and the dates of Victoria’s reign, not one of them has gone off to preach to the birds. They have not walked to school on their knees. They have not confessed all their sins to their parents. Like ourselves, our students have carried on humdrum. They have not seen us change and we have not seen them change. We have not seen their hearts softened. We cannot say for sure that our students have found peace, joy, hope. We cannot say for sure whether our students feel judged. We have not seen our students follow Christ more or less than last year. On occasion, this or that student falls apart. On occasion, this or that student comes alive. Most of our students merely become a year older, and enjoy the maturity of purpose which comes to most human beings as they undertake greater earthly responsibility. Or else, the dramatic success of one student merely reminds us of the six dozen others who have come under our influence and exited our influence without any great alteration of character.

Change is most often invisible, though. I have told the story for CiRCE once before, but I never tire to tell it:

A priest once told a story about a woman who had been abused and mistreated by her mother when she was young. When she grew up, she was angry at her mother, and that anger and bitterness was making her life miserable. The woman came to the priest and said, “My hatred for my mother is ruining my life. But I don’t want to forgive her. What do I do?” The priest said, “Do you want to want to forgive her?” The woman thought a moment, then said, “No.” The priest said, “Do you want to want to want to forgive her?” The woman considered. “No,” she replied. The priest said, “Do you want to want to want to want to forgive her?” The woman said, “Yes.” The priest said, “God can work with that.”

Change is growth and the mystery of growth occurs deep within the soul, deep under the skin. It is often the case that a good teacher merely helps remove a layer of want from the student’s desire to be good.

In the Autumn, the student knows: “I want to want to want to want to be good.”

In the Summer, the student knows: “I want to want to want to be good.”

Nothing will visibly change for years, for decades. The good teacher sees no change. At the very bottom of a man’s soul, a desire for God burns, though that desire is hidden below regret, shame, lust, competing desires. I do not want to be good. If I wanted to be good, I would be good, for the burden of Christ is light. If I wanted to read my Bible and pray, I would. I have given up making excuses for why I do not. From time to time, though, the priest says something which peels back a layer of my want. An image of St. Anthony brushes back a little doubt. A deeply felt Psalm blows back a bit of dust. Slowly, the Ungit stone emerges from my earthen soul. But teachers change nothing. Teachers grow nothing.

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.

Teachers will be rewarded “according to their own labor,” not according to the growth of their plants. The Apostle’s teaching frees us to consign the future to God, repentance to God, growth to God. Have confidence in God, teach virtue and wisdom and human excellence and the fruits of the Spirit.

Christians do not measure success.

Success is not measured by the month or the year, for we do not know how to measure growth. We do not know the inward struggles of a student’s heart, so we cannot judge our own success. Our portion is to love, to water, to plant. How can we judge if our work is a success? Can we measure the merit of another man’s life? What did Judas Iscariot’s mother think of her boy’s mentor?

Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

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.

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