Category Archives: Teaching
Sometimes I think that, as an American, I have an unfortunate life. I have much and those around me do, too. Most of us have roofs over our heads — nice roofs, and walls, and furnishings. And, most have food on the table. Ample food, although, not always healthy food. I live in a country where most people follow the rule of law — we have a government and laws in place. And, I live in a country that hasn’t seen combat on its soil for decades. I feel safe leaving my home and carrying out the business of my days. I have civil rights, freedom of religion, and the right to speak and write freely.
So with all those blessings, how could I believe I live an unfortunate life? While I have all the good — a home and food, a government, a country in which I have rights and privileges–I also have so much isolation. I–we, as Americans–might live in busy cities and share our homes with our families. But we tend to live in isolation from others because we fear authenticity–we fear being open and candid and vulnerable with others. And, we often don’t make the time to share in the lives of others in a meaningful way.
I become acutely aware of this every fall–when school starts. I teach in a demanding graduate program. I’ve sat where my students now sit. I stand now on the other side of the podium–in the front of the class. And, every year, I see the same thing: students, sitting upright in their seats. Game faces on. Trying to show, on the outside, that they are smart, intelligent, articulate, and successful. That they understand every word, concept, doctrine, and theory they are learning. That they are confident they will find success in school and beyond. That life is a bowl of cherries.
But I know better. They show the game faces–the faces we show the world, even when our lives are in crisis. I know this because I sat where they sat, game face on while I juggled family, marriage, and my mother’s terminal cancer. I sat there with my game face on while my teachers and classmates were oblivious to how close I sat to having everything fall down around me. I know this also because every year for the past eight years a few students come into my office, close the door and tell me. The stress of school, the pressure to do well, the events of life ongoing while they are trying desperately to stay on top of their studies seems too much to bear. The game faces come off and I see the individual’s heart — their true self. I see authenticity.
The rows of students sitting upright in class–and for that matter, the rows of people sitting upright around me in pews on Sunday–remind me that we are a broken people. But, because our worlds don’t look broken, we feel isolated. We see a world and reflect a world that looks great on the surface. But, when we look beyond the surface, we have broken relationships–shallow, meaningless or hurtful relationships–pain, crisis, loss, fears. True suffering. And we feel absolutely alone at times.
That is why I believe I live an unfortunate life, and that many Americans live unfortunate lives. The facade that life is good, the privilege of living in a country filled with affluence and rights and privileges and opportunities push us toward isolation–encourage us to put on our game faces.
I need authenticity. We, as people in community, desperately need it. We need to take off the game faces — the masks–and make life about building relationships, not about building lives that look good on the surface. We need to engage each other. Embrace each other. And throw off the things in this world that prevent us from doing that.
We might fear rejection or humiliation if we take off our game face. That is a risk. But, when the isolation becomes overwhelming, or when the task of making things look okay on the surface becomes too much, maybe then the risk will be worth it. And. maybe then we’ll find the lives that Christ wants for us. Lives that allow His light to shine, even in the darkness. Lives filled with hope and joy and love and grace.
Graduation events begin today. Parents flying in from out-of-town. Family gatherings. Proud moments for children, parents, grandparents. This is a big day.
The students, young adults, walk across the stage and receive their graduate degrees. Three or four years of hard work brought them here. They feel a sense of accomplishment, completion, pride. They should.
As a teacher, I am proud too. I see the growth in these students over the course of their time here. From struggles and new beginnings — to confidence and moving on to another new beginning. They embark now on new careers.
The teacher is left behind. Students move on. I find I am reflective, melancholic, about sending these students off. Pleased for them. Sad for me.
They have enriched my life. They helped bring out the best in me. They helped me become a better teacher.
And so, I pray from the Psalms for each of these students.
Show them where to walk,
Let them give themselves to you.
Rescue them from their enemies, LORD;
Let them run to you to hide them.
Teach them to do your will,
for you are God.
May your gracious Spirit lead them forward
on a firm footing.
For the glory of your name, O LORD, preserve their lives.
Because of your faithfulness, always bring them out of distress.
In your unfailing love, silence all their enemies
and destroy all their foes,
for they am your servants.
Psalm 143 (modified)
Do you have a teacher who you left behind as you moved on? What about that teacher enriched your life? Do you ever wonder whether you enriched that teacher’s life?
As a teacher, I feel uncomfortable–or at least uneasy or slightly off-balance–in the classroom until I can look in each student’s eyes and call each student by name. I teach some large classes–from 40-85 students. The first day of class, when I enter the classroom, I feel distant and impersonal. In recent years, with laptops open and students sitting in auditorium style rows, I see only eyebrows and foreheads as I gaze toward the back of the room. One of my colleagues calls this “teaching to eyebrows.”
I can’t teach to eyebrows. And so, I learn my students’ names so we can engage in class. I learn them so that when we pass by each other on the campus grounds, we can meet eyes and exchange hellos and engage in conversation. I learn their names so that, hopefully, they know, as individuals, that they matter to me. It is up to me, as the teacher, to take the first steps, to create the atmosphere in the classroom and to enter into relationship with them. It sometimes means that I teach less material as I engage the students more–but, as a brilliant teacher who I know once said, it is better to “teach less, better.” The sacrifice of discarding some materials is worth the opportunity to engage students individually and, ultimately, more deeply.
The teacher’s podium, otherwise, is lonely. I need that relationship with my students. But, I imagine my students need the relationship with me, too. I know students sometimes feel invisible and distant, just as the teachers feel lonely and distant. We need to connect and engage.
I imagine our pastors sometimes feel the same–lonely or distant–looking out on a sea of faces hundreds deep. They don’t have a seating chart like I do. They can’t limit enrollment–nor do they hope to. But, I imagine they feel lonely up there or disconnected from those they teach and lead in prayer. I wonder if Christ felt that way too when He taught to the crowds of thousands.
As our pastor said yesterday, we need to “linger” in relationship and not worry so much about efficiency–not worry so much about getting things done. When I linger in relationship–with Christ and with others–and put aside my “to do list,” I find the peace that Christ offers. I do less–leave a few emails unanswered, a few dishes in the sink, a few weeds in the garden, a few chapters untaught. But, I have peace, the peace Christ offers. The peace the world of efficiency and tasks cannot offer.
I can’t teach to eyebrows. I can’t find Christ or love or community in a “to do” list. Just like I need to “teach less, better,” I need to “linger more, better” in my relationship with Christ and others. There I will find Christ’s peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.“
As a teacher, I sometimes get caught up in “teaching.” Trying to figure out my lesson plans and crafting assignments that will help students learn — learn the materials, learn to think, learn to write, revise, and edit. As part of this planning, I often think about the “professionalism” aspect of their learning, too. Are they aware of how to communicate professionally? Do they know the importance of being punctual? Do they understand that their integrity–their character and reputation–are far more important than what a supervisor may want them to do, or a client they may represent?
Sometimes I get so caught up that I forget that the students need me to remember that they are not just students — but thinking, feeling, spiritual human beings.
Maybe it isn’t so much that I forget. It’s just that I push that aspect of the students off to the side, rather than keep it front and center. I need to love them, not just teach them.
Today, God reminded me.
The students had a first draft of a paper due, for peer review. Two students wrote me in the early morning hours, both in a bit of distress–expressing their frustrations. But between the lines, I could hear not just frustration, but the slipping away of their self-worth and self-confidence.
I added my students to my prayers this morning, but went along my way as usual. But God knew that it was me who needed His grace more than the students.
One of those students stopped by my office to talk later in the day. His face was long and he looked tired. We talked through his paper and his concerns about its structure and content.
Towards the end of the conversation, I saw a sudden flash of life in his face–his eyes lit up and a brief smile crossed his mouth. In that moment, the holy spirit stepped in and flooded the room with compassion. Before I knew it, words were flowing. I paused and something like the following came spilling out of me, “You know [Jason], you need to give yourself more credit than you do. You are really bright. Really capable. You have grown so much as a student and writer this year. This paper will come together and you will be so thrilled with it when you are done. ”
It was a flood of grace. The air in the room lifted and [Jason’s] demeanor changed completely. I felt his spirit change. I saw it in his eyes and in his face and in his movement.
As for me? I felt God’s presence and his grace. Grateful that He knew that this young man needed more than help with his paper. And, grateful that He gave me the opportunity and the words. Grateful for the reminder that I need to keep the whole person (not just the student) and God front and center–not me . . . Even though I might be the one standing in the front of the classroom.