Four years ago, I had a high-quality color photocopy of this pre-Raphaelite painting, The Child Enthroned, pinned to the classroom wall by my desk where I could see it daily. Painted in 1894 by Thomas Cooper Goth, the child it features is actually the painter’s daughter, Phylis. For me this painting beautifully encompassed the value I ascribed to my students.
One of the ways I enthroned my students was to constantly revise my classroom space to better invite them to take ownership of it. Room 4 at Sierra High School wasn’t my space, it was our space. As a woman prepares a room for an adopted child, or families opening their households to refugees, I constantly brainstormed new ways for them to feel welcome and beloved. You see, teaching in a public school happened to be my job, but it was also my calling for that season. It was my full-time ministry that I delighted to serve in. For eight years I followed my savior and did my best to embody Him in an arena marked by the trials and hopes of young people. Here is what I learned.
Teaching is an Invitation to Discovery
For starters, teaching isn’t about the transmission of knowledge. If you believe that you preserve the knowledge and forget about the people as I have unfortunately seen in many higher education circles. What a good teacher does is find ways to invite her pupils to the body of knowledge she has already encountered and taken ownership of. In my case, I invited students into narratives and creating embodied art (English and Theatre). I may have started out teaching these subjects because I nerded out over them (I taught The Hobbit over thirteen times and never tired of it), but I didn’t teach books or acting to keep books and acting important in our future society. I did it because I believed that my students’ lives could be enriched by their ownership and interpretation of stories.
The knowledge itself is just a tool, a fantastic excuse to have daily shared time with students and to invite them into a shared space of discovery. Most of my students had new and varied thoughts on my own on what we read. Even the plays that I wrote for students resulted in their playing characters I created completely differently than I had envisioned them. And this was very good. I wanted to invite them to add to the conversation about the Arts more than I wanted them to remember what I thought. A good teacher welcomes, she invites, and demands the original thoughts of her students and works towards the day when they will no longer need her. She leaves them with the confidence to think and to choose for themselves, and with a conviction that she values them deeply. In large ways and small, a teacher commissions her students to do what she did, to say what they think, to invest in others’ lives, to change the world.
If this isn’t living as Christ did, I don’t know what is.
Teaching is Shared Time
The legal boundary set for sharing the gospel in the state of California is that a student has to initiate the conversation and ask you about your faith. Since you are an authority figure, and your classroom is never meant to be a political rally for your candidacy as the source of all wisdom in life, I agree with this boundary. Yet this verbal limitation was nothing to me because the Spirit testified to my spirit that none could stop me from living out the gospel. One way I did that gave me the greatest pleasure was the shared time I had with my students.
Jesus spoke many things to His disciples about God, while He was with them. When He is preparing to leave, Christ doesn’t say that they know the Father because He talked about Him but “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).
The Church is meant to embody Christ in his absence from the earth, and teachers are lucky because we get to do it for a whole year of our students’ lives. We get to set boundaries and say no so students can feel secure. We get to recognize the hard days when a kid can’t stay awake in class or needs the bathroom pass so they can go sob it out, no questions asked. On these days instead of humiliating, teachers who love Jesus give gentleness, compassion, and a listening ear. We also give this to the student who is words away from cussing us out to our face in front of the class, because the kid who is fiercely angry is still yelling from vulnerability.
I know that Jesus listened to His disciples, whether it is written or not, because He was with them always. Teachers get to sit in this place too. All students, but teens especially, want to tell you what they are thinking now and about the future. Students are working out their own lives with fear and trembling, and many come to you because they have been underestimated, their words dismissed and devalued, their thoughts and feelings silenced by other authorities. Many use their larger life experience to correct and instruct, rather than to hear. A good teacher can be the one who listens and believes in possibilities, who picks out what is beautiful, true, and good in what is said and affirms it. He and she who does this will be placing a confidence in that student, a belief that they can understand the world, which will be greater than any novel or mathematical formula ever taught.
Teaching is Modeling
Jesus is a rabbi. If you want to read a teacher’s prayer, read John 15–17. We long for our students to know Jesus; we pray for this and live for this. But to declare Christ and the fullness of the gospel is not enough, we must model what it looks like in our own lives. Teachers who believe get to be a living testimony to the transformative work of the cross and the Holy Spirit.
We show what abiding looks like, what sinning, confessing, and asking for forgiveness looks like. Teachers show students how to love those who are in conflict with them, how to give themselves to unity with others with opposing ideas, and how to invite others into a shared space. Good teachers never hoard power, but constantly surrender it to others for the joy of seeing what new things will be made.
Christ’s prayer to the Father for His disciples, His thankfulness that He has kept them and His rejoicing over the coming of the Holy Spirit as their Helper is rejoicing in their empowerment. This prayer He prays for His disciples and for us, it is the beginning of the great commission, because He is modeling for His disciples how to ask earnestly for and expect the impossible. He prays that believers would be unified with each other as He is unified with the Father. Jesus, our rabbi, asks for what has only been possible for God, through the coming of the Holy Spirit, to be possible for us. He is believing all things, and hoping all things, as He draws near to the cross where He will endure all things for our sake.
This is the same prayer that I pray for my students, four years after I’ve left teaching to go to seminary. I pray that they may know God, have life in Him, and have it abundantly. I pray that they will ask the Father for the impossible and that He will give it. I pray that they will know the love of God and love one another with that love. And I will not merely pray it, I will also live believing it can be. For if teachers and students do these things, if we imitate Christ thus, how could we help transforming our world?