Teaching is so much more than standards, assessments and grades. So much of what we do centers on helping children. We help them academically, of course, but we also help them emotionally and physically when they are in need. That is why the biblical theme of service comes to mind as relevant to teaching.
How would Jesus respond to all the needs in our classrooms? He wouldn’t tell a sick kid that instructional time is more important than seeing the nurse (something I’m guilty of doing). But I also don’t think he would stop class every time a student asks to get water or go to the bathroom. Jesus would obviously have more insight into the issues students are dealing with at home that are getting in the way of learning. He would know exactly how to solve the problem on the spot or know just the right thing to say.
We can’t actually be Jesus in the classroom, but we can read about what it looks like to serve our students like Him.
Mark 9:33-35 (NIV)
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
Jesus says greatness does not come from accumulation of power or wealth. To Him, greatness means putting everyone else’s needs before your own and serve them. As Christians, we are called to be servants and as educators we have opportunities to serve every day.
You don’t have to work at a church to serve God. Serving children in any way, shape or form is serving God, which is what we are put on this earth to do. So next time you feel like you might snap at the next kid who asks for something not related to your lesson, remember that you have a chance to serve God by serving the kid right in front of you.
Matthew 25:35-40 (NIV)
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
As an urban educator I am constantly seeing the effects of poverty, neglect and abuse on students. It’s easier to see what’s on the surface of anything than what is underneath causing the problem. Even being aware of the rough homes and neighborhoods my students come from and the difficulties that get in the way of learning, it is still easy to think that a student’s main problem is that they are disrespectful or don’t care about their future during the heat of the moment. When I make this mistake it leads to a stern voice when all the student needs is a comforting one, tough love when one needs kindness, and bad grades when the student needs encouragement.
One of the toughest parts of serving students is serving the ones who make you mad, on purpose, repeatedly, just because they can. It’s hard to “turn the other cheek,” as Jesus says to do instead of seeking revenge and justice in Matthew 5:39. I had a girl in my class last year, let’s call her Lisa, that made this extremely difficult. She went out of her way to insult me and drove other students away with her offensive behavior. All I did at the time was tried to have her in my room as little as possible because I felt her demeanor was poisonous to my already troubled learning environment. However, my heart softened toward her after a conversation I had with my principal revealing the transient nature of her family. Lisa and her siblings live in a vicious cycle of seeing their mother beaten by men she brings home and then living on the run to avoid them. Lisa and her brother, who also was a student at my school, were so unwanted by their mother that she drank bottle after bottle of hard liquor while pregnant in an attempt to abort them. Both children are lifelong victims of this abuse. They both change schools multiple times a year and can barely read. Lisa read at a kindergarten reading level in 4th grade and hasn’t been able to qualify for special services due to missing 95 days of school last year alone. The poor girl didn’t have anyone in her life who wanted her. Her defense mechanism was the be so nasty to people that it drove them away before she was able to get to know them before being pulled away to another school.
After that conversation, I decided to change the way I dealt with Lisa. I was determined to make her feel as welcome as possible in my classroom. Maybe she wouldn’t participate in group work, or produce any work at all, but I wanted her to feel wanted. However, I didn’t get much of a chance… Lisa came to my school as a new student in November. It took me until March to learn about her background. She only showed up to school three more days the remainder of the year. During those three days, she was only in my classroom for a total of probably 30 minutes.
If I couldn’t serve her by welcoming her, I decided to serve her in prayer. I prayed for stability in her life, for her to get to school more, and for someone (even if it couldn’t be me) to make her feel more wanted.
At some point I kind of stopped making sure my students felt welcome in the classroom. Sure, I make an effort to say “good morning” to each student as they come in the door, but creating a welcoming environment is so much more. It means making sure every student’s needs are met before learning can begin.
I like to think about it like the “come as you are” approach taken by churches I’ve attended. This looks like many things, but I’ve pulled out three aspects of it that are applicable to creating a welcoming classroom that serves students’ basic needs. As you’ll see, they will need to be tailored to fit your school’s specific rules, but I believe that it is more important that a student feels accepted and comfortable right away than follows the rules right away. The three things from this approach that gets students ready to start learning are: Anyone can come. Look how you want. Respond how you want.
Most churches say anyone can come. They won’t turn you around if you have a sinful past. They won’t show you the door if you are not a believer. They welcome you with open arms, show you where to sit, even where to get a fresh cup of coffee. Schools? You’d better be in the right seat, with the right supplies and ready to learn when the bell rings. Sometimes teachers can be so focused on following the rules that we can forget about the whole child. We tend to forget that not every student comes from a home where it is possible to come to school on time, forget about being prepared. I’ll admit that I’ve come down pretty hard on students when I have to keep getting out pencil after pencil for them.
A Christ-like classroom would allow breathing room for students who can’t always come prepared. Make these students feel welcome by putting accessible supplies out for students who need them. Let them know that there is a spot where they can go when they need something and to put it back so other students who forgot can benefit from it, too. A student who feels more comfortable in your classroom is more likely to respond in their academic efforts, too. Sure, teaching students responsibility and preparedness is important, but those lessons are also more likely to come if they feel at home in the classroom.
Look how you want. Gone are the days of wearing your Sunday’s Best to church. Come as you are means come as you’re comfortable. Jeans and a T-shirt are par for the course at my church. I absolutely hate wearing ties, so I’m very thankful for this. Churches just care that you’re there. If they can get you in a seat, maybe something during the service will make an impact.
“Look how you want” at a school often really means “look how you want while you follow these rules.” I’m not saying students should ignore the dress code, it’s there for a reason. I’m saying that in a Christ-like classroom, make the student feel welcome before jumping on them about his or her clothes. When it is time for students to come into class, some teachers stand by their doors to greet students. Others lurk in the hallway looking for violations like hats or hoods or tank tops with straps that are too skinny. They pounce on these rule-breakers like predator on prey, demanding the violation be corrected immediately. I even had a principal growing up who would walk around the playground before school with a ruler to make sure the required four inches of shorts showed under each girl’s shirt.
I don’t take issue with enforcing rules. I take issue with enforcing the rules before serving the student by fostering a welcoming environment, like Christ would. I learned this lesson the hard way as a brand new teacher. Often the first thing you say to a student sets the tone for the entire day. The first thing I said to one particular young man was to take his hood off his head. I saw the hood because it was on the surface. I did not see the reason he was wearing it underneath: a new haircut that he was not comfortable with, yet. Had I allowed the student to get ready for class and start his work, he may have decided for himself to take it off. Instead, since I was a new teacher, I saw a rule that was being broken and that would not be ignored in my classroom! As you can imagine, this resulted in an ongoing battle throughout the day and reached the point of insubordination that I sent the young man to the office. The office for a hood? Believe it or not, I’ve seen tougher consequences doled out for wearing hoods.
Jesus would have dealt with the situation much differently. It’s safe to say he would not have showed anger toward the student or put up with insubordination all day. I think he would have given the student some time to make the decision for himself. Later, a gentle conversation would have taken place. Now those are two steps that I think any teacher could easily take. No matter the dress code violation, give the student some time to self-correct. Then, instead of dealing with what’s on the surface, try to figure out what’s going on inside. Students know the rules and usually break them for a reason. In a Christ-like classroom, the teacher’s job is to serve the student with caring words instead of making demands.
Churches give people freedom to respond how they feel more comfortable. During worship music, you can sit down, stand up, lift your hands, or not. You can choose to give an offering, or let the tray pass by. You can choose to act on the message, or not. Everyone is different and responds differently. If that weren’t the case, then we’d all be robots. A person can choose not to come to church. A Christian can go his or her entire life attending church every week and not responding. It’s their choice – and so are the consequences.
Shouldn’t a classroom have the same consequences? Students make choices about when they do their work, where they do their work and how they do their work every day. There is no need to come down harshly on students for this when the consequences are natural: failing grades, calls home, loss of privileges. There is no reason for harsh words toward the student on top of that.
Since I can’t go home with my students or do much to change the decisions made by their parents, I need God’s help to help them. All the ways I fall short can be filled in by God, if it is His will, I just need to ask for it. If you’ve ever felt helpless with a student, the good news is that you don’t have to find the answer yourself. God will help if you ask! He can give you the wisdom, energy and words to serve you students.
Steps toward a Christ-Like Classroom:
- Put your students needs before your own.
- Take a “come as you are” approach to your students.
- Serve in prayer. You can’t solve all your students’ problems, but HE can.