He Wants You to Walk the Walk
I’ve been struggling with how to write this chapter since I thought of the idea for this book. The question has probably been on your mind since you saw the title, or maybe since you started teaching. How can we be Christ-like in the classroom if we can’t talk about Him?
My simple answer is this: If God called you to teach, if He guided you through college, answered your prayers in your job search, and He Himself placed you in a public school, then He knows the rules you have to play by to remain where He wants you.
He knows about the separation of church and state in this country. He knows schools are funded by the state. He knows you would lose your job if you preached the gospel and did altar calls in your classroom. The point is, He didn’t call you to talk the talk. He put you where you are to walk the walk!
If God wanted you to preach, you’d be a preacher. There are so many other ways to further His Kingdom. Now there are definitely parts of the New Testament where Jesus preached where he was not wanted and stood up to those with earthly authority. I’m not saying never take a stand for your faith. I’m not saying to hide it. I’m just trying to make the point that if you don’t follow the rules of your district than you won’t have a classroom. If you don’t have a classroom then do you have the ministry and purpose God wants for you?
Jesus did a lot during his time on earth that did not involve preaching His message, but rather prepared people to accept His message. That’s what we can do as teachers: prepare. Think of it like a church doing a community service. It might be serving dinner at a soup kitchen, cleaning up around town or providing Christmas gifts to those in need. I am proud to say that my church has a strong presence in our community because it puts together the 4th of July Parade, fireworks and an Easter egg hunt. Whatever it is, these things get the name of the church out there, but not the gospel. People in the community see the church putting on great family events, free of charge, to fill a need in the community, not to save souls. However, they prepare people in the community to receive His message. Hearts are softened toward Christians and churches when the people who represent them are serving their community. My church, and many others, do these things because Jesus did them first. In fact, there is a lot that Jesus did and said on earth that any public school teacher could too.
The first one I’d like to discuss is Jesus resisting temptation because these events happened right before He started preaching to the masses and the timing certainly impacted the rest of His time on earth.
Matthew chapter 4 tells the story of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness. For 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus fasted, as led by the spirit. The purpose of this fast was to prepare Him for what was to come by drawing Him closer to God. During that time, the devil tempted Jesus three times to make stones into bread to eat, to jump off the temple in Jerusalem so Angels would save Him, and finally to be granted power by bowing down to the devil himself.
Though the temptations public school teachers face are much smaller and different, we are still tempted. So we can still learn from how Jesus resisted temptation and apply it to our work. We are tempted in many ways as educators, big and small. You may find the idea of falling to some of these temptations appalling, but it happens all the time.
I myself was tempted when I started my new job two years ago. I fell to the temptation of taking the easy way out by using as much pre-packaged curriculum as I could when I started in a school district that had those resources after starting out my career in a charter school where I made everything that I used for three years. I believed I had landed a much easier job. Why waste time planning when someone had already done the work for me? Why map out my weeks and standards if I could just follow what the curriculum guide said to do? So I fell in line with it. I printed out the worksheets, talked about a story we would be reading or a skill we would be using, and let the class loose. Looking back, the only reason it wasn’t a complete disaster is because that’s what a lot of the students were used to: Read a story, answer questions straight out of the book, turn in, repeat. No thinking required on my end, just copy, explain, repeat. But there was no thinking on the students’ end, either! Students who started behind in reading were falling further behind. I let them work in their books at their own pace and a couple weeks in I realized more than a few students hadn’t completed any work at all! They were playing the game, looking busy, not misbehaving, and going unnoticed. I probably don’t have to say anymore. You get the picture. No one was learning and my class was boring. It wasn’t the right thing to do for any student’s success and changes needed to be made immediately. I was taking these shortcuts because I was tempted by laziness.
Teachers are human, so there are countless ways to be tempted. It may be that you’re doing something in your classroom because it makes you look good, but may not be what your students need. Some are tempted by jealousy to have their students do something that looks better than what is being done down the hall. I work in a district where educators have lost jobs, been fined and even gone to jail for rigging data that made themselves look better. Another area where teachers are easily tempted is gossip. It’s hard to resist getting the dirt on someone behind the closed teacher’s lounge doors.
My point is not to accuse or make teachers seem immoral – everyone is tempted by these things. However, we are called to a higher standard as educators because we are supposed to be role models. We are called to the highest standard because of our faith. Yet, even someone as seemingly innocent as a kindergarten teacher works in a minefield of temptation. Take a look at how Jesus responded to different temptations the devil threw at him in this famous biblical wilderness scene.
(Desolate desert landscape during sandstorm.)
Devil: If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.
Jesus: No! The scriptures say, “People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
(Later, on the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem.)
Devil: If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the scriptures say “He will order His angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with your hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.
Jesus: The scriptures also say “you must not test the Lord your God.”
(Later, at the top of a high peak above all the kingdoms of the world.)
Devil: I will give it all to you if you will kneel down and worship me.
Jesus: Get out of here, Satan. For the scriptures say “you must worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.”
(Devil is banished. Angels tend to Jesus.)
First, we observe that Jesus never gave in. Who would have ever found out if he ate a little loaf of bread? Well, He has the same audience as we do when no one is looking: God. No human may ever find out if you made a dishonest choice, but it matters in the long run because God sees everything and knows who you really are.
Next, we notice that Jesus quotes scripture every time He is tempted. This is because He knows it strengthens Him. We should have a stash of Bible verses to pull out in case of emergency temptation. We don’t have to know as many as Jesus, but you’ll probably use them more than that spare tire you take everywhere with you, so you may as well bring some along. Here are a few to start with:
James 1:12 (NLT)
God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
James 4:7 (NLT)
So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Romans 8:31 (NLT)
What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us.
Jesus’ recitation of scripture doesn’t simply impress Satan enough to make Him leave Jesus alone. Jesus uses the scriptures as a weapon against His enemy. Ephesians 6 tells us to put on God’s armor in battle, which includes “the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God.” The Bible is God’s weapon of choice and He has given one to you to use in the same way Jesus took it to Satan in the desert.
The next aspect of Jesus’ ministry that applies to education is that He accepted everyone. In John 6:37 (ESV), Jesus says “All the father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” We should feel the same way about our classrooms. Whether you admit it or not, all teachers have that kid who makes them smile when they get to mark them absent. I’ll speak from experience that it is usually the kid who is never absent! During my tumultuous 2015-16 school year, my grade level had some of the worst test scores and behavior records, yet some of the best attendance in the school. Though it was not Christ-like, one of the reasons they drove me bonkers was that they valued fighting with each other over learning. So I secretly smiled every time I had an empty seat after the bell rang. Now I know to be Christ-like I need to strive to accept everyone that comes into my classroom door.
When you find it hard to have patience with the student who never turns anything in, the one who rushes through everything as if it were a race, the class clown and the students who take from the class, remember Jesus says everyone brings something unique to His Kingdom. He embraced even the roughest, most rejected and of least repute. Take His closest followers and companions, the disciples, for example. Most of them were lowly fishermen (talk about smelly!) and Matthew was a despised tax collector. Jews in the Roman empire hated tax collectors because they thought of them as traitors and thieves who were crooked with the payments people were forced to make. However, Jesus wanted Matthew as a disciple. So Matthew left his posh lifestyle to follow Jesus and became the only disciple who could write. This sinning tax collector became the first person to document the life and teachings of Jesus. Talk about unique!
Jesus also made it a habit to associate with those who were shunned by much of the population. He didn’t care that Jews weren’t supposed to talk to Samaritans – especially those of low reputation. When He met the woman at the well in John 4, He broke the ice by asking her for a drink of water.
Later, in John chapter 8, Jesus stands up for a woman who was caught committing adultery and who the Pharisees planned to stone to death. With His famous line “let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” the woman’s accusers slowly left.
The effect of Jesus coming into the lives of Matthew and these women directly saved three souls and their stories saved countless more. Think of the “undesirables” in your school. They could be the ones who most of the class tend to steer clear of. Maybe it’s a student who is not in your class but who you always see alone at recess and lunch.
Whoever these students are who have been largely shunned by the student body, try taking Jesus’ approach with them. Jesus invested a lot of time with Matthew and brought him into the inner circle. Maybe inviting someone who may be untrustworthy or a trouble-maker, to spend time with you at lunch and letting him have a say about something in class would get him on your side and be just as life changing. Jesus broke the ice with the woman at the well by asking her a simple favor. He could have gotten His own drink of water. He is the Son of God! However, He wanted to start a friendly conversation between two people who culture said were not to be friendly. In the same way, students love to help teachers. Sure, you don’t always need it, but what if you used Jesus’ example to break the ice with a tentative student at the beginning of the year or one who you can see is having a bad day? That’s what Jesus did to start an important conversation and you could, too.
The adulterous woman about to be stoned has some similarities to a trouble-seeking student who is getting ratted out. My fourth graders took pleasure in getting their peers in trouble, no matter the truth. They would use the reputation a classmate already had as a tool to keep getting them in trouble. One student who has been known to have a dirty mouth was always getting told on for profanity that kept getting more crude and offensive by the day. The problem was, I never heard the student use the profanity. I had parents calling me about how upset their children were about what this boy was saying. I knew the student wasn’t innocent, but I also knew he wasn’t guilty every time he was accused. Short of hiding a recorder in his desk, I had no idea what to do. In the end, he actually ended up being suspended for an incredibly lewd comment he made within earshot of another adult. After his parents dealt with him about that on their end, the problem pretty much went away.
I wish I could have dealt with it more like Jesus, though. Our teacher-student relationship was never very trusting. Jesus would have stood up for the student no matter if he cursed every time he was accused, or even just a few times. After all, He stood up for the woman who was caught in the act before she was stoned, no matter her actions. I wonder what effect telling my students “let he who has never cussed be the first to tell” or a student-friendly variation would have had. Some, maybe most, would say that I was looking the other way and allowing foul language to run rampant in my classroom. However, I believe it would allow the students to think about their actions and language, just like the Pharisees considered their sins. Jesus didn’t look the other way and dismiss adultery. He forgave the woman of her sins. What if we also used more forgiving language during the discipline process? There is only one way to find out: Pray about it, then do it!
Jesus was a leader. He spoke, people listened. He called to action, people responded. Where He went, people followed, and still do thousands of years later.
Whether you think of yourself as one or not, teachers are leaders, too. You lead your class through lessons of your choice every day. You lead by example. You have influence on lives – not only for one academic year, but potentially for life.
I’ve seen leadership used a lot of different ways in schools. I could write for pages about abuse of power, agendas, successful classrooms and those run by the students (positively and negatively). However, I’m writing this book to illustrate how we can lead like Jesus in our classrooms. I believe there are a few of His leadership principles that can easily be applied in schools that could really set your classroom apart and bring God glory.
He was a humble leader. The best evidence of this is Jesus coming to earth as a human in the first place. He was Son of God, yet lived amongst men without special privileges, and died on the cross for all of us. The contrast between Heaven and earth is so huge we can’t begin to comprehend it, yet Jesus came down to our level. Most people in power don’t even come down a level or two to experience what it is like. That is why the show Undercover Boss is so entertaining, because it’s so rare. Have you ever seen your Superintendent teaching a class of students, let alone your building administrators? Jesus did so much more than that and could have brought with Him any luxury He wanted. But he did not. In Philippians 2:8 (ESV), it says “being found in human form He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”
When I first started writing this book, this section about Jesus being a humble leader was one of the first I put in my outline. Later, when I started studying Jesus’ leadership and specific Biblical examples, I was stumped for how to relate this to teaching in public schools. If we are to lead humbly like Jesus, what level is there for us to come down to besides becoming a student in our classroom? How can anything we do out of obedience compare to being crucified? There is no way teachers can humble themselves like Jesus.
There are practical ways to be humble in your school, though. You can humble yourself in the eyes of your students by showing them that you’d never ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do. Do the homework, take the tests, write the papers.
I had a high school swimming coach who said that and then put action to it. For some cruel reason, swimming is a winter sport in Ohio. Before the construction of a new, shiny recreation center with an indoor pool, all my hometown had to swim in during the winter was a glorified metal shed. Actually, it’s not even glorified – I’ve been in nicer sheds. It was so cold in there that some coaches were known to wear NorthFace jackets on the deck while swimmers practiced wearing speedos. At one particularly grueling practice (a timed 2,000-yard swim, for those readers who can appreciate that) during winter break, we were astonished when our coach jumped in with us. We weren’t surprised because we thought he was too old or out of shape. It didn’t shock us because it was so cold in the water that day and he would have been more comfortable fully clothed on deck. It surprised us because he didn’t have to do it! We would have done what he said, anyway (though with a few more groans). In my approximately 10 years of competitive swimming I had never once seen a coach in the pool. In fact, I couldn’t think of a sport that I played where I saw a coach participate. In middle school, my cross country coaches rode bikes. In crew, coaches caught up to us in motor boats. I never even questioned these coaches, and I still normally did what they asked of me. But I never respected or worked harder for any other coach because he came to our level and participated amongst us.
I doubt it ever crossed his mind as he swam with us that day that his actions would be compared to Christ, but in a way they can be. Jesus could have stayed in Heaven, or at least slept there at night. He could have prevented any discomforts or used His power to resist temptation. But if Jesus would have made His life on earth easier or more comfortable, nobody would have listened to Him. He set the standard and led by example.
How can you do that in school? Do what you can to do what they can. Create a project along with your students. Show them some problems you encountered along the way and teach them how to solve them. Don’t take privileges that students can’t. For example, I had a teacher who would microwave popcorn during class! The smell of butter permeated the halls and could be smelled all over the building. Then, she would eat it right in front of us. Without fail, someone would always ask for some and would be told they were not allowed to have any. I bet if you looked for these privileges, you would see teachers doing dozens of things during class that they wouldn’t allow the students to do. Send a text, take a call or even play games with their phone. Walk out of class to talk to someone. The way some teachers even speak to their classes would not tolerate being spoken to the same way by their students.
Another way to be humble is to show it in front of your coworkers. Volunteer for the work nobody else wants to do. Be an ally for the student everyone in the lounge is griping about. Remember, Jesus was under a microscope when He was on earth, and so are you.
Up to this point we’ve talked about how Jesus led by example through resisting temptation, accepting everyone, and being humble. Something is missing. It’s glaring. Some of you are wondering why I haven’t brought it up yet. The most relevant aspect of Jesus’ ministry on earth that relates to teaching is teaching! This is what He spent most of His time in ministry doing.
For the most part, when Jesus taught in public, he used parables. He only uncovered the meaning behind them in private discussions with the disciples. But why? The disciples asked Him that exact question.
Mark 4:10-12 (NIV)
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
The important thing to take from that loaded passage is that Jesus taught in parables so only those who wanted to seek and understand His message could. There are countless commentaries on this topic to be perused at your leisure, but the clearest for me to understand was by ?? Marshall, who said that if Jesus had spoken in clear language the power of who He was and His message may have forced casual observers and His enemies to believe against their will. By teaching with parables, Jesus made it possible for people to be baffled enough to decline the invitation to understanding and commitment found in the parables (Marshall, p869).
In other words, Jesus wanted people to seek out what the parables meant on their own free will. It’s hard to imagine believing something if you don’t want to, but that is exactly why Jesus used parables. I don’t want to believe that I’m wrong when my wife and I fight, but I know that I usually am. The difference is I don’t want to believe I’m wrong because I want to keep heading in my own direction without recourse. Basically, I’m in denial. I’m not ready to hear what I need to do differently because even if I do I won’t be ready to act on it. I’ll keep fighting and doing the wrong thing because I want to until I’m ready of my own will to change.
For example, when my wife has asked me to put my shoes and coat in their proper place multiple times I start hearing an annoyed tone in her voice and call her a nag. That has been the boiling point more than once because she takes offense to being called a nag. Now, this whole time I know deep down that I should have just put my things away when I got home, or when she asked the first time. But it has been a long day and all I want to do is have a few lazy moments on the couch before the evening routine of making dinner, putting kids to bed and preparing for the next day begins. So my coat and shoes lay on the middle of the hall by the door where I took them off after I got inside. But instead of admitting I’m wrong, I’m still thinking to myself ‘if she cares so much, why doesn’t she just put them away herself! Wouldn’t it take less effort for her to take it than nag me and argue with me?’ These are the points I make instead of just doing what she asked because I’m more in the mood to fight then get off the couch. Feeling that way does not make me right. I know what I need to do, but won’t do it any time soon. So we huff and puff and they lay there until I calm down, come to my senses and put them away out of my own free will.
Jesus used parables to allow people to believe out of their own free will. He told them parables so they would either decide discovering the meaning was not worth it or decide to seek truth, respond and commit to it. He wanted believers who would act on what He taught, not agree and then keep living their lives how they wanted. If they weren’t ready for His message, maybe the seed that He planted would germinate in another season instead of being forced out when conditions aren’t right. As a result their faith would wither and die.
So what’s my point? You don’t teach with parables! Your lessons and activities are always relevant. Every student should be ready to learn the day you teach something and ready to prove it the day you give the test. That is how your classroom is structured and what you have already planned. Right?
Wrong. Teaching is not that easy, and if it were then anyone could do it. You could be replaced by a book, robot, computer, or movie. Every student would have every standard mastered and leave school with the same level of education.
The hard truth to apply to the modern-day classroom from the way Jesus taught is that not every student is ready when you are. Jesus knew that not every ear understood His parables and He embraced it – that’s why He did it! He planted seeds that took different amounts of time and conditions and so can you. I feel like this is a call to differentiate, a call to teach the same standards to different levels. I once taught the Underground Railroad using books ranging from picture books to college-level text. Give students multiple ways to access information and multiple opportunities to prove it to you. It may click that day or it may click in 10 years if you taught it in a memorable way.
Jesus’ parables are also a call to student engagement. Jesus taught on topics from money to eternal life. These are tough concepts for some and new ideas for others. However, He made the lessons relatable with parables. He taught about faith through mustard seeds, about righteousness through wheat and weeds, and about mercy through seeds.
How can teachers take complex topics and make them relatable and engaging? First, explain why things happened or worked the way they did, not just the outcome. In history class, explain why the Civil War broke out and how its outcome freed the slaves instead of battles, dates and names. In math, spend time on number sense and use rich problems so students know why 5×5=25, not just the right answer.
Jesus’ use of parables is also similar to using fables to convey morals or find connecting themes. Students would have a harder time learning life lessons like “slow and steady wins the race” without characters like the tortoise and the hare.
In fact, using stories like fables, parables and proverbs from any culture is a great way to teach messages that align with Christian values without preaching the gospel in school. I don’t think any principal or parent would have a problem with you teaching about good character as long as your resources are a mix.
These are just a few ways classrooms can be ministries without compromising teaching jobs. I’m sure there are many other ways we can be Christ-like, too, and I look forward to hearing about them through reader feedback.
Steps toward a Christ-Like Classroom:
1. Resist Temptation
2. Accept Everyone
3. Lead Humbly