I got the idea to write this book as I reflected on the most challenging school year of my young career in education. Right after the academic year ended I started asking God to show me where he wanted me: to remain in urban education, to seek a new job in the suburbs, or something else completely. My more senior colleagues said “move to the burbs before it’s too late,” my supportive wife said “go where you’ll be happy,” and God said “write this book.” As I wrote, He revealed to me that I was exactly where he wanted me to be. I certainly didn’t feel like that before God led me on this journey.
To give you a sense of what I had been going through, the 4th-grade class I just finished the year with at my school in Columbus, Ohio, put me through an emotional and spiritual ringer. Emotionally, they caused me enough insomnia and anxiety for my doctor to prescribe me mood-altering and sleeping pills. I had never taken a prescription more serious than an antibiotic in my life. Before going to the doctor, I’d lay awake for hours in the middle of the night torturing myself with issues in my classroom from fighting students to failing students. I remember clearing my mind and start drifting to sleep only to notice I was almost asleep and jolt myself awake again. Natural remedies stopped working. Over-the-counter sleeping aids gave me the worst case of restless leg and made the torture worse; my mind would finally be ready to sleep, but my legs were in physical pain when they were still. My days would be spent with students I could not control and anxiety about sleep I could not control.
Throughout the school year I had become a cranky, boring teacher. I would take the engaging lesson plans I had used in the past and modify them to limit movement, collaboration and critical thinking as much as possible because I did not think the class could handle any more. I had only been teaching for five years and became so dull I wouldn’t even want to be in my class.
My students would fight anyone, steal anything and destroy something new every day. They didn’t show respect toward anybody, not even themselves. Here’s an example of how disrespectful they were toward property: My teaching partner and I started the year with a cart of 30 laptops between the two 4th-grade classes. We finished the year with only 14 machines that were not stolen, smashed, cracked, taken apart or otherwise vandalised.
Lessons were regularly interrupted by students hitting each other with fists, pencils and insults. I struggled to get through to them with clear expectations and consequences. Even the “good” students got caught up in this because they saw it as the norm. Every student felt justified in his or her actions and would respond to my redirections with “because they hit me.” I was so overwhelmed that well-thought-out lessons and unit plans that took weeks of my previous summer vacation were forgotten by the end of the second week of school due to low academics and horrid behavior.
This group of students had been the class that, as it advanced through the grade levels, teachers took notice and either left for other assignments or ended up checking out on them year after year since kindergarten. For much of the year I admit that I fell right in line with their past teachers. I checked out before the weather got cold. When my principal approached me about looping with my class to fifth (and possibly 6th) grade, I managed to switch positions within the school for the following year to avoid them. I honestly did not know if I could handle the rest of that year. I felt completely alone and unsupported professionally until I realized that I had the best support in the universe behind me: Jesus.
It took me until February or March to realize I hadn’t done more than throw up an “oh, my God, help me” about that class. I never sincerely prayed and asked God for help. So I finally shared about the struggles I had been going through with my life group from church. We prayed aloud together that night for God to give me the patience, the grace and the tools to make it through the rest of the year intact and, most importantly, that I would show kids the same love that Jesus would. The next day brought the same challenges, if not more, than before and I was beyond knowing what to do. On my car ride home, when I usually drove in silence to stew about my bad day and come home even crankier, I did something different. I prayed. Not silently, but out loud. I invited God in. He was already a big part of my life when I was home with my family, but he wasn’t a part of my life as an educator. I had never intentionally left God out of my school life, I just never really thought about it before. After all, it’s public school and Jesus doesn’t have a place there, right? You know, Christmas break has to be Winter Break, Easter may fall during Spring Break or it may be a long weekend, or not even… Jesus has been largely taken out of our school systems, so my faith doesn’t have a place there, right? WRONG!
So I invited Jesus in. I will never say that things all of a sudden were great. My students still misbehaved and my teaching still struggled until the last day of school, but finally, God started working in my classroom. Asking Jesus to be in the forefront of my mind during the school day changed the way I thought, how I reacted and how I communicated with students and staff. God didn’t make the problems I dealt with as an urban educator any easier, but he changed the way I dealt with them by showing me how He would deal with them.
I became God’s servant in the classroom, loving the children just like Him. Never once did I preach about Jesus or have any students come to salvation, but God showed me that he had a presence in my public school classroom. As you continue reading this book, I want you to know the two purposes I have for writing it: First, to teach teachers how to teach like Jesus in the public schools. Second, to awaken and strengthen a community of Christian teachers that already exists but is largely invisible. We need Jesus in our schools and we need each other.