I can still remember all too well the familiar clench in my stomach as I sat at my desk, watching the hand of the clock as it inched slowly but inexorably towards 8:10, the fateful moment when the buzzer would ring and fourteen twelve-year-olds would come trooping through the door. It was a little like I had suddenly found myself piloting an airplane with no sure idea on how to get it down safely. What in the world was I doing here? Why had I ever agreed to this?
Almost seven years have gone by since then, and sometimes I ask myself, “What have I learned?” Everybody talks about the experience teachers have. What has that experience taught me? Despite still having plenty of flaws and shortcomings, I definitely have grown in many ways since then, and I’ve given a few of those lessons some space here on paper.
Success Isn’t Assured
Johnny (not a real student) comes from a broken home. His parents’ marriage ended up in shambles. There is no discipline or structure in the home. If I send a paper home to be signed, it either won’t come back at all, or it will be a torn, wrinkled mess. And there’s no use even trying to assign any work to be done at home. He doesn’t study for tests or memory assignments. To top it all off, he couldn’t even organize a numbered set of encyclopedias, so his desk is always a wreck. No matter how many times I talk to him, no matter how many times I keep him in from recess or assign a penalty, no matter what I do, I can’t seem to make any change. Of course, the fact that he must never get to bed on time doesn’t help, since he is always tired and unable to focus. Whenever I talk to his parent about any of this, the answer is always something like, “I see. I’ll talk to him about that. We’ll make sure we get on top of that.” And, of course, there are never any changes. This situation has me set up to lose. No matter what I do, how hard I try, or how good of an example I set, I am only one factor in his life. I probably will not actually be able to “save” Johnny. There is a reason that teachers have the saying, “The home always wins.” This can be hard to accept. I want all my students to turn out well. I want all of them to become tools in God’s service, but at the end of the day, I can’t actually guarantee that it will happen. Some of them will take other paths. Some of them will choose to walk their own way, and I can do nothing to change that. Teaching school has taught me, first, that these situations exist, that some situations are beyond my help, and, second, what the correct response is. The natural response is often either anger or despair. We can say “Fine. If you people don’t want my help, I won’t give it,” or “There must be something wrong with me. No matter what I do, I just can’t seem to help these people.” Both of these responses will ultimately result in failure. So what is the right perspective? God does not demand results, he demands sacrifice. He does not call us to easy situations. He sacrificed himself for us when we were beyond help. We must be willing to do the same for others.
Growth Takes Effort
Another lesson I’ve learned comes in the area of personal growth and self improvement. When I look back, I can easily see that I’ve grown a lot since being the nervous young school teacher waiting for his first school day to start. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that growth doesn’t happen automatically. Just because I’ve had experiences doesn’t mean I’ve learned from them. Learning from experiences is an intentional process. It takes effort and contemplation. If I want to learn, I need to analyze myself and ask myself questions. Could that class have gone better if I had done things a little differently? What was the result of my choice in how I related to that student? How are my reactions and mannerisms affecting my classroom atmosphere? Is this problem I am facing all the students’ fault, or is it something I have actually created through my own actions? Growth takes effort. Learning from mistakes means asking painful questions. While it would be easier to assume that this problem is someone else’s fault, I have only ever learned from the mistakes that I have been willing to admit. And so, as life continues, I must continue to evaluate myself, to ask questions about what I am doing and the choices I have been making. If I don’t, I will stagnate and cease to grow, but if I do, I will grow in experience and maturity.
Guidance Is Essential
Finally, I’m starting to learn just how much good even a scared seventeen-year-old teacher can do if he listens to the Spirit and does what God asks. In my first year, I knew that I was incapable. I made an almost daily trek down the hall to ask my co-teacher what she thought I should have done. In difficult situations, I went for help. Now, of course, I know what I’m doing. I’ve learned all these lessons and and can easily handle the situations that come up on my own. In case you couldn’t tell, that was said ironically. Instead, I’m learning how much harm a somewhat experienced twenty-four-year-old teacher can do if he jumps into a situation relying on his own experience and judgment. Of course, this is not to negate the value of years and experience, but at the end of the day, if you allow God to use you, you will go far and be a tremendous blessing. If you ignore his promptings and take your own route, you will most likely make an even bigger mess of things than they already were before you started. If there is one thing I hope I’ve learned, this is it. Rely on God. No matter the cost, no matter how big the issue, no matter what you think about it, and no matter what others are pressuring you to do, follow Him. God knows and He wants the best out of whatever situation you are facing. More than that, He’s promised to give wisdom to whoever asks without any scolding (James 1:5). The most important question, no matter what you are facing, must be this: “What does God want?”
Of course, there are plenty more lessons that I have learned or should have learned or am learning. There are lessons in leadership, in character, in relating to other people, in growing in my walk with God. Ironically enough, I have found that teaching is more about learning than anything else. I suspect that the same is true of any other vocation. So whether you can learn from these lessons, or whether you take this as a cue to review your own progress, never stop growing, learning and maturing in God’s service.