On June 20th, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and it was full of memories of a former student. Two years prior he was killed suddenly in a car accident. Family and friends posted memories and encouragement all throughout the day. As I scrolled, I too remembered my time with JD. He was one of those students who I often say “I love him in the hallway.” He was full of life and energy and humor, but didn’t always know how to tame it in the classroom. He was one of those kids who could get the teacher laughing when she really wanted to fuss. When I think of him, I shake my head and laugh.
But honestly, my thoughts didn’t stop with JD. My thoughts skimmed past the hundreds of students I have taught in my career. I thought of his sister Hannah and how even though she was two years younger than JD, she mothered him and pretty much anyone around her, always looking out for others. I thought about Micah and how he told me that our God was big enough to handle my daddy’s cancer. I thought about Camren, sweet little Camren, and how he encouraged my son not to worry about his small stature on the football field. “Don’t worry about that,” Camren said, “Just hit them around the ankles. That’s what I do.” I think about Bradley and Kyle and how they always had time for Brody. I think about Graham who still sends me sweet notes, even though she hasn’t been in my class for years. I think about Jaritza who comes to job shadow me every year. I think about Jameson and all the great conversations we had about books. I think about Michael, Patrick, and Robbie who all brought me special gifts. My goodness, I could just keep going…
But, I think about other students too. I think about one student who brought me to my knees more times than I can count. He had his very own page in my prayer journal because I just didn’t know what to do with him. And it wasn’t his fault that his mama was in jail and his daddy committed suicide. I think about another student who was just so angry and she didn’t know how to be any other way. I think about a few students who needed attention so badly that they didn’t care how they got it. I think about two big ol’ boys who used to call me “bipolar” because they didn’t seem understand how I could fuss at them and still love them.
Face after face. Memory after memory. And when I think about my teaching career, this is what I think about. This is what defines teaching for me. This is my purpose. All the beautiful and beautifully difficult relationships that I get to build with students. For just a tiny slice of their life, I get to make an impact, good or bad. I have had the awesome privilege and responsibility to impact hundreds of students already. How many more will I get to influence?
Teacher or not, how many people have you impacted or will you impact as you move through your career and life? As we think about the great privilege and purpose God gave us in building relationships with others, especially students, we need to remember a few things.
We are the salt.
Matthew 5:13-14 says “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shaw its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” In biblical times, salt was used for two reasons: to preserve and to improve flavor. In our classrooms, we should be the salt to all students. First, we need to preserve them. Each students was created by God’s design, even if later they were tainted by the world. We need to look into the hearts of each one and find what God created. We need to look for ways to preserve that good. Through doing that, we will improve their “flavor.” When we encourage what is good about them, they will naturally improve.
We should also be “salty” in all situations. As students face difficult situations, our job should be to think about what is good in this situation and preserve that. We should also think about how we can improve the situation or lead the student to improve the situation for themselves. As Christians and especially as Christian teachers, we should improve all circumstances around us and preserve all the good around us. We are here to make the world a better place, and for teachers, that includes our classroom.
We are called to bear good fruit.
Galatians 5:22 says, “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” Now, I know you have probably heard that it is fruit of the spirit – singular, not plural. We don’t get to pick and choose which of the characteristics we would like to bear and which ones we just want to just pass on. I mean I know gentleness and self-control are probably not my strong points, but I also know God can enable me to improve in those areas too.
Picture a classroom that is full of fruit. A classroom that has love, peace, joy, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I know, even as I type this I think, wow, I don’t think that exists. But that doesn’t mean it can’t. We can show students love. We can model and expect kindness. We can react out of peace. We can demonstrate joy in even the difficult moments. We can have faith that they can do it and will do it. We can discipline with gentleness and self-control. As teachers, we can and need to be the expectation of behavior in our classroom. We need to be the model that they all follow, that we require them to follow. Like with us, it does not come naturally and we all need reminders. But it can happen.
And think of the relationships you will be building as you bear this fruit. Think of the ripple effect that will happen. Students will begin to treat others with the same fruit that you demonstrated and they may even carry these principles with them as they become adults. We have that power. Teachers can be the stone that ripples across the world and creates a revival. But we have got to make building those relationships in our classroom a priority first.
Set your mind on things above.
Let’s be honest. Bearing “salty fruit” sounds pretty good right now because it is July. We can all look at the next school year through our rose-colored glasses, but come August our mounting to-do list will keep us from seeing the privilege we have to build relationships as teachers. Don’t get lost in the pressures and red tape of teaching, as hard as it might be. Focus on what really matters.
Colossians 3:2 says, “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” That is how we need to begin to look at our teaching career. We have to look ABOVE the lesson plans, standards, tests, duties, committees, data, and whatever else may be added to this list. Each of those things has a purpose, but those things are not YOUR purpose. Never forget the bigger purpose of being in the classroom. Set your mind there. At the end of the day, don’t get bogged down in the paperwork and grading. Take a minute and mediate on the things above. Who did you connect with today? What student made a breakthrough? What good fruit did you see today? How did you salt a situation? Replay those moments over and over in your head as you filter through the responsibilities of teaching. Not only will you find joy in the job, but your students will feed off of that fruit as well.
I won’t ever forget I was teaching a lesson on sentence structure and I explained, “The shortest verse in the Bible ‘Jesus wept’ is still a sentence because it has a subject and verb.” Cute little Chase hollers out, “Mrs. Bowen, that is not the only short verse in the Bible. 1 Thessalonians 5:16 says, ‘Rejoice Always.’”
I won’t ever forget that moment, and not because I got to teach a spontaneous lesson on the understood “you”, but because a student just quoted scripture to me in the middle of a lesson. My, how my heart smiled knowing there were students out there with scripture in their heart.
There are some difficult students out there. There are some difficult parents out there. There are some difficult co-workers out there. But there is always a reason to rejoice. As we set our minds on things above, those reasons will become clearer. We have to train our mind to do both: look above and find joy, but it can be done. And it should be done. We cannot lose our purpose or spoil relationships because we get bogged down in the difficulties of the job. First Thessalonians 5:17 goes on to say, “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” God’s will is for us to find joy in everything, pray all the time, and be grateful always. So when we have trouble looking above or finding joy, where do we start? What do we do? Pray. Be Grateful. Start there and the rest will follow.
So as you begin this next school year, don’t lose sight of your true purpose. Don’t lose sight of the relationships you can build. Don’t lose sight of the impact that you can and will make. Remember the reasons why you teach, why you were called to teach. Remember all the individual students of the past, like JD, Hannah, Camren, Micah, Graham, Jameson, Jaritza and so many more. Those students will be forever grateful to you and just like they are a slice of your story, you are a tiny slice of their story. Help them find their purpose, as you remember yours.