Category Archives: teacher
The old teacher weeps—
birds and flowers turn to dust,
planets lose their way.
© 2013 by Magical Mystical Teacher
More September Heights 2013: “Teacher”
What would teachers do without them?
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Haggai 2:9, Revised Standard Version
It’s always dangerous to take Scripture out of context and say, “This is what it means.”
But sometimes I like to court danger, so today I’m going to lift a snippet of Scripture right out of context and play with it: “in this place I will give prosperity.”
I don’t have the authority to say to my readers, “This is what it means.”
But I do have the authority to speak from experience and say, “This is what it means to me.”
I teach in a school in a remote area of the United States. It’s hard for me to be “in this place.” I have a long litany of complaints, but let me focus on just one: The principal gives lip service to supporting teachers, but in practice some teachers get thrown under the proverbial school bus.
Friday Mrs. D, the teacher-advisor for student council, received an e-mail from the principal, saying that she was no longer allowed to ask one of the office staff to make the nearly 100-mile round-trip to the nearest town for snacks to sell at basketball games, even though this has been the practice for many years at this school.
Mrs. D demanded, and got, an audience with the principal. “I don’t have time to make that trip. If you don’t let Ms. So-and-So help me, I’m not going run student council anymore.”
“Fine,” the principal said. And that was that. Mrs. D is no longer the faculty advisor for student council.
I have other complaints as well, but as I sit here thinking about them, the words of the Advent Scripture keep interrupting me: “…in this place I will give prosperity.”
Wherever “this place” is, God is able and willing to give prosperity. The place may be a prison. It may be a hospital bed. Or it may be a school nearly 50 miles from the nearest town, a school with an unsupportive administrator.
The place may also be an unemployment line, or a house that’s about to be lost to foreclosure, or a marriage that no longer seems tenable.
Every one of us has been in “this place.” It goes by different names, but we’ve all been here.
And it is precisely here—not somewhere else—that God promises prosperity.
If I am quiet and open my eyes, I will see the prosperity of God, what one of the New Testament writers calls “the unsearchable riches of Christ,” right where I am. In this place.
Isaiah 41:18, Revised Standard Version
We are short-staffed at our middle school this year, and often teachers are assigned temporary extra duty—without extra pay, of course.
Several weeks ago, I was assigned to morning duty in the cafeteria, along with the other special education teacher. Presumably, we special ed teachers don’t have anything important to do in the morning before school starts, so we are at the mercy of the need of the moment. (We’ve also been pressed into service as substitute teachers.)
A middle school cafeteria first thing in the morning is a wilderness. Many of the students are half-awake, and they willfully (or sleepily) break the rules. Not a morning goes by but what I don’t have to say to students, “Take off your hood, please,” or “No, you may not go to the bathroom without a pass,” or “The next time I see your cell phone, I’ll have to confiscate it.”
After several week of standing guard in the wilderness, and fuming about it, I reluctantly resigned myself to my fate: I am going to be stuck with morning cafeteria duty for the rest of the year, so I might as well make the best of it.
This morning, out of sheer boredom, I started humming “O Little Town of Bethlehem” softly to myself. To my delight, I realized that no one could hear me above the din raised by several hundred chattering students. (Yes, despite their sleepiness, they can still talk.)
As I continued humming the familiar Christmas carol, while thinking of the words, the wilderness of the cafeteria suddenly became a place of beauty and grace. The “dry land” of the breakfast room became “springs of water,” nourishing my soul.
The church calendar contains as many as 34 weeks of so-called Ordinary Time, a season with no major celebrations.
Advent, however, is far from ordinary. It is a season of expectation, providing opportunities for me to see God change the most barren wilderness in my life into a flourishing field fed by springs of living water.
Psalm 26:2, Revised Standard Version
“We’re going to have the district benchmark test next week,” I announce.
All my students groan.
Inwardly, I do too. We seem to be testing our students incessantly. Sometimes it gets to be overwhelming, for the teachers as well as the students.
The district benchmark test, a grueling affair, is based on state academic standards, and is given three times every quarter.
The pre-test is for the purpose of guiding instruction: What do the students need to know?
The mid-term test continues to guide instruction, but the question teachers ask themselves changes slightly: What have the students learned, and what do they still need to learn?
The post-test, or final benchmark exam is a summative assessment that shows how well the students have mastered certain state standards during the quarter.
Teachers and students may despise testing, but it’s one of those necessary evils of the education system. Without testing, both students and teachers flounder aimlessly in the classroom.
Unlike a teacher announcing the date of a test, God makes no announcement, but is testing us continually.
And unlike the district benchmark test, which may contain as many as fifty questions, God’s test has only one: Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself?
Students know that the only way to pass a test is to study. The psalmist knows that the only way to pass God’s test is to pray, and so he does: “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind.”
As I pray with the psalmist during the season of Advent, and beyond, may I be able to answer God’s test question with a confident yes.
Psalm 25: 8-9, Revised Standard Version
Despite having a new heating system in the sixth-grade wing, there is no heat in my classroom today—and it’s cold. Outside, it is barely 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside? I’m wearing my coat.
I call Mr. S the maintenance man. He comes to my room, apologizing that he hasn’t been trained to fix the new heating system, but he calls his supervisor. To his dismay, he discovers that his supervisor is helpless too. The furnace installers have taken a crucial piece of equipment with them, and they won’t return until tomorrow.
Mr. S sits at one of my tables. “I need to rest for a few minutes,” he says.
“Even though it’s cold in here?” I ask.
“It’s warmer in here than outdoors,” he says.
It turns out that Mr. S really wants to unburden himself.
“I don’t like my job,” he says. He shakes his head, and then tells me why he’s so frustrated. “I wish I could retire,” he says with a sigh. Suddenly he asks, “How about you? Are you thinking about leaving or are you going to stay?”
It’s the question that arises frequently in this chaotic school district, where the annual turnover of staff is among the highest in the state. In fact, one of our middle school teachers is leaving in a few days for a new job in Iowa.
“I’ve thought about leaving,” I say to Mr. S, “but where would I go?”
What I don’t tell him, because I’m not sure he’d understand, is that the only thing keeping me here—besides the children—is my sense of being placed here by God. Like the psalmist, I have found that God leads people who are willing to be led. If it weren’t for that, I’d be filling out as many applications as it takes to get out of here as quickly as possible.
However, until it is clear that I am supposed to move on, I listen for God’s instruction right where I am, confident that God will teach me the way to go, and lead me when the time is right.
Psalm 37:8, Revised Standard Version
In any given day in my classroom, I can find plenty of things to be angry about.
J-Girl and C-Boy are chattering and giggling together in the back of the room as I try to show the class how to write haiku.
For the fifth day in a row, N-Boy comes to class unprepared. “Can I have a pencil?” he asks.
S-Boy won’t stay in his seat for more than five minutes at a time. Then he jumps up and starts wandering aimlessly around the classroom, poking at the computer keyboard or rummaging through my desk drawer.
Sometimes these kids get under my skin. Sometimes I feel like venting my wrath. But will it do any good for me to get angry at my students?
Will my anger change J-Girl and C-Boy from chatterboxes into quiet, serious scholars? More likely they will become sullen and resentful.
Will my anger convince N-Boy that he should come to class with pencil and paper in hand? More likely he will figure out a way not to come to class at all. There are plenty of hiding places in the building for the student who wants to play hookey.
Will my anger change S-Boy, who has ADHD, into a student who sits in the same spot from bell to bell without moving a muscle? More likely he will become even more hyper.
The psalmist knew that the venting of anger and wrath is likely to unleash evil into the world, so he strongly counsels his readers: “Refrain from anger and forsake wrath!”
During the season of Advent, God shows us once again that the way of love is more effective than the way of anger.
May God help me to remember, not only during Advent, but every day, that refraining from anger in my classroom is wisdom, for human relationships grow and flourish when wrath is set aside.
Psalm 18:19, Revised Standard Version
There’s probably nothing more unnerving than being in a narrow place, especially if there seems to be no way out. One’s chest tightens, it’s hard to breathe, and panic sets in.
Apparently the psalmist found himself in that kind of predicament, yet God came to his rescue and made it possible for the psalmist to breathe easily again.
What God did for the psalmist—brought him into a broad place—we special education teachers attempt to do for our students.
Most of the kids I work with have learning disabilities. They need accommodations in order to access the curriculum. They need modifications to the assessment process so they can show what they know in alternative ways.
For example, B-Boy apparently has dysgraphia, the inability to write coherent sentences—or much of anything at all. One of his modifications is to be tested orally instead of with pencil and paper.
C-Girl doesn’t write well, but she has artistic talent. Instead of writing research papers, she shows us in drawings that she understands what we have taught.
D-Boy, an eighth-grader, is reading at about a kindergarten level—maybe. Over the years he’s learned to compensate for his inability to read by listening carefully. He pays very close attention to books that are read to him, and if someone also reads multiple choice tests about a particular book to him, he can usually make a respectable grade.
Many students with learning disabilities have test anxiety, especially when it comes to taking district benchmarks or other standardized tests. To help alleviate their stress, we test them in small groups and allow them more time than other students to complete the exam.
In all that we special education teachers do for our students, our aim is to deliver them from thinking that they can’t do much of anything at all (a narrow place), and help them to discover and use their hidden strengths (a broad place).
During Advent—and beyond—God works in the world to bring people out of narrow places into broad places. May I continue to see that work in my students’ lives, and in my own life as well.
Psalm 1:4, Revised Standard Version
I’m sitting here at my computer keyboard in a state of shock. I have just received word that a teacher I worked with for three years has died of injuries he received in an automobile accident about a week ago. “Keenan” was 28 years old, and had barely begun his career. This was only his fourth year in the classroom.
Keenan was an only child, the son of an absent father, and a single mother who doted on him. He grew up in a rough inner-city neighborhood where he had to fight to survive. His twisted, misshapen knuckles bore witness to countless finger-breaking battles. Yet somehow he managed to look beyond the daily violence and set his sights on going to college to study history. Wanting to share his love of history with others, he decided that the best way to do that was to teach in middle school.
Two years ago, Keenan invited his long-time girlfriend and her young son to move in with him. “It’s the next step,” he confided to me. He hoped that their living together would lead to marriage someday, and he was willing to learn to be a parent to her son, although sometimes he became impatient and irritable with the rambunctious 5-year-old.
After three years in our school district, Keenan decided to move on. He thought he could have a greater impact on students in a setting where class sizes were smaller. He had settled into his new school, and apparently was doing well, when his life was cut short by the accident. On her Facebook page, his girlfriend said she lost the love of her life.
Today’s Advent Scripture invites us to meditate on the brevity of life. All of us, wicked or not, are “like chaff that the wind drives away.” We may be 28 or 58 or even 98 years old when we die, but we are but a breath, a blink of an eye, a little blip on the radar screen of eternity. We’re here today and gone tomorrow.
Life is short, so how should we live?
I think one of the Old Testament prophets points us in the right direction. In the venerable English of the King James Bible, the prophet Micah says, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (6:8).
Advent is God’s invitation to begin living a life that matters: just and merciful in our dealings with others, and humble toward God. Then, whether we live 98 or only 28 years, we will have helped to bring a little bit of heaven to Earth.