A year ago, I completed my semester of student teaching in 11th grade English. When I reflect on my experiences, what immediately comes to mind is my view from the front of the classroom. Whether I am sitting or standing behind my desk, I see a crowd of faces in front of me. Some are smiling and engaging others in an enlivened class discussion; some are focusing intently on their books while we read together aloud; some are cast down in shame, reflecting the isolation they feel from their peers; some bear the conspicuous look that accompanies covert text-message delivery from a hidden cellphone; some are looking off into space, troubled by persistent pressures and thoughts about what rules their lives outside, or instead, of school. Standing there, looking out, I so often missed the point: all of these faces belong to children who are made in the image of the Lord. No matter the judgmental label I associate with each one – class clown, loner, overcommitted Type A – all belong to a child of God who is made precious in His sight. And on days when teaching is hard and students make me feel like I have no patience left to give, I should remind myself that I am called to love God’s children as He loves us.
One of the main narratives surrounding education in the U.S. is that the system has long been broken. Public education especially has the potential to be an inspiring and supportive force in the lives of young people across the country, but more often than not it stifles creativity, treats children as statistics instead of humans, and bombards them with an abundance of tests that become more meaningless over time. Overall it does very little to develop their personal and professional skills or improve their readiness to go onto the next level, whatever that looks like according to their goals. Schools are hunting grounds for bullies, predatory adults, and young and old people seeking to use violence against innocent and defenseless youth. Why do we subject our nation’s children to these prisons? What is the purpose of school? Is it just a right of passage? Isn’t the notion that we use anything we learned in school prior to going to college in our adult lives just a running joke?
Genesis 1 tells us that God establishes his kingdom on earth by transforming people into the image of Christ. I find my vocational identity in that, because I as a teacher have the opportunity to pour into the lives of children who are not my own. In verse 28, after God creates man and woman, he blesses them and tells them “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” This, to me, is God’s instruction for how to live well. The ‘cultural mandate’ is what God wanted Adam and Eve to do. It is the work he designed for their prosperity. In turn, I believe that one of the purposes of any education is to train students to be citizens of the world. They should be equipped with the ability to communicate and with the basic knowledge of core truths about language, history, science and math which help them function, prosper, and understand the world around them. This is how we live into our roles as good stewards of His creation. He wants us to preserve and manage Earth’s resources, but something that is perhaps more difficult to understand outside of the context of Eden is that he also commands us to take care of society’s culture and our fellow man. As we seek the prosperity of the Earth we should also seek the prosperity of one another. No matter the task however, we often lose our sense of calling to dominion as God intends. What does it mean for our daily actions to serve as a reflection of our duty to take care of what God gives us?
To go one step further, God not only calls us to be citizens of the world but also to be like Christ in the world. We advance His kingdom on earth when we seek to be more like Him and raise our children in His image. Now I do not have my own children, but I have the privilege of walking alongside the students who step foot in my classroom. In a public school, I as the teacher am not permitted to evangelize to my students during instructional time. Nevertheless I can still seek to develop Christ-like qualities in them, qualities like humility, love, and service to others. Before I go further, I should clarify that regardless of how this sounds, my motive is not to bend the rules, manipulate students, or carry out some kind of underhanded, sneaky evangelism. Instead, I consider this my true purpose, because it is the greatest gift I can possibly share with my students. To care for every student, to encourage their creativity and strengths, to support and hold them accountable in areas where they need to grow personally and academically – for me this all falls under what it means to share Christ with them, and I can do that while “playing by the rules.” Of course there’s more to say than just making them more well-adjusted sinners, but what I do in the classroom is still anchored in sharing Christ – showing how he would have life lived, modeling and teaching skills that let the world be the way he made it to be.
Tim Hilliard works in youth ministry and is a member of the 2015-2016 Falls Church Fellows Program.
Images: FreeImages.com/kmb43xgame, Melcena Lang