If the children’s rhyme “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks” is any indication, we educators clearly stand in need of a ready supply of endurance. These silly words are not only all too often reflected in the lives and thoughts of our students, but they even, sometimes, become mirrored by the teachers who are so disparaged by them. There are too many blank stares, too many rolled eyes, too much red ink, and too much conflict. We teachers often yearn for summer as much as, if not more than, our students do. In our field, endurance is a necessity.
Education is inevitably marginalized in a culture fixated on the here and now, on the value of “what have you done for me lately?” and on “why wait?” In the setting of a sitcom-style social atmosphere, where life’s biggest problems are laughable at worst and the answers to these problems come in one half-hour (including commercial breaks), education can boil down to answers and standards. It’s not about the method and process of education, or even about the questions we are asking. Our educational system encourages specialization, and a retreat into our own educational ghettos—where no one and nothing disagrees with us or stretches us.
It can be very discouraging to see the disparity of educational quality that different students receive for reasons as diverse as apathetic teachers and zip codes. Long is the list of burnt out teachers, who endeavored to change the world, but missed out on changing one soul in front of them.
Simply, the adversaries to education are legion. Educators can be opposed by any number of media–students, parents, “the system,” even other educators–and continuing to press on in the face of odds like these may take a good dose of courage.
How does an educator endure in such a setting? How does perseverance become the goal, and not just the means by which we teach? After all, true education is, by its very nature, a long, hard process. It may mean finding ways to break from the current system, to focus on quality rather than quantity. It may mean sharing in the pain of those who are hurting, and giving students a safe place to just “be” in their pain.
On the one hand, we must take a stand for the betterment of our students. We must keep the bar high enough to challenge them, even when outside forces urge, even beg and threaten, for it to be lowered. This type of stand may lead to suffering and even being fired. We never wish for suffering, but we may need to be willing to endure it.
On the other hand, we may need to let go of some of our standards when they are not essential to the education of our students. If we are honest, our standards are sometimes more about our desire to be in control, than about the betterment of our students. This type of superfluous tyranny can be exactly the sort of thing that keeps us from truly educating. We may in this respect be allowing our stated goals to sabatoge themselves!
There isn’t any universal trick to navigating perfectly between these poles: we must simply teach to the groups that are given to us. We must give our all to the students we have. In the midst of the struggle, the pain, the adversity, once in a while we will find a student who “gets it.” Quality over quantity, change over encouragement, struggle over comfort. If we work as we should, we will see the gems in the dirt, and maybe even find a whole treasure.
Sometimes ideas like these can lose the grit and tangibility of everyday experience, so while I was writing this, I reflected on and evaluated the past year. And, honestly, I can remember specific instances where every one of the sticky situations I’ve mentioned played out in my life. I also remembered, and regretted, my mistakes. Although every school year is a chance to endure, this one seemed to give me extra opportunities. These struggles are real:
This was the year when I began to question my calling to education. This was the year that saw one of my best friends leave our school as a result of the inevitable politics of private school education. This was the year with the senior class that no one supposedly loved, the one with some that certainly did not love back.
Many students were full of unbelievable pain: some depressed, some cutting, some lashing out at those around them, but all in pain. It was a year when all my tricks and bells and whistles seemed to fall on deaf ears in one Bible class in particular. No matter what I told them about Jesus’ love for them I was met with blank stares or at best a Pavlovian “Jesus. The Bible,” answer. It still breaks my heart.
I found my love for World History had suddenly gone dry. Why didn‘t the French Revolution, American Revolution, and Glorious Revolution excite me anymore? Why didn’t tracing an idea like Protagoras’ Man-centric view of the universe through the Enlightenment and the Modern Era bring goose bumps when I taught it anymore? Even the extracurricular events I was involved in did not seem to go right. The wrong students… at the wrong times… in the wrong ways.
It was just one of those years: A year to endure.
But, as there always is, there were also some gems. This was the year when I had four very bright and gifted students tell me I was a major reason for their belief in God, because I had helped them see that a belief in him did not make them compromise their intellectual integrity. This was the year when I got to see students’ lives change on a mission trip to UC Berkeley’s campus, because I took a chance on them. This was the year when I was able to mentor a student who became a disciple of Christ in action, not only in name.
I saw two students accepted into the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola, and one into Harvey Mudd. I began to write my own curriculum on the life of Christ. A curriculum I will probably never finish, because I will always be improving upon it. I made deeper friendships and partnerships with coworkers. Partnerships centered on developing committed Christ followers ready to impact our world.
And we began a weekly prayer time, because He needed to be our focus.
It was just one of those years: A year to endure.
I don’t note these facts so that you can feel sorry for me. I note them to remind you: these years come sometimes, and they hurt badly. If you haven’t had one, don’t forget them. If you’ve had one, you’re not alone.
But I also write them down to remind myself that whenever these years do come, I have a solid center for my focus, one that’s bigger than my circumstances. In his final hour, Christ spoke some of the most important words about endurance: “It is finished.” My savior exclaimed these words on the cross. They meant that his job was done, but they only came after a life of enduring: being misunderstood, being unjustly accused, and unjustly sentenced. The life of a Christian is life of reflecting this savior, so in my vocation as an educator, these years can make sense. I can have a reason to keep going. In some small way, like Christ, I hope I endure as well.