“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” James 3:1
I have been a teacher for many years and these words still haunt me. Being a teacher is a beautiful vocation that is at times fulfilling and frustrating. There are moments of great joy and heartbreak. But I believe this to be true of any vocation to which God calls us.
A friend of mine recently asked if I thought of teaching as more than just a job. I said “yes,” because unlike many other jobs (and I do not mean this in any way to denigrate the importance of those other jobs), the job of a teacher is to make an impression in the soul of the student.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not confronted with my own unworthiness to be a teacher. If the job of a teacher is to make impressions in souls, how can I make a good impression if I myself am broken? A signet ring leaves an impression in on a fresh dab of wax. But if the seal on the ring is broken, the impression will be broken as well.
I am upfront with my students when I tell them that I am the biggest sinner in the classroom. Every day I am more and more in need of God’s mercy. And yet even with this in mind it is so easy to fall into the teacher trap.
What is the teacher trap?
CS Lewis once wrote about judging others: “Abstain from all thinking about other people’s faults, unless your duties as a teacher or parent make it necessary to think about them.” (God in the Dock pg. 154) In our everyday interactions with our peers, Lewis told us to stay away from thinking of their faults. It is so easy to focus on what annoys you about your neighbors and co-workers. Lewis makes clear that since you no better than they are that we are to avoid dwelling on their faults.
But teachers and parents must dwell on the faults of their children and their students. A parent or teacher who is blind to the faults of their charges is doing a disservice to those charges. The purpose of focusing on those faults is so that you can give proper instruction to those children on how they can overcome those faults.
The teacher trap occurs when you focus on those faults, not to help the child, but to judge them.
I write this article more by way of confession than example. Sometimes you encounter a student who is resistant and sometimes confrontational about the Gospel message. It is so easy to focus on the belligerence as a character fault without going any deeper. Too often in my mind have I had the urge to write off some students as “hopeless” because of discipline behavior I encounter.
And while I firmly believe that no one is hopeless, I find myself focusing on some of their faults not as an obstacle to be overcome but as some kind of permanent mark of their character. “Oh, that student is just a jerk,” or “that student won’t listen because they are too self-centered.” These are terrible thoughts against which I struggle.
The teacher trap is this: you must focus on the faults of your students but you can end up caught up in judging them.
Christ warned us all the time against judging others. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the people Jesus spent most of his time yelling at were the Pharisees (i.e. the teachers). He said of them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.” (Matt 23:27)
As I wrote before, I am a sinner and I have no right to sit in judgment. How much worse, then when I do so as a teacher?
Any teacher of the faith who struggles with this should constantly examine their conscience. Perhaps you are much holier than I will ever be and these struggles are not yours. But I am in a constant battle between grace and pride.
The solution always is Jesus. When a difficult student enters into your life, see the face of Christ in them. Remember that your job is not to judge them, but love them. No, not everyone will listen to the Gospel. Even Jesus had this problem. And I am not anywhere close to Jesus.
A friend of mine once said that the Gospel will have effect in your students inasmuch as it has effect in your life. We have to let go of our sins and live in the light. This is much easier said than done for a sinner like me.
But at the very least, continually examining our consciences and acknowledging our sins before a merciful God will help us more and more from falling into the teacher trap.
Copyright 2016, W.L.Grayson