As a first-year teacher it’s nearly time for me to submit first quarter grades, and I’m in a foaming terror hoping I’ve gotten it right. When I first started this job and began putting in my twelve-hour days, I was just struggling to keep my nose above water, making sure I was fully prepared each day with a lesson aligned with the core standards, and broken down into bite-sized pieces. It was the same sort of shock as the day I walked out of the hospital with my first newborn baby, wondering why anyone with credentials thought I might have the faintest idea what I was doing.
In class I watched and listened, initially suspending grades as I broke the concepts down, and down, and down again to find the magical place where I could meet my students where they are, but still nudge them one step up the hill. That last sentence makes it all sound very sleek and noble, but the reality has been much messier. My students who are paying attention in class, and following through on their assignments are showing clear progress, but what about those who aren’t. What about those with major focus issues, or avoidance, or attention troubles? What about students who want to hide in plain sight, either through a crisis of confidence, or because they have been doing it ever since first grade when they realized they couldn’t read as easily as the other children. In a junior high remedial reading class, that is a significant percentage of the population. How do I refine my process to reach those who do not want to be reached?
It’s an ancient question, first asked long before I was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, but it is one I ask myself all day every day because I know the truest answers are as varied as the students themselves. If only I could sit with them one by one, but with six full classes, that is a luxury I cannot afford. These last weeks have given me a greater appreciation for the deeply personalized instruction God has unfailingly planned for all of us, an idea here, a new concept there, broken down and down and down, not for a class, but for me personally, a course of study just for Paula to teach her exactly what she needs to know to get where she needs to go. How difficult and how wildly complicated it must be to create a personal map for each soul who has ever lived on the earth, intersecting other souls along the way, putting groups through the same steps and yet teaching entirely personal lessons.
On Friday I sat exhausted at my desk in a silent school, reworking my lesson plans with my door locked, and my hair in my fists, on the verge of frustrated tears, laced with fear of the two observers who would be coming into my classroom, to make sure I’m doing it right. Eventually I pulled myself together and untangled the mess I’d made, completing the module for both in-person students, and distance learners, and finally turning off the lights and leaving my classroom. My students will never know any of that. They will never know how much I think about them, or that I pray for them, and ask God for advice on exactly what I can do for specific individuals. All they know is that I keep handing out assignments that are getting in the way of talking to their neighbors, jamming to music, or running a personal circus from the left side of the room. I’m an interruption to them, an unwelcome set of tasks that to them appear to have no connection to reality. I know this, and I understand.
Just imagine planning lessons millennia in advance, expending vast resources on each child, even watching in terrible agony as one perfect son suffers the torment of all the world, sacrificed for the salvation of many students who do not think they want to be reached. Yet God continues, perhaps with his hair in his hands, sorrowing over children who refuse to listen, intent on leaping off into the abyss, hurting themselves and others. What must that be like?
I’m wondering what it’s like to be my teacher. I was taught the ways of God from my childhood, and being one who tries to pay attention and do my assignments, I hope I am showing progress, but I am by no means an ideal student. I’m happy to read all about feeding the poor and handing back the finger that may have been dropped by a leper, but I’ve hollered a squall when the day’s lesson required a broken bone or two. Why do I have to be in this class? I already know about running from Satan, and passing out dinner rolls to orphans. Why should I suffer because another student was having a circus and hit me with a spit wad? Why!? Why!? Why!?
Many of my students are asking the same kinds of questions. I’ve explained what I’m doing, and each day I write the objective and the day’s activities on the board, yet they still do not seem to grasp the larger picture. To a certain extent they have to take it on faith. They keep getting out of bed every morning and coming to class, maybe because their parents make them, or maybe because they secretly have a little hope that I can help them.
I understand how they feel. The last few years have been so horrific, but our family has finally reached a turning point, wiggling our big toes in better times. Looking back, I remember all the hours I sobbed in my room, angry, and frustrated, asking God to help me or kill me because I couldn’t do it even one more day. But that look over my shoulder has also revealed why all those thousand assignments had to happen in the order and time they did, a perspective I could not have comprehended in the heat and stress of battle. I see the complicated path I needed to walk, the many intersections I needed to negotiate as my lessons crossed with others’. I felt as though I was at the bottom of the ocean, but now I see God kept his gentle hand in the small of my back, holding me firmly, even as I screamed that I was drowning. With my 20/20 hindsight, I have to confess that God’s ways are just and organized, and his timing is utterly perfect.
My job as a teacher can be difficult and frustrating for someone as imperfect as I, but I do love it, and feel such gratitude to be given the opportunity. In a week I must submit my students’ grades, and I am mostly ready—too late now, even if I’m not. The refining process will go on, each day and week and month. I don’t know what grade God will give me, but I do know I want to learn whatever he wants to teach me. He is the Master Teacher, and I truly want to be a willing student.