Thoughts on teaching.

Well, hello.

It’s been a while since I’ve written, Wanderers (I finally came up with a nickname for the readers of this blog! Makes me feel like I know you better). Lots of life has happened in the space between this and Two Gardens–I had my first day of high school (again). And my last first day of my undergraduate career at Northwestern. I started interning at my church, Evanston Bible Fellowship, co-leading a Bible study group at my pastor’s house, and teaching Sunday school to 4 and 5-year-olds, all of which have been incredible so far. As far as my own schooling goes, I’m taking three classes a week and doing my student teaching practicum at my high school sites all day on Mondays and Wednesdays. And of course, I’m going on my fourth and final year as a leader in my campus ministry.

Needless to say, I’ve been busy. And thrilled. And exhausted. And generally just full of a lot of feelings.

I haven’t had time or the mental energy to form a sufficiently coherent blog post. Which is problematic, considering how much I’ve been learning–as a teacher, a student, and a person. And I just really want to update you all on what God’s been showing me. So, here is my compromise–a large collection of thoughts, most of them on teaching. Or student-ing (is that what I’m calling it? I don’t really know how to separate the two any more).  Not necessarily coherent or conclusive or consistent. These are thoughts in need of grace.

Let’s begin.

I love planning first-day-of-school outfits. Buying nice new clothes. Looking like a professional in the hopes that I’ll feel like one. Or at least pretend that I feel professional so the kids won’t realize I’m only three or four years older than some of them. On that note, I really ought to wear more comfortable shoes. The backs of my heels have taken a beating, walking up and down stairs and onto train platforms and through hallways.

Also, I’m basically the same age as these kids. I don’t feel qualified to stand in front of them. To stand in front of anyone, really.

You know, Jesus was a teacher. He taught His classrooms out in the middle of the square. On a boat. He gave of himself. He gave and gave and gave. His life, his teachings, were gifts to his students. He formed minds and hearts and souls. He was the greatest teacher who ever lived. His lessons have stuck with people for almost 2,000 years. I don’t know if my lessons will stick with my students for 45 minutes. Who am I, to bear the responsibility of forming the minds of young people? Who am I to teach!? I don’t know the answers. I don’t know why this is what God is having me do. It’s humbling. Can I do this? Can I do what Jesus did? Can I pour myself out, my life, my work, as a gift? A gift to those who might not ever thank me? I don’t know. Sometimes I think so. And sometimes I don’t. What do I have to give?

You know what else? It says in James 3:1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” So. Am I one of the “not-many?” Is teaching what I am supposed to do? Is this what I am called to do? And what is a calling? Is it what I’m doing right now by the virtue of the fact that I am doing it? Is it something I am good at? Something I want to do? (Because let me tell you–I don’t always want to be a teacher. A lot of the time, I want nothing more than to get married and be a stay-at-home mom and writer). But is a calling something more than all that? Something else entirely? Or maybe I’m asking the wrong questions here.

Honestly, most of the time, as worth it as I know it is, I don’t think I’m cut out for this job.

The other day I was planning my first lesson plan in the library with my friend and both of us were commiserating and navigating and typing and trying to stay awake and not give up. We both confessed hating this teaching thing, sometimes. And I asked “Am I a bad person?” We laughed. But for all the times I’ve hated it, there have been other moments, too. Moments where students have smiled at me, made me feel noticed, needed. Where I’ve contributed to learning. I taught my first mini-lesson on the fly two weeks ago–I found a comic strip relating to women’s perceptions of beauty in the West and in the Middle East, and I got to present it in front of the class. The seniors listened as I stood up in front in my high heels in front of their straight-row desks and they answered my questions. The students all clapped for me. It was very affirming.

You know, I didn’t always want to be a teacher. In fact, I remember swearing that I would never become one. God is funny that way. I would have liked to see His face when I said that all those years ago in high school, heard Him chuckle under His breath and say, “Challenge accepted.” But here I am. Maybe I should have seen it coming. My grandmothers were teachers. Two (three?) of my four aunts were (are) teachers. My sister is studying to be a teacher. She always knew. Since 4th grade, she knew. But I didn’t. I am less certain.

There have been moments when I’ve felt like I’ve known. When I stood up there, either in front of the class or in front of my fellow student teachers. How the butterflies kind of just melt away. It almost felt like I was onstage again. Performing. And in a way, every teacher (especially every new teacher) is an actor. The show must go on. Learning must occur. The immediacy, the improvisation. The urgency. Most of my kids at my first school, a military school, live in low-income homes. Most speak Spanish at home. Some of my most thoughtful, intelligent students were the ones who were being forced to leave because of disciplinary issues. One of these sweet girls did not bring her homework to class and when I asked her why, she told me she didn’t have time because she worked 15 hours on Saturday–less than I worked in a week back at home. Many students commute over an hour and a half to get there. They are a tightly-knit community that cares for each other. They are curious. They make mistakes. They made me feel welcome and made my heart ache and made me laugh until my stomach hurt. They are kids. They need good teachers. More than that, they need human beings. People to listen.

I confess, I like feeling needed. Like I’m making a difference. Like what I’m doing is significant. I was glad my first mentor teacher articulated this for me. She likes feeling needed, too. Here, in this place, she is needed, far more than she is needed in the suburban schools where her teacher friends all migrated last year. She is teacher, nurse, mother, counselor, cheerleader, friend. She is an inspiration. She pulled me into her teaching, asked me questions about how I felt, told me I had good questions. She is loud and opinionated and boisterous and hilarious and excellent and passionate. She knows she can walk in and make a tangible difference in these kids’ lives in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a school like the ones on the North Shore of Chicago. Her students need our expertise. Our words of encouragement and empowerment. Our ears to hear them. Our eyes to see them, not as projects to work on to make ourselves feel better, but as people with dreams and value and pain and passions all their own. They need our love. Just. Love.

Sometimes when I think these things, I cringe and wonder if I think of myself as some sort of savior. But I know that these kids don’t need saviors. There is only One. And He is sufficient.

But they need teachers.

Slowly, I am learning the difference.

My other observation site–everyone says I was lucky to be placed there for student teaching. And I am. It’s an incredible and unique place, offering academic and extra-curricular opportunities to students even I couldn’t have dreamed of at my own wealthy, white suburban high school. The faculty are extremely well-read, sophisticated, intellectual powerhouses, and some are professors at other colleges. Talk about intimidating. The methods are innovative, cutting-edge. The students are well-behaved and conscientious and college-ready. Probably a lot of them are smarter than me. They come from incredible privilege.

Of course, I can’t blame them for the fact that most of their parents probably make six-figure salaries or for growing up on the North Shore. I can’t blame them for the fact that in a classroom of 40 students, there are maybe three non-white kids and only two who had ever heard of the term “affirmative action.” I can’t blame them for just being born into a place where English was their first language and both of their parents went to college and have Master’s degrees and being bred to go to places like Stanford. I can’t blame the school for spending twice as much money on its students as any other school in the state. I went to a high school like this. I know these kids. In many ways, I am one of them.

But honestly, the inequity between my first school and this school does make me a little queasy. And I can’t help but wonder if any of these students will ever notice, ever feel the claw that occasionally tears at my insides whenever I think of the students at the military academy. When I wonder what they would see, what they would feel upon seeing each student at the North Shore school holding an iPad, getting into an Ivy League school. Will those who are equipped do justice? Will they love mercy? Will they walk humbly? But, more immediately–will I? Sometimes it seems so big and terrifying and exhausting, and I don’t know how I could possibly matter in the end. I am utterly and totally inadequate. I am utterly and totally in need of Jesus.

I think I see this most in the moments when I feel like I’ll never not be a student. Like when I carry my backpack through the halls of the high school to the English Department Office. Or when I go into the teacher’s lounge to heat up my Easy Mac and eat my applesauce before going off to observe the next class. What am I, 12? I try not to feel that way, because I can’t have my students seeing me that way, or they won’t take me seriously. “Take me seriously.” Ha. I don’t even know if I take myself seriously, to be honest. I am trying, though. I am trying to see myself as an adult. Even though, technically, I already am an adult. Am I already a grown up? As of next year, I will no longer be student-ing. I will be one of those “young professionals.” How did that happen? Where did the time go? Why is it all going so fast?

Senior year is weird. Sometimes I can’t wait to graduate and get a job and get married and have a family. And sometimes I can’t imagine leaving and I wish I could get the time back.

Time is a weird thing. I am learning that it is a luxury.

As a teacher, Jesus gave up his rights to time. Time spilled out of Him like water out of a glass. But God–I love those two words–has taught me that, when it comes to time, I am stingy.

I love this time of year. The smell of rain and apples and cinnamon, the earth beginning to cover itself up, a preparation for sleep and whiteness. Leaves, crimson and mustard and fawn, all brilliant, all changing. Brisk wind. The bright golden sunshine early in the quiet mornings before I step into another day. Scratchy sweaters that smell like my dad, like wood smoke and Irish wool.

This season is beginnings and endings, life in death, all at once.

Time twisted up.

As far as I can tell, teaching is a 24-hour job. Between lesson-planning, class time, grading, and thinking about students, it basically never ends. I don’t know yet if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes, honestly, I wish that God had called me (there’s that “calling” word again) to a job that allowed me to leave work at work. Something that didn’t require so much time, energy, planning. Something that didn’t require so much of me. I need, need, need His grace.

My mentor teachers keep talking to me about what kind of teacher I will become. Even though both teach English and they both teach Secondary Methods at universities (Loyola and Trinity International, respectively), they have extremely different styles. They want me to develop my own. “Who are you, as a teacher?” they ask. They want me to figure it out, but honestly, right now, I’m still working on the first part of that question.

I honestly don’t even know if a public school is the best option. I’m heavily considering working at a Christian school, where my faith is welcomed and celebrated–right now, I don’t know if I could handle working in a place where I had to leave Jesus at the front door. Maybe I wouldn’t get tired of teaching high schoolers if I could teach the living, breathing, life-giving Word.

And what about my love for really young kids? I read in one of my teaching textbooks a quotation that said something like, “People who love kids should go into Elementary Ed, and people who love their subject should go into Secondary Ed.” I mean, I love English. But I don’t think I love English more than I love working with kids. Little kids are funny. They’re not as jaded. They like giving hugs–even if I can’t hug them back. And, oh, do I love my little ones at Sunday school, the little ones whose mouths so willingly, so sweetly proclaim truth to me every Sunday, like “God is love,” and “Jesus came to wash away all our sins.” They are my teachers. Oh, I wish I had the simple faith of my four-year-olds. And part of me–the cynic–says that they’re just parroting me, that they don’t actually understand, but I also know that 1 Corinthians 1:27 says, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” I can’t underestimate the mind of a child or assume they don’t understand–especially when God is the one doing the work.

Because God is incredible, really. He is the ultimate Teacher, teaching me how to teach. I learn from Him when I teach. I teach what I have learned from Him, and learn some more in the process. I learn both from Him and of Him. He uses others to teach me, helps me to teach others. He is the Pourer of love and time and wisdom and living water. And I am just an empty jar that tries to pour it out for others before it all leaks out through the cracks in the surface.

You know…maybe that is who I am as a teacher.

Maybe it’s just who I am.

–Erin

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1 thought on “Thoughts on teaching.”

  1. My love, I am always so encouraged and humbled by what you are seeing and learning and processing. Thank you for sharing.

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