Teaching: Confronting my American Idols

Step into my classroom on any given morning, and you’ll see a kaleidoscope of humanity. About half my class was born outside the United States. I have students from Eastern Africa, the Middle East, India, Burma, and more. My American-born students range from platinum blonde to black, and all in between. They are Muslims, Christians, and non-religious.

You continue looking around the classroom. Their learning experiences are just as varied. One is shuffling through the cluttered papers under his desk looking for his math spiral. Another is talking loudly to one of her friends. Another is shushing that one in order to concentrate. Two are taking the tops off Expo markers to write today’s homework answers on the board. One walks around with a gel pen to check daily homework. A different one is in the back is turned toward my assistant’s desk, thinking I’m not noticing, sifting through papers, looking for her stash of markers. Another of my introverts has finished her obligatory work and is now diving back into her own little book-world. Seventeen different universes all somehow coexist in the same room, all spinning together—seventeen life experiences, seventeen sets of expectations. There is one student, though, that’s learning more than all the rest. One student feels like he knows less than all the rest, and one faces the biggest challenge of all of them.

I am that student. I’m the biggest learner in the room.

Teaching these two years has been the most challenging task of my life. It’s shown me how little I truly know. I come to the cliff’s edge of my abilities and training each and every day. My limits are tested and stretched, and the next day, the process starts over.

It’s also forced me to confront many long-held mindsets. As I’m stretched outside my upper middle class American comfort zone, I’m having to come to terms with what I call my American idols; these are needs that I’ve accepted, along with many millennials, that give me a false sense of security. These security blankets don’t, however, reflect a real Kingdom of God mindset. I think the Lord is using school teaching to pry these idols slowly from my fingers. Here are three such idols in my life that are also common in many young millennials.

1) Having all my ducks in a row – I want to be professional, and more than anything, have people think I’ve got it together. This does not work for a teacher for several reasons. Even the most well-planned lesson can flop because of inclement weather, a sick student or two, or some unforeseen changes in the school’s schedule.
2) Having everyone speak well of me – I’ve joked often that parents usually approach me as one of two characters: God or the devil. Particularly many of the international parents will back me up in any situation, yet other parents hold me to blame for their children’s problems. Students may say I’m like a superhero or, a different day, delve into disrespect and even question my right to be a teacher. Administrator evaluations can be quite discouraging at times, too, highlighting my insufficiencies in many areas where I try very hard. It’s a humbling experience to be praised some days and criticized others.
3) Self-congratulating based on how well my work is going – This is my biggest struggle. More than anything, each day, I want to get to the end of a day and give myself a pat on the back for how much I accomplished. Well, teaching smothers this one every day. The planning is never done. The students never behave fully. There is always another paper to grade. More importantly, it will be years before the true value of my work will be shown in the lives of students. Even then, only a few may ever affirm me for it. The danger is that I can become my harshest and most emasculating critic.

Giving 100% every day and receiving so little gratification from my pupils has taught me that I can only look to one place for my affirmation: the voice of my Father in heaven. He said of Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 NIV). When He says those words to me, no student, parent, or administrator can take it away.

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