In my last blog, I mentioned the clash of worlds in which I currently find myself: A Mason elementary teacher working in a public high school. My job as an instructional assistant gives me a great deal of time to observe and reflect on the ways in which my remedial students could benefit from a Mason education. I work in some very difficult classes—the kind substitutes dread to enter when the teacher is absent. Many of my students are hard and belligerent. Their eyes sometimes seem to say that the only thing they have to look forward to in school is the day they turn seventeen, when they can legally drop out. I am angered by minds and lives being wasted. My heart aches daily, because my hands are tied when it comes to selecting curriculum materials or methods of teaching or assessment. On a good day a teacher will ask me to work with a struggling student. I love this, because then I have the opportunity to introduce narration or to work with children on concepts instead of having them memorize facts and steps. However, most of the time I must try to find other (and more clandestine) ways to be a light to these students. Usually, I am restricted to trying to show that I view them, and value them, as persons.
Although this may seem like a small step, at least it is a step. And I believe it is a step worth taking, especially in the public school, where there is the issue of separation of church and state. In the hope of opening a Mason charter school, my friends at ChildlightUSA and I have often talked about how a Mason education would look in the public sector. How would it work, when it is undergirded so heavily with Christian ideas? We have lamented together over the fact that you may not study the Bible or pray with students in order to help them build a good foundation for character development. We have worded and re-worded documents for the organization in an attempt to appeal to a secular world without compromising Christian principles. If we take the ideas of Charlotte Mason seriously, then we have little choice but to view teaching as a form of Christian ministry. But how do we, as Christian teachers, minister to children when we may not name the name of Christ? Enter Laurie Bestvater’s seventeen-year-old son with insight beyond his years: “Mom, it is a point of law that the name of the thing is not the thing itself.” Such wisdom out of the mouths of babes! The name of the thing is not the thing itself. A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet. And we may know Christians not by their words, but by their fruit. Perhaps most of the challenges teachers face with their students, whether they are academic or behavioral, are best met with an authentic display of spiritual fruit. Let us take each of these Fruits of the Spirit in turn to see how they relate to education.
“But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23
Jesus said that love is the greatest commandment. Let us begin, then, with the assumption that one cannot love what one does not know. Therefore, teachers must take time to get to know their students. Love also means accepting and respecting those students just as they are. This includes students who have blue hair and facial piercings, who wear gang colors and will not pull up their pants, and who brag about using drugs or being gay. It also includes children who are disrespectful and refuse to complete assignments. Love and like them anyway. Jesus set an example of loving people in spite of their shortcomings. He certainly loves us in spite of ours. Authoritarianism and manipulation through rewards and punishments (like grades, stickers, or time-out) do not reflect love. Instead, they signify a shallow attempt to control another human. In addition to this being a selfish goal rather than a biblical one, students see these things for what they are and become resentful.
One of the best ways to engage children in what they are learning is for the teacher to be genuinely interested in it. Taking joy in God’s creations (including nature, language, and mathematical principles), as well as His image reflected in the creations of men (such as art, history, and literature), is contagious, as long as the materials used to explore them are not joy-stealing textbooks and worksheets. Also, children can be led to take real joy in their own accomplishments, and those of others, without excessive praise and rewards. And let us not forget to keep a sense of humor, which makes everyone’s day brighter.
A peaceful countenance is also contagious. If children are persons, then it should not feel strange to defer to them sometimes. As a matter of fact, doing so creates a relaxed, democratic atmosphere, which researchers say is more conducive to learning. A teacher can also help students work through disagreements and frustration in constructive ways instead of leaving them to themselves and then punishing them when they make wrong choices. Keeping peace with irate parents when they enter your classroom is also important, because ultimately you need to be on the same team in order to do the best job for their children. Sometimes, children need help making peace with subject matter. When something is difficult, it is imperative that students reject the idea that it is just too hard for them. Teachers can mentor children, sharing stories of their own academic hardships and frustrations, and then carefully scaffold experiences instead of watering them down, so that the students see that with time and perseverance they can succeed.
Let’s face it. Kids can be trying at times. But do you know what? So can adults. We all are tempted to put things off to the last minute. We have all been late. We have all lost things, including our tempers. Does this make us evil? No, it makes us human. If children are human, too, then we should show compassion when they slip up and help them figure out how to do better next time. Also, we know going in that learning is a long, arduous process. Why are we then surprised when children need more time than we think they should to master something? Trying to push students to understand things more quickly than they can only causes stress for them and the teacher. It is much better to slow down and allow children to wrestle with ideas for a time, so they can build meaning and connect with the subject on their own terms. Arbitrary standards set on an arbitrary timeline are the very antithesis of the sort of child-centered learning Mason advocated.
Sometimes I encounter children who have built up a wall between themselves and any adult in a position of authority. Since I follow many of these students through their school day, I have been able to observe how they respond differently to different teachers. What I have found is that these walls cannot be brought down by force. God, in His wisdom, has told us we should not provoke children to anger. Yet this is precisely what happens when authoritarianism and power struggles exist in classrooms. The teachers who are successful in getting the difficult students to try are the ones who are quietly consistent. It is almost like trying to get animals to eat from your hand; they will not do it if they feel threatened. Sometimes you just have to give children space and time to judge whether or not you are authentic. Once they come around to you, which may not take more than a few weeks, you can get on with the business of teaching and learning without constant conflict. This is also the best way I have found to reach children who have not had academic success in the past and are on the verge of giving up. Instead of pushing them, you must gently pull them through with careful scaffolding.
Everyone knows that children and teenagers are inundated with less-than-savory images and ideas through the media and sometimes through their friends. Teachers are in a position to counteract this. But at times I have seen teachers say or do inappropriate things, such as tell off-color jokes or questionable personal stories, seemingly in order to gain what I will call “cool points” with their students. We are in very prominent role-model positions as teachers, and we have been warned to not put stumbling blocks in the paths of children. Students watch us and emulate what they see, whether they want us to know it or not. We must recognize the gravity of this responsibility and try our best to let God’s light shine through us every single day, understanding that the only way to be successful is to be constantly in the Word and in prayer.
People have a need to know that they will not be abandoned, and giving up on someone is a form of abandonment. If a teacher or parent gives up on a child, it will not be long before the child gives up on herself. Faithfulness means perseverance when a child is having difficulty understanding a concept. When students require you to explain something again and again, it is easy to feel bogged down. The temptation to just move on and leave that child behind is ever-present, especially when you are constrained by a “pacing guide” handed down to you from your superiors at the district office. But we must always choose the child over the curriculum.
During my time in high school, I have discovered that you can really take children by surprise with small acts of kindness. Smiling and making eye contact, picking up a dropped pencil, or opening a door for a student are likely to result in a confused double take or the type of head-tilt you see when a dog is trying to comprehend what you are saying. But I have found that students—even those who are characterized by their teachers as holy terrors—begin to show kindness back very quickly. They even begin to be kinder to each other when an adult sets that climate. I have often seen posters on classroom walls that say something like, “To get respect, you have to give respect.” Teachers would do well to remember that this statement does not only apply to their students.
It is so easy to vent frustration on children. Sometimes I catch myself saying things to my own children that I would never say to my husband or another adult. (Mea culpa!) But if we accept the fact that children are persons, then we must be mindful not to say or do things to them that we would not say or do to each other. Modeling self-control for our students when things are not going our way is a powerful way to help them learn to deal positively with circumstances beyond their control. Sharing your feelings when you just do not want to get out of bed, do the dishes, or looking over the math lesson, and then doing those things anyway, demonstrates how to allow the will to control desires. All of those things help to make the classroom climate a good atmosphere in which to learn.
Demonstrating the Fruits of the Spirit in a classroom (or at the kitchen table) when we have a thousand things to think about and do is often difficult. It takes time, reflection, and deliberation over every small decision and word choice. All three of these significantly slow down the learning process. It is no wonder schools that are pressed for maximum results in the minimum amount of time cling to behaviorism. I believe that, ironically, if schools and teachers approached learning with spiritual fruit as the starting point, all their desires for excellence would take care of themselves. Let us work to help educators understand that seeking God first leads to an abundance of knowledge—and abundant life.