I know that not everyone places as much stock in the teachings of The Bible as I do. I also know that there are some risks with teachers interpreting their role as classroom leader as overly similar to the role Jesus played in his time on earth. All of that being said, I was recently moved to reflect on how the role of our Lord as teacher could provide some lessons to us as we engage the work of educating young people.
This reflection needs a story.
I had a student some years back who struggled his way through geometry… twice. The first time it didn’t work (for a variety of different reasons). He was a pleasant boy. Fully engaged in the social aspects of class. He was a willing partner or group mate, didn’t mind talking in front of the class and practically ALWAYS listened to the words I was saying. He came to me first as a 10th grader and a struggling math learner. His skill set wasn’t strong. His perseverance also wasn’t strong. He had scraped by in math classes before he made it to geometry. Geometry seemed to be where he hit his limit.
As his struggles mounted, he began to disengage. The absences started to become more frequent. Then he got sick. I spoke to his mom. We made a plan. He eventually got better and started coming back to school, but the plan didn’t stick. By June, he had mastered barely half of the learning targets for Geometry and it became clear that I couldn’t recommend him for credit. He understood. His mom understood. I never liked having to do that.
And, due to the limitations of our system, he ended up back with me, right back where we started the next fall. This time he, as a junior, was a bit more out of his element. His other friends had advanced to the next course. And a fresh batch of last year’s freshman (now sophomores) mixed with this year’s freshman were now surrounding him. He parked into the back corner. Sat by himself. Would rock back in his chair. Still paying attention to every word I said.
As was my custom with all of the students who I have to see a second time, I like to go back and talk to him. See, I misspoke earlier. We weren’t exactly right back where we started. In addition to the half-ish of learning targets he’d once mastered, he and I knew each other. I knew his mother. I remembered him telling me what his summer was going to look like. I followed up on that. He knew I had young kids. He followed up on that. It wasn’t like last fall. It was different.
So, he sat in the back. We agreed that the absences were the primary problem last year. That my goal was, for as much as I enjoyed having him around, to never have him in my class again. And in order for that to happen, he needed to be in school. He committed to that and to his credit, he kept his word. He came to school a lot more, missing a few days here or there. There weren’t too many gimmicks or cheesy incentive programs. (although, he became one of the guys I could really count on. There is a benefit to having a kid who doesn’t mind being tardy to his next class. When the bell sneaks up on you and you need someone to help rearrange desks and clean up construction paper scraps, a guy like him was handy to have around. Don’t worry. I wrote him late passes to keep him out of trouble.)
But he continued to sit in the back and keep to himself. Eventually, that changed some. I paired him up for think-pair-shares with some fairly safe partners. And he kept learning geometry. A “C” here, a “B-” there, a “D+” somewhere else. Most of the time he was passing. Sometimes he wasn’t. Some quizzes or tests he needed to try twice, but he did. Sometimes he couldn’t stay after school, so he’d go in the hallway to do it. No big deal really. I was just happy he was coming to school.
Then, in late May, I was able to show him that he was mathematically in the clear. He had learned enough geometry to pass and could prove it to anyone who asked. We high-fived and I called his mom to make sure she knew. She was excited. He shrugged it off. Mostly, it seemed he wanted to verify that this meant that he didn’t have to study for the final (as was his custom). I rolled my eyes at him and told him that he should see it as a chance to show off how different this year was to last (as was my custom).
In reality, it was a compromise. He tried a few problems. The ones that were easy for him. Left the harder ones blank. But, on the last problem of the test, he wrote something that I’ll never forget.
“It’s been a great two years. Thank you for not giving up on me.”
He put it at the very end. Last question after about a dozen that he’d skipped. He knew that I’d look at every single question. (I told you. He listened to everything I said. After two years, he probably knew me as a teacher better than I knew myself. He probably could have written my evaluation more accurately than me.)
I didn’t expect that. What if I told you that a kid would fail geometry, have the same teacher the second year, just barely pass, and would THANK the teacher at the end? I didn’t get many thanks from those students. Heck, I didn’t get many thanks from students who had great experiences in my classes.
But it helped me to realize something. Teaching isn’t about accepting students as they are and leaving them be. It’s about accepting the reality of where a kid is and helping them become more and better versions of themselves. Perhaps our job is to help transfigure our students.
Eastern Christianity commemorates the feast of the Transfiguration of the Christ in late summer. You can read about it if you’re unfamiliar. It’s in Matthew, chapter 17. In a nutshell, Christ takes His three closest disciples up to the top of a desolate mountain and begins to radiate a light brighter than any of them had ever seen. Moses and Elijah appear also. He did this for a variety of reasons, but the most important reason was that this light wasn’t new. It wasn’t something that Christ had only recently found, acquired, or learned. This was something that was always inside of Him, it was always a part of Him. He needed His disciples to understand that. They needed a full understanding of the reality of their situation. One commentary considers it “a foreshadowing of His future glory.”
When the disciples came down, their resolve was set. They had (quite literally) seen the top of the mountain and knew that their goal was to get back there again. They’d seen the glory of Him whom they were following and knew that if He was willing to share it, they were willing to work to receive it.
As I was reflecting on the story of the transfiguration as I read it today, I noticed some connections to the way that teachers relate to the students in their classrooms.
Each of these children has “a future glory” built into them. There’s a potential that is always there. It’s a part of them, built into the very fabric of their humanness. Our job is to give them a chance to see a foreshadowing of that future glory. To give them a view of the potential they have. To help them to see that it exists and is worth fighting for, worth working for, worth sacrificing for, worth struggling for.
It would have been easier for me leave that boy to his struggles, move him on (either by flimsily passing him or casting him off to another teacher). It would have been easier for him to simply quit the second year as he did the first year. The struggles build up. There were times he wasn’t passing, even in the second year. At those moments, he needed to decide why year two was going to be different than year one. Not me. Him. He needed to know.
And while I didn’t know it at the time, he knew it was different because there was an adult who, as he put it, wasn’t giving up on him. Who believed not in what he was, but in what he could become. Who was able to foreshadow his future glory. Quite literally, there was a portion of that student who was transfigured during geometry class. And I didn’t know it was happening. The day-to-day becomes ordinary and the students are numerous enough that you don’t recognize what is happening moment-by-moment. But when he had a moment to reflect, he recognized what had happened. And I’m glad he did because now, I do, too.
That’s our role. We are in a human development industry. There is an often-unspoken understanding that development means that at the beginning, people aren’t what they should be. And they need guides to become fully developed. Many of our students don’t come to our rooms as their best selves. They’ve become convinced of things that aren’t true. They’ve drawn conclusions from experiences that are interpreted through blurry lenses. As a result, they are confused. They look to the world around them and they often don’t find help. Many of the modern social messages are contradictory and confusing. 140-character answers are plentiful, but real help often takes much more time. The messages from the media don’t help. What helps are caring adults who, as my student put it, won’t give up on them.
That’s where our job begins. We get these young people and we need to take them up the mountain. Show them why their future selves are worth struggling, fighting, and sacrificing for. We need to foreshadow their future glory. Because in so doing, we accept that our task is no less than to transfigure these students a little bit at a time.