I hadn’t been teaching very long when I noticed that my students had lots of problems, bad problems. I’ve seen them deal with abuse, mental illness, chronic poor health, church strife, broken families, material need, spiritual turmoil, addiction, and death. It’s not that I’ve taught in enclaves of extraordinary darkness; I’ve always taught in normal Mennonite communities, among almost stereotypically God-fearing rural folk. But the world is fallen, and the chaos and suffering of the world aren’t stopped at the borders of our communities. Our students’ lives are hard, because life is hard.
I cared about my students and tried to address their problems. If their parents or church were failing, maybe I could nurture them. If their health was poor, maybe I could steer them toward the needed treatment. If their lives were painful and confusing, maybe I could give comfort and guidance. It turns out I couldn’t. In some situations I was woefully ill-equipped, and others just weren’t my business. My efforts tended to be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
I needed to learn that I was my students’ teacher, not their parent, pastor, doctor, therapist, or even friend. Imagine a world in which your pastor gives financial advice in the middle of sermons, your mom dabbles in dentistry, and your mechanic drops by just to hang out and catch up for a bit. Such excursions beyond one’s calling are more likely to limit effectiveness than to be helpful. I have found that I maximize my positive impact on my students when I simply devote myself to faithful teaching.
This does not mean that I must be a cold-hearted technician, plowing through my lesson plans with nary a thought for my students’ lives outside the classroom. On the contrary, faithful teaching begins with love. I pursue excellence as a teacher because I love my students, and because I love them I care about their joys and sorrows and look for ways to serve them. It’s trying to fix all their problems that’s so often troublesome; understanding and support are always appropriate.
And there are times to step in and do something. First, we must appropriately report abuse as we become aware of it. In all US states this is a teacher’s legal responsibility—we are “mandated reporters” in the legal jargon—and I believe it is also a moral responsibility. Know the legal requirements you are subject to and your school’s procedure for reporting suspected abuse. If your school has no such procedure, talk to your administrator or board about instituting one. In Pennsylvania, where I teach, we are required to complete abuse reporting training, which I found very helpful. Even if you are under no such requirement, I’d encourage all teachers to take this kind of training. You can find more information on our role as mandatory reporters here.
Second, we should address issues to the extent that they impact students’ learning and school experience. Does a student need glasses to read properly? Talk to his parents about glasses. Is there conflict and tension among students? Encourage reconciliation, kindness, and respect. Does a student have poor hygiene? Well… That could get touchy. If it’s creating real problems at school, address it. Otherwise, maybe it’s not your business, unfortunate though it may be.
I once had a student who experienced the death of a parent during the school year. I did not have a close relationship with this student, and it would have been inappropriate to rush in with a box of tissues, constantly asking how she was doing, etc. There were other people to grieve with her; that was not my role. But part of my role was assigning her homework, and I didn’t want her homework to be an extra burden amidst her loss. I told her to hand her work in as she was able without worrying about due dates for a few weeks. She expressed appreciation, and I was glad to help in this small way.
Third, we must ask God for wisdom and follow His leading. Our students’ Creator loves and understands them incomparably more than we ever can. We are His servants, and when He chooses to bless His children through us He will lead us to the task and equip us for it. That student with poor hygiene? The way of wisdom is probably not to greet him on the first day of school with a lecture on daily showering, or to get out the school stationery for a letter of concern to his parents. But perhaps you will build a relationship with him that will help to solve this problem. Or perhaps you won’t. Wisdom may dictate that you leave the issue alone, or God may lead you to hit it head-on, with the lecture and the letter for all I know. The Lord will always make a way for us to do the work He has for us.
As servants of God and our students, we must neither ignore their struggles nor assume all responsibility for them. We can always pursue excellence as educators and be alert for ways to bless those around us, loving our students and trusting Him who loves them most of all to lead us in serving them effectively.
CONTRIBUTOR: Peter Goertzen