In the middle of the school year, it can be good for us to step back and think about why we teach.
Early in my teaching career, a friend asked me why I teach. I described the feeling of satisfaction I get when I successfully explain a difficult concept to a student. When the light of understanding comes on in a student’s eyes, that feeling is addictive. “It’s the best feeling in the world,” I said.
His response stopped me short: “What happens when you stop getting that look?” I didn’t have an answer. For years, the question haunted me, but I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom it contains. I’ve come to realize that teaching for external rewards, such as lights coming on in students’ eyes, is not sustainable because I can’t control when—or if—I get the reward. Now, I teach for a different set of reasons.
I teach because I’ll never master teaching. I have been teaching for a decade, and in that time, I have become more skilled at the craft. I have learned the difference between questions to ask, questions to answer, and questions to leave hanging. I have learned to spot signs of poor classroom culture, and have developed techniques to improve the culture. I have grown as a teacher, and yet, compared to where I thought I would be by now, I’m an amateur. I could profitably spend the next decade developing my assessment skills, the decade after that developing my differentiated-instruction skills, the decade after that developing my lab skills, and so on until old age forces me to quit, and I still would not have mastered teaching.
Not only that, but the needs of students keep shifting. When I started teaching, none of my students had a smartphone and none had plans to get one. Now, my students who don’t already have a smartphone expect to have one within the next few years. They are digital natives, as comfortable with touchscreens as with books. That shift alone has changed the rules for effectiveness in the classroom. Add some cultural shifts and a changing economic environment, and, suddenly, effective teaching requires a whole new set of skills that I didn’t need when I started teaching. The vastness of the field and the changing dynamics of the classroom mean I will never need to fear becoming bored with teaching.
I teach because I am not left on the sidelines. There’s a lot of hand-wringing in our churches about the state of our young people. They have grown up with internet-connected devices, so their attention spans are short, their reading skills are weak, and their entertainment tastes are decidedly shallow. They tend not to take responsibility for their own actions, and they certainly don’t want to become adults any sooner than necessary. With all of these negative trends, what hope does the church have when it comes time to hand them the reins?
As a teacher, I see these same trends and am troubled by them, but I have the opportunity (and responsibility) to do something about them. From the learning experiences I craft, to the discussions I have, to the example I live, I can influence students to resist the siren song of technological amusement. What’s more, I can influence them to develop their unique talents and to use their opportunities given by technology to strengthen and grow the Kingdom. I know I cannot save them from the negative effects of technology or the winds of cultural change, but I can make a difference, and that matters.
I teach because that is what I am called to do. Becoming better as a teacher and influencing students in positive ways are both compelling reasons to keep teaching. However, James 3 declares that teaching is a sacred calling that bears significant responsibility, and, crucially, it’s not for everyone. As I look back over the first years of my teaching experience, I can see God’s sustaining grace clearly evident exactly in the times when I needed it most. I can control neither what my students do with what I teach them nor how they respond to the Gospel message that I present, but I can remain faithful to the task to which God has called me. If I do that, He has promised, again and again throughout Scripture, to be faithful to me. Indeed, that has been my experience.
CONTRIBUTOR: John Mark Kuhns