FINDING FOCUS: Teaching

I spent fifteen years working in public education. During that time, I met fabulous teachers who cared about every student and mediocre teachers who plodded through their classroom like an ox with a plow. I learned tons about teaching theory, application and practice from these educators, but my most important lessons came from the students.

One remarkable example: I cried in front of a classroom filled with teenagers. Okay, the first time it was merely three students, but I was doomed to repeat this humiliation more times than I wanted. So why didn’t I learn from my misery? Because emotions are slippery fish.

Rewind to my first year as an instructional assistant. The teacher assigned me three small groups of students, each reading a different novel aloud and then discussing it together. Everything seemed fine until I saw the title of one of the books: Where the Red Fern Grows.

“I can’t read this book,” I told her.

“What?”

“I can’t read this book.” Repetition is often the key to understanding. For emphasis, I shook the book at her.

“Why not?”

“The dogs die.”

Blank, non-comprehending eyes stared back at me. What part of “I can’t read aloud a book in which dogs die” is so difficult to understand?

With a heavy sigh, I admit with unapologetic sharpness, “I cry every time.”

She nods. “I know. It’s sad.”

That’s it? It’s sad? I think heart-rending, painful and guaranteed to induce tears is more accurate. My stunned disbelief must be apparent because she asked, “Would you like to take a different group?”

“What are the other books?”

She gestured to the stacks of novels on the round table behind her. I stepped around her to peruse the titles. Gang wars and the Nazi occupation of Denmark. None of the choices looked more appealing than the dead dogs.

“I guess I’ll stay with this.” It will be weeks before we got to the sad part of the book. I’m pretty sure I felt a sick day coming.

Nature offered up a summery spring afternoon when the coon hunt gone bad made its appearance in the read-aloud. Our group was outside, reading beneath tall evergreen trees. Wind ruffled the pages. The fresh, pine-scented air brought those fictional woods to life.

I tried to cover my emotions, but there’s just something about a clot of mucus in the throat that makes speaking impossible.

Three young teenagers practically gaped while my tears, unwilling to be quelled, strangled me. I pretended not to notice their shock, but I felt mortified. To my distress, their attention had never been so completely focused on my face or words.

“Are you crying?” one girl asked.

Gulping down the infernal throat-frog, I admitted, “This part is so sad. It always makes me cry.”

“I hate when animals die.”

“I cried when we had to put my dog to sleep last fall.”

Who knew overly dramatic, hormone-driven teenagers could be compassionate and empathetic?

My tears provided an effective teaching aid. If nothing else, they proved that effectively written prose can evoke deep emotions.

The lesson was about more than that, though. And it took something bigger before I learned it.

Bigger? Oh yes. I broke down in front of the entire seventh-period class. By “broke down,” I mean I wept. Shoulders shook and snot ran like a flood-swollen creek. It was so extreme my co-teacher was forced to take over for me.

Those 24 eyes staring at me expectantly weren’t waiting to hear the rest of the story. Nor were they judging an over-emotional, pre-menopausal, middle-aged woman.

They knew my grandmother had recently passed and that my mother was undergoing a life-threatening treatment. I’d missed work to take her to chemotherapy at least once.
Their silence respected my grief. It endorsed the teacher’s freedom to be human, to show weakness, to be vulnerable. And, in the end, it made the story I was reading more meaningful.

Teaching others means realizing your own shortfalls. A good teacher doesn’t know everything and won’t enter class with haughty arrogance. Transparency is the key to effective teaching because it gives silent permission to the student.

They don’t have to pretend either. So what if they don’t get the concept? If this lady CRIED, they can set aside their pride and ask for further explanation. When they’re having a rough day, they can vent steam in the corner until they collect themselves. They recall when the teacher had to take a break to pull herself together. If all else fails, there’s a box of tissues to mop up tears.

Even the teacher gets overwhelmed sometimes.

Christians must walk with the same authenticity demonstrated in that classroom. No sense pretending we’re infallible when the Bible clearly teaches us Jesus is the only perfect man who ever lived.

If we want our teaching to find it’s mark, our first lesson is humility. The second is honesty. With both of those book-ending the classroom of our life, we might impart a few truths to those we teach.

This Bible lesson was first published in FINDING FOCUS THROUGH THE LENS OF GOD’S WORD in 2016, copyright belongs to Sharon Hughson

7 comments

    • It’s funny how adults often assume they have to act more in control when they’re working with young people. Most kids appreciate the authenticity. If nothing else, it shocks them into silence. And yes, I think we should work on transparency in all our relationships.

  1. Gang wars, Nazis and dying dogs? And people wonder why so many young people are depressed.
    You make a great point here. Worrying about what others will think of us can lead to putting on an act that prevents us making any real connection. If we’re ok with saying “I don’t know” or “I struggle with that” then that opens the way for other people to feel ok doing the same thing. But it takes courage (or, you know, uncontrollable emotion) to actually follow through in the moment…

    • Those other books were THE OUTSIDERS and NUMBER THE STARS (THE BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA was also a choice) and they’ve been taught in our middle school for too long.
      The older I get, the easier it is for me to admit my shortcomings and be “okay” with others “judging” them. I think authenticity is largely missing just because everyone is so worried about “offending” others.

      • I have long been sustained by something I read as a teenager: “You would worry less what people thought of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

        And what is it with the book choices? I had friends who had to study Lord of the Flies or, if they positively couldn’t stomach that, The Screwtape Letters. All very well if you’re coming at them from a position of sturdy mental health, but is adolescence the most stable phase of life? Hardly.

        Another friend’s class in the last year of high school abruptly stopped studying Death of a Salesman after one of the class took his own life. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but can’t young people learn how a novel works by studying Dickens? Austen? C.S. Lewis? Why this determination to pour grim darkness into their lives?

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