Me First: The Deaths We Should Die for Our Students
TL;DR or Abstract: The gospel is good news that Jesus died so that we might live. As Christians the gospel is not only something we must believe and proclaim, it is also something we must embody. Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, teachers have many and various opportunities to bring life to their students (and the students’ families) by dying. Such dying to bring life sets the course of the classroom and also shows the students how to live like Christ.
Wow! What a privilege it is to be here, to be a part of this first evar ACCS Regional Teacher In-Service Day, to have the opportunity to address you all and hopefully to give you some gospel encouragement for your labor in the Lord this morning. I love classical and Christian education. I love the ACCS, I love PCCS (where our oldest two kids got to attend for a year), and I love our toddler school. I am thankful to God for all that He is obviously and abundantly doing among us.
As for why I get to talk, well, my headmaster volunteered me, and none of the other headmasters/principles knew better. I definitely have a curriculum vitae to talk to teachers about teachering, and that resume is full of_incompetencies_ rather than masteries. I suppose if all the books could be written of the ways I could be a better teacher, all the school libraries in the world could not contain them.
But I do care. I care as an image-bearer of the God who mandated that we take dominion of all this stuff He’s created for and given to us. I care as a Christian because Jesus is Lord over every thumb’s width in the world that man can grab. I care as a parent of four students, as a pastor of parents, as a board member at our school, and as a teacher. I do not think I’m particularly gifted for the classroom, yet in some ways maybe that makes me a great person to talk about it because I have to make premeditated decisions.
The first decision requires me to determine: what do I want to accomplish? There are a number of excellent ways to answer to that question, but I’ve been answering it the last few years in an outlandish way. I want to turn Marysville into a destination.1 Have you been to Marysville? I bet we have more auto parts stores than your city, at least per capita, and certainly more on the main drag. We do have a spectacular whale fountain in front of our casino and an outlet mall that draws international customers, though those are technically not Marysville, but they are at the Marysville exits. There are also three Walmarts we can count as ours, so it’s a start. But I would love to be a part of making our city a place that Christians love to live, work, and grow.
That starts with working to make my home a destination that my kids want to be in, and then by extension to make my classroom a destination that my students want to be in. I want them wanting to be there. There are a lot of ways to accomplish this, but rather than dimming the lights and unfolding blankets and burning some sweet smelling candles with plenty of therapy puppies to pet, I want my classroom to be filled with the aroma of my many deaths.
That might sound like an odd ambition, but it is a gospel objective, just applied in the context of a school.
Death Is at Work
You may or may not remember a pseudo-evangelical movement that was popularish a decade ago called the Emergent Church. It was easy to tell who was part of the movement because they hated being stereotyped. They also were really keen on relationships and life, so lots of the churches scrapped the name “church” (too constricting) for something like “community” (more authentic). Many threw out their pulpits and pews and sat in couches drinking coffee and had conversations. Okay. But one of their core propositions, ironic since they were suspicious of propositions, was that Christians needed to incarnate the gospel.
That way of talking made me nervous for a couple reasons. Jesus is the incarnate Word, God in flesh, yes. But God taking on flesh is not something for us to repeat. We are already fleshy/fleshly, and more critically, we’re not God. The incarnation of Jesus is totally other than our experience. Incarnating the gospel also seemed wrong because the gospel is a message for us to preach, not a model for us to practice. I argued emphatically, definitively, that we should not use this language.
And I was wrong, because this is how the apostle Paul spoke about his ministry in a couple places, including Colossians 1:24 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-12.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
The “jars of clay” are “our bodies,” “our mortal flesh,” so the treasure of the gospel is contained not just in our brains or mouths. And what’s happening in the flesh? “Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” can’t mean that we’re being martyred, like a sledgehammer to a ceramic pot, once and done. The ones who are “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake,” they are also the ”we who live,” and it’s happening “always.” You can’t do it “always” if the dying here is body-buried-death. Somehow “death is at work” and, based on the first part of the paragraph, dying is related to being brought to our breaking points in the four “but nots.”
And what is the result of the exercise of dying? Two related things: 1) The life of Jesus is manifested and 2) life works in those for whom we’re dying. This is the gospel: death brings life. We announce the gospel, for sure. We are Christian schools. We’ve got to, and we get to, point our students to Christ as the only name under heaven by which we can be saved. But those of us who proclaim Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 4:5) are also practicing servants of the Lord (same verse), and we show God’s surpassing power as we are “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake.” This is incarnating the gospel, it is embodying the good news that death brings life.
This isn’t referring to a teacher taking a bullet for a student. That could be done as a final act of love, but it is a one-time death. The dying, the being given over to death, the always carrying the death of Jesus, refers, ironically, to a way of living that brings life to others. So here’s a stipulative definition of dying: giving up something considered vital, often causing pain, for the joy of another.
Death by a Thousand Papers to Grade
What does dying look like then? How does the abstract get concrete? This is the glory of it, I don’t even know all the ways. But here are some dying assumptions and some scenarios.
My Dying Teacher Assumptions
Three of these should be good enough to give you the idea.
First, I assume that students will not remember the homework assignment and that parents will not read the assignment either. Homework, assigning how much and the grading thereof, is its own thing, which I’ll bring up again under the scenarios. This also matters whether you have parrot, pert, or poetic students; the older they are, the more they should be responsible and the younger they are the more their parents will need to pay attention. But unless the assignment itself is to see if they can follow your Rube Goldberg assignment, then die to your expectation that all you need to do is say it once and you’re done. If you always respond to your headmaster’s first email requesting your response, then you can have a scratch-n-sniff sticker on your inbox in the teachers’ lounge, but you might be the only one.
Second, and related to the first, I assume that parents have other things to do than what I am now requiring of them, especially when it comes to grammar students. Some of your schools meet five days a week, some, like our school, have a day or more when teachers give work that should be done during “school at home.” But the assumption works for plain old “homework” too. We only get so many minutes a day in class, and there are a lot of Indispensable Lessons, but it’s not always apparent that teachers realize other things happen after school, or that parents are not sitting at home clicking the refresh button in their browser to check for new homework.
Yes, we are serving parents, and parents should know what is happening with their students. Yes, parents are ultimately responsible to God for their student’s education. Yes, sometimes you need for the student to do some extra work outside of class. But how many classes do they have, and how many teachers had extra work for outside of class that same day, and how much help is that student going to need for that assignment?
Third, I assume that, even if parents read the assignment, and even if parents sacrifice their other work for sake of helping their student, they still probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Ha! So I use complete sentences, albeit as short as possible. I also RTUA = refuse to use abbreviations. It could be the third quarter, and you’re using the same abbreviation you’ve used for the Saxon Time Fact Sheets all year long without a problem, but for some reason mom is out of town and dad needs to help and the fourth grader doesn’t know what “TFS” means. If you’re using an online homework application, put your Keystroke Saving Program to death. Maybe you’ll get RSI (repetitive stress injury), but it will be life to your people. If you’re a printer of assignments to paper, pluck up, there are plenty of trees.
My Dying Teacher Scenarios
It’s Monday morning, or Thursday evening, or whenever, and you get a text message from a parent asking if there’s Latin homework because there is nothing in Renweb, Sycamore, etc. You realize that you were interrupted right when you were going to post it, and you forgot, but you had told the students in class what you wanted them to do. Do you:
- Do nothing because you gave a verbal assignment?
- Quickly post the assignment and expect that all the families will look at it and complete it?
- Post it and notify the parents via a special group email or text?
- Take the curricular bullet and have the students complete the assignment the next day in class?
Of course there are other variables, including whatever agreements and expectations there are between the school and parents about how and when homework is to be communicated. But if your immediate reaction is, “They should have remembered the assignment.” Then if it’s so easy, why didn’t you remember to put it online?
There are other options than panic. Email or text the families and say that due to your error, the assignment will be graded for extra credit for those who remembered to do it, or it will be finished in class and won’t be graded. Die to your pride, and sometimes it’s okay to die to your plan.
Here’s another scenario. You only have so many classroom minutes, and you really want to talk about Augustine, and you really need to give a memory verse quiz and a test. Do you:
- Scrap waxing eloquent about Augustine and just do the boring quiz and test?
- Punt the tests to the parents to administer at home so you can talk about Augustine?
- Something else?
You are the teacher! Teach! Aug_us_tine is educational, even if you (wrongly) call him _Aug_ustine. The bishop of Hippo is probably applicable somehow to your curriculum. So ask yourself some questions. Is sending the test home instead of other homework better? Or is sending the test home something you’ve never done in that class and would likely cause confusion? Could you hold off talking about Augustine until next week, and plan to tweak the lesson plans to include it? Or could you move the test to next week instead?
There are other common scenarios too. Do you have a fussy student? Die (to your impatience) for him. Do you have fussy parents? Die (to your irritation) for them. Are you overwhelmed, not sure how to do the next day? Die.
You have so many ways to die to give life:
- Give everyone all the points, or make that assignment extra credit.
- Use someone who takes a perfect quiz as a grade for all (like justification).
- Scrap the assignment all together, or assign just the odd problems, or only one page instead of the two, etc.
Teachers are especially tempted to pass the pressure off to others when:
- When they are unprepared.
- When they are upset with someone else, their spouse, their own kid, another student from another class.
- When they made a mistake.
- When they failed to communicate (as expected).
- When they mismanage and run out of time (in class).
What do you tolerate in you that you wouldn’t tolerate in a student?
Dying to bring life is simple, not simplistic. There are qualifications, sure. I’m not arguing for a Montessori pedagogy, or that teachers never hold their students responsible. But we ought to be holding them to the standard when it is more, or at least equally, costly for us.
The gospel affects more than our content, it affects our methods. The gods of men demand sacrifices from men, and the system is rigged. The God of men sacrificed Himself, in Christ, for men, and the salvation is by grace. In most cases you are bigger, stronger, and smarter than your students. That means you could bully them, but it also means that you are equipped to sacrifice for them in powerful ways, not that you are equipped to lord it over them. That is the way of the Gentiles. When it comes to dying, it should be me first. That is some lesson.
Death isn’t just okay, it is the way of authority and glory. If sacrifice is glory, which it was for Jesus, then we reflect glory in the timely sacrificing of our lesson plans, our homework plans, etc.
As Julius Campbell told Gerry Bertier in “Remember the Titans”:
Campbell: You been doing your job?
Bertier: I’ve been doing my job.
Campbell: Then why don’t you tell your white buddies to block for Rev better? Because they have not blocked for him worth a plug nickel, and you know it! Nobody plays. Yourself included. I’m supposed to wear myself out for the team? What team? Nah, nah what I’m gonna do is look out for myself and I’ma get mine.
Bertier: See man, that’s the worst attitude I ever heard.
Campbell: Attitude reflects leadership, captain.
- I really hoped for a particular audience response at this point, and I totally got it. A lady in the front row let out a snort loud enough for the whole room to hear. I couldn’t have scripted it better.↩