Thursday, July 12, 2012

lessons from teaching, #2

authenticity = impact 
Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person… In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests.”   ~ David Brooks, “The Service Patch” (24 May 2012) 
I have been fascinated to discover the difference between the statements, “I teach high school English” (Oh. Did you make the mistake of majoring in poetry?) and “I’m doing Teach for America” (Cool! That’s a really good thing to do).  

Oddly enough, my students never seemed to care how or why I became a teacher; I have learned from them just how much who I am matters – or more broadly, how important character is in any field.  This was, in fact, the initial brilliance of Teach for America – recognizing that at least part of the problem in education was a human capital problem, that there was an undersupply (please do not read “no supply”) of qualified and quality teachers.   While many people were focused on reworking curricula or improving testing/accountability, Kopp recognized what E.M. Bounds once observed about ministry: “The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men.” 

As a generation (even as a culture?) we have defined “better” as based on community service.   To some extent, I understand the movement towards positive action in place of the simple negative avoidance that accompanied previous moral fervor.   As a pastor-friend, Dan Orr, once observed during a similar discussion, “We will never be a witness for our beliefs by what we don’t do in our work;” people seldom notice the absence of insult or injury.  And yet it is hard to serve without some belief driving us. 

So the real litmus test becomes: how deep does that belief go?  No matter the type of job we are working, how authentic are we?  The fact that I was “serving” erased neither my desire for a beer after a rough day, nor the obvious query on students’ faces if they saw me purchasing it at the local market: “I guess that education he preaches doesn’t land you that far from the reality I know.”  As John Poulton observed, “People communicate primarily, not words or ideas… Authenticity gets across from deep down inside people… A momentary insincerity can cast doubt on all that has made for communication up to that point.”  Inversely, that same authenticity can communicate positively.  I never saw growth from KJ while I taught him, but after we developed a relationship through athletics/coaching, he ended up working – on his own time - many of the same reading, ACT prep, and time management lessons that he had not previously!  Q. started the year with an underwhelming 6th-grade reading level and an overwhelming attitude, but after I visited her family and attended the funeral following her brother’s untimely death, her performance tipped and she grew 5 years in reading that year. Nothing about teaching itself demanded that I have these relationships; it was not simply where I worked or what I did that created these impacts. 

To accept that some jobs are nobler than others is to believe the industrial myth that we are what we do for a living.  Some people may work vocationally and explicitly at what we are all called to do universally.  But that does not remove the need for our involvement.  What if we began to view education as a community initiative instead of an individual teacher’s responsibility, building relationships with students that supported them holistically?  What if we viewed missions as part of our Christian calling – in any environment – rather than the responsibility of pastors and missionaries?  What if we stopped completely outsourcing poverty to the government, and took responsibility for some needs in our communities?  We need to “jump in.” Teaching pushed me in, removing my comfortable distance, forcing authentic, moral concern, and I am grateful.  But as I enter I different context, I pray I dive in voluntarily, with a cannonball.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

lessons from teaching, #1

belief precedes behavior 
“What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.  This contradicts some of the most ingrained assumptions we have about ourselves and each other.  We like to think of ourselves as autonomous and inner-directed, that who we are and how we act is something permanently set by our genes and our temperament … We are actually powerfully influenced by our surroundings, our immediate context, and the personalities of those around us… To look closely at complex behaviors like smoking or suicide or crime is to appreciate how suggestible we are in the face of what we see and hear, and how acutely sensitive we are to even the smallest details of everyday life.”
~ Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, p. 258

Most principals will tell you that classroom control (edspeak: management), is the cornerstone of a successful classroom in the chaotic environment of a large, urban high school.  I had to learn this the hard way, and did not see success in my classroom until I had spent a summer learning, observing, and developing better management methods. 

Rules, however, cannot change outcomes alone.  A student can follow all the rules and still not learn.  While change could not have happened without that control (i.e., it could have been prevented by a lack thereof), when success did come, it did not come simply from having more control.

As Gladwell points out, change – whether in learning, character, outcomes – is susceptible to our “surroundings.”  Rules can limit negative influences, but they cannot create positive belief.  All schools have rules; not all schools create motivation.  One of the real breakthroughs that I have observed in the charter movement is this understanding of environment, and the saturating of a students’ surroundings with mission-oriented, change-creating messaging.   What students see must change first, so that their vision can follow, and then real change can occur.  Unfortunately, many traditional models have the reverse understanding – performance opens doors to new environments.  You must change first. 

I don’t think this understanding is a failure of traditional models themselves.  I think we are wired by Western society to overvalue performance, to think we need to change first in order to create/enter a new environment.   We set up rules to begin to alter our performance – I will study three hours a night, I will limit my “distractions” to one hour, etc.  But we’re still in an environment that is focused on minimum study time, distractions, et al.  Our identity becomes wrapped up in our negatives – our “sickness,” if you will – and we focus on that.  We lose, as Gladwell described it, our “bedrock belief that change is possible.” 

And education is just one example.  This performance-oriented ethos dominates much of our society, including our faith institutions.  We have a history as Americans, emerging as early as the puritanical witch-hunts, of thinking that rules are the point of the Bible.  In response, we try very, very hard to identify faults and “stop sinning.”  We think of religion mainly as moral behavior modification.  At least, I know I did until I was turned on to a sermon responding to these excesses in moralism called “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” (by Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish pastor)  As the title suggests, he realizes that what overcomes the negative influences in our lives is not strict discipline, but rather a stronger positive passion, a new/renewed love for Christ.  I don’t have to change myself first – I have to change my driving impetus.  We don’t change our beliefs and then join – we change our environment and that changes our beliefs

My students need to be set on fire with a love for learning and surrounded by college banners that direct their dreams.  I’m thankful for schools that do that.  I need to be ignited with a love for God, and examples and stories of people who live that way.  I’m thankful for a Savior who is that example, who came down into my environment and changed it.  

Lessons from Teaching

After spending my past three years teaching in an urban, Title I school, I am currently in the midst of changing jobs – and careers.  Teaching has been an incredibly useful lens for processing my beliefs about society, humanity, and spirituality.  My classroom has been a case study on human nature and interaction; high school students provide delightfully raw and unrefined material for reflection.  I don’t know that any other field can or will supply such clear examples of observable, applied spiritual axioms.  As I transition, I want to take some time, through this series of posts, to distill some of the enduring lessons that I am taking with me.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

painting behind the refrigerator

Today was one of those days as a teacher when it seemed to make more sense - logically - to simply not come to school.  I knew a week ago that I would not be teaching anything explicitly.  I had a speaker first period, and administrators had decided that the best use of third and fourth period would be watching navy seals jump out of an airplane onto our football field.  As a fellow teacher quipped, "I guess this must be this year's college fair?"

But as I weighed whether to take a day off, I thought back to last summer when I was completing a contract to paint a condo.  It was an open floorplan, and I was edging freehand, so by the time I had worked my way around to the kitchen, my arm was getting tired, my hand was cramping, and I began to wonder: do I paint behind the refrigerator?   It is in my best interest not to, and chances are that they never pull it out.  In any case, I certainly don't spend time painting well back there.   Why would I?

Obviously, this line of thinking is a slippery slope - why should anyone care about the quality of their work in general?  Particularly if it is not directly tied to financial incentive or career progression?  If the goal is not money, identity, power, or even productivity, why work?  Many of my fellow Christians had told me that work was merely a platform for evangelism - so why paint by yourself in an empty house?

Piper helps clarify below.  We work not so that other people might be inspired to give glory to God but to give glory to God ourselves, and as such, we should endeavor to present our fullest (albeit futile) effort.
"People make images of famous people to honor them.  God made man in His image so that He would be seen and enjoyed and honored through what man does."
~ John Piper, Don't Waste Your Life, p. 139 

Monday, April 9, 2012

experiencing easter

"[Jesus Christ] was not ashamed to be crucified for us as an evildoer.  It is nothing but our fellowship with Jesus Christ that leads us to the ignominious dying that comes with confession, in order that we may in truth share in his Cross.  The Cross of Jesus Christ destroys all pride.  We cannot find the cross of Jesus if we shrink back from going to the place where it is to be found, namely the public death of a sinner.  And we refuse to bear the cross when we are ashamed to take upon ourselves the shameful death of the sinner in confession.  In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother - which means, before God - we experience the cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation.  The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him.  Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life."
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 114
I am easily distracted by shiny objects.  Or bright colors.  And sometimes furry animals.  So I have been fairly excited over the course of the last few weeks about my neighbor's kitschy seasonal lawn decorations.  But I also really have to be intentional if I am to focus on the meaning of Easter.  How can I today share in an event from two thousand years ago?

Bonhoeffer answers by linking the cross to confession; where most of the teaching I've heard has exhorted Christ's followers to imitate the sacrifice or suffering of the cross, Bonhoeffer suggests that we share in the shame associated with it, through confessing sin.  When I hear the phrase, "take up your cross" (cf. Mark 8:34), the images that come to mind are like those in The Passion, rife with suffering, and I begin to wonder what a call to suffer would look like.  But as my pastor, Ray Ortlund, has pointed out, "Suffering is universal, it's inevitable; walking in the light is not."  Confession is what distinguishes the Christian experience.  Confessing my own (specific) weaknesses to someone else would be the ultimate fulfillment of Christ's command in the same verse to "deny oneself."  Again, my first instinct is to try to follow this rule by being more sacrificial, giving up things for God.  But we can't earn our salvation, and we can't pay it back.  "We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Christ, once for all" (Hebrews 10:16).  The only sacrifice we are commanded to make is to "put to death the deeds of the flesh" (Romans 8:13), which is done most effectively by admitting to fellow believers what/where we have done wrong.

We truly experience Christ's resurrection when we share in his cross, which we do by reminding ourselves, in front of others, of our specific actions that made his sacrifice necessary - and make it our salvation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

christian idioms, part iii

Confession:  I've definitely gotten worse at cocktail parties since college.  One of the few similarities between my wife's work in medicine and mine in education is the tendancy to become clinically detached.  It can be incredibly difficult to give context to the harsh realities that we see every day, and even harder not to become a political advocate in trying to explain them. 

I think that we face the same problem in our faith as Christians.  It is incredibly difficult to provide the context necessary for people to be able to hear that they are screwed up, and not take offense.  My pastor has recently described that context as a gentle environment with "more gospel + more safety + more time."

Shit Christians say, like, "The church is a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints," is incredibly unhelpful in shaping this gentle environment.  Yes it is good that we don't self-identify as pious moralists who want to exclude others.  But the idea of a hospital implies that we are getting better - that we're working towards discharge, that we will leave better than those who didn't come - and this is still moralistic.  Or at least know-it-all.  Perhaps a better analogy is an asylum.  Or a halfway house.  There's no expectation that we will get better.  In fact, there should probably be some social stigma.  Which is exactly why we throw ourselves into the shelter of the gospel. 

"May God preserve me from a church of saints.  I want to be in the church of the faint-hearted, the feeble and ailing, who feel and recognize the wretchedness of their sins, who cry to God for comfort and help, who believe in the forgiveness of sins."  (Martin Luther)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

christian idioms, part ii

HT: Ray Ortlund, "My church or the Kingdom?"

“My passion isn’t to build up my church.  My passion is for God’s Kingdom.” 
Ever heard someone say that?  I have.  It sounds noble, but it’s unbiblical and wrong.  It can even be destructive. 
Suppose I said, “My passion isn’t to build up my marriage.  My passion is for Marriage.  I want the institution of Marriage to be revered again.  I’ll work for that.  I’ll pray for that.  I’ll sacrifice for that.  But don’t expect me to hunker down in the humble daily realities of building a great marriage with my wife Jani.  I’m aiming at something grander.” 
If I said that, would you think, “Wow, Ray is so committed”?  Or would you wonder if I had lost my mind? 
If you care about the Kingdom, good.  Now be the kind of person who can be counted on in your own church.  Join your church, pray for your church, tithe to your church, throw yourself into the life of your church with wholehearted passion. 
We build great churches the same way we build great marriages — real commitment that makes a positive difference in practical ways.  And thus we build the Kingdom.