This is a pep talk about an elephant in the classroom: Must Christian educators also be youth pastors?
What am I talking about? My story is a little embarrassing, but if you are like me, it might be encouraging. If you are not like me, it might help you understand some of your colleagues who are.
After unexpectedly becoming a Christian educator, I enjoyed my middle and high school students and tried to love them well for Jesus’ sake. Still, I assumed my main job was to teach subject matter in engaging, effective ways, from a Christian perspective. The challenge of presenting material from a Christian perspective motivated me to do doctoral work in Christian education.
A funny thing happened along the way.
The more I researched, the more I realized that while giving students biblical information is critical, it is usually not enough to foster the kind of life change promoted in our Christian school mission statements. I became convinced that Christian formation required a two-handed approach.
On the one hand, students need to know how the Bible informs their learning. I was delighted with that one! I loved articulating a Christian perspective on my subject matter and finding effective, fun ways for my students to learn it. I enjoyed delivering information in clear and creative ways, and my students appreciated my efforts. (They even appreciated my bad jokes. Nowadays, they are called “dad jokes.”) So far, so good!
On the other hand, I discovered that the meaningful things students experience and do regularly (their practices) motivate them to act on the Truth they know (James 1:22-25 alludes to this). The biblical perspective I was presenting in my science and math classes was what students needed, but I had not given much thought to how my classroom practices—the things I had students do to learn the content—were shaping their hearts. Had I been teaching with one hand tied behind my back? My heart sank at the thought.
I had excellent relationships with most of my students, but I do not have pastoral gifts. Was I to add “shaping students’ hearts” to my list of teaching responsibilities? Did I want to get that involved in what felt like a youth pastor’s job?
What follows are some bullet points reflecting how I answered these questions. The bottom line: God can be trusted with what feels like your inadequacy.
- For some teachers, shepherding students’ hearts (as well as minds) comes naturally. For others, like me, our strongest gifts lie elsewhere. This is OK. Effective teachers strive to serve their students well, but they do so in different ways.
- Do not feel guilty about gifts you don’t have, about areas in which you feel inadequate. God intends for His strength to be obvious despite—even because of—those weaknesses. Remember Gideon. Even the Apostle Paul had to learn this lesson (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). We have different gifts for a reason.
- However, the fact that we might feel awkward shepherding hearts does not mean we can ignore the fact that there is no such thing as neutral pedagogy; the things we have students do and experience are formative. As James K. A. Smith puts it in You Are What You Love, these practices shape students’ loves: the way they imagine a good life, the things they learn to want at a gut level, all of which then drive their choices. What should we do about this?
- I believe our responsibility is to make a start in bringing our faith more to bear on our teaching practices. Pray for help to see how your classroom culture is shaping hearts (not just minds). Pray for ideas that fit your teaching style and will engage students in experiences that might—in God’s hands—encourage them to love God and neighbor. Don’t feel guilty about what you don’t know, or just cannot (yet!) bear to do. If you are willing to be led, your loving Father will lead and help you. And it gets even better…
- Taking these baby steps is itself a formative practice! What seems impossible or unpalatable right now might change; this is how practices shape hearts. Years ago, when I began to pray more consistently for my students, it felt a bit forced. Now, I cannot imagine not doing it. What happened? Somehow, God uses what we do to change our hearts. What we do out of faithfulness now can become what we love to do later.
If you are like me, we might never shape classroom formative practices as skillfully and naturally as others who have gifts that are more pastoral or nurturing in nature. (Then again, we might! Never underestimate grace.) However, what we do compared to others is not the point; God has not called us to live someone else’s story but to be faithful with our own. As Paul said about giving, be faithful with what you do have (2 Cor. 8:12), then watch what God does!
If you want to read more about how faith can inform pedagogy, I highly recommend David I. Smith’s book, On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom (Eerdmans, 2018).