Here we are at the beginning of August, teachers and school leaders across the world are gearing up for back-to-school craziness. It’s a bizarre mixture of excitement and trepidation, kind of like the momentary pause at the top of a roller coaster. You can see the loop-the-loop coming, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Are you ready?
As that first day approaches, I have been reflecting on my time as a school leader and remembered a specific story I thought might be worth sharing. It’s a confession of sorts, a moment I feel some shame over, but what I learned from it has impacted the way I treat students. So, like David says when he repents in Psalm 51, “…I will teach transgressors Your ways, so that sinners will turn back to You.”
A number of years ago I was working at a PreK – 12th grade Christian school as the principal over junior high and high school students. One day, I was sitting in the office of the elementary principal, when the administrative assistant poked her head into the doorway, informing us that there was an elementary student who had been sent to the office by their teacher. Since it wasn’t a student I was principal over, I was much obliged to step out and let my friend deal with the aggressor.
As I left, I couldn’t help but notice the student, sitting in one of the office chairs with a look of horror. I could almost see the frantic thoughts running through their mind… “What was I thinking? What’s going to happen next? What are my parents going to say?” It was a small enough school that I recognized the child, and was surprised to see them in the office. It wasn’t one of the frequent flyers that we would see on a somewhat regular basis, so it made me curious as to what happened, and my heart felt sympathy.
I went back to my office, but my mind kept coming back to the student, curiosity about the situation nagging at the back of my mind. A short while later, the elementary principal came in to finish our conversation from earlier, and I had to ask for the story. “What did that student do to be sent to the office?” My friend explained the situation. They had written a word in a notebook and passed it to a classmate. But it wasn’t just any word, it was a 4-letter word. THE 4-letter word. The one from The Christmas Story. The teacher spotted it, read it, and then sent the student to the office. A pretty open-and-shut case.
Now here’s the confession: My response showed the shallowness of my heart. “Huh,” I said, “I thought that student was a good kid.” Perhaps a seemingly innocuous thing to say, but it betrayed a way of thinking that is more offensive and heartless than a notebook full of swear words. I am grateful that my friend caught it, and corrected me: “That student is a good kid, they just made a bad choice.”
Now, I am not saying that humanity is generally good. I’m not even saying that most humans are good and that we must fight against the evil in the world. This is a worldview espoused by those in our culture who are holding onto a thread of hope that humanity can somehow fix this broken world on their own. That thread never existed. Scripture clearly teaches that all humanity is sinful and falls short of God’s glory (Romans 3.23). The only thing we humans can do on our own is mess things up. The good news is that we’re not on our own. I am also not saying that people shouldn’t be held accountable for making bad choices. Choices have consequences and when humans make bad choices, there should be a negative consequence.
What I am saying is that viewing each student who comes into my office as “good” or “bad” based solely on their actions is not helpful for their discipleship. Instead, they should be seen as the pinnacle of God’s creation and dearly loved by their Heavenly Father. They have been given His very breath of life, made in His image, and given free will. And it is that free will that gives them the potential to worship the Creator with all their heart, soul, and strength, or to write a 4-letter word on a piece of paper. The good news is that now, those in Christ can be called righteous apart from the law. “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3.22). That’s not just good news, it’s the Good News.
So how does this impact the way I treat students today? Now, when a student is sent to my office, usually for “breaking a law” of some sort, I do my best to see it as an opportunity to walk through this very Gospel message with them. You see, there is an unspoken, universal understanding that being sent to the principal’s office means you are a “bad kid”. But as they walk in and sit down across from me, I ask God to help me see them the way He sees them. I try my best to help students see themselves this way also. They are loved by God, before and after they committed the crime that sent them here. And now we have a chance to come back to God in repentance and celebrate the righteousness that is apart from school rules. Will there be consequences? Sure. Is there a phone call made to parents? Yep. But I can tell you that my job as a principal is much more enjoyable when I get to view discipline from a Good News perspective. Discipline becomes discipleship.
So, as we gear up for school, I encourage you not to think of your students as “good” or “bad” kids returning, but as students who have the potential to be transformed into the image of God, from one degree of glory to another. And instead of wishing you a year without any disciplinary issues, I pray that in each of the disciplinary situations that is bound to happen, you find an opportunity to bring the Gospel into your school.