Informing about Formation to Our Students

At the beginning of every school year, I spend two days in each of my classes unpacking my personal philosophy of education (much of which has been deeply impacted by James K.A. Smith’s outstanding book, Desiring the Kingdom). Before I delve into any content with my students, I want them to know exactly why they are in school and what I want them to get out of my class. I believe these classes to be crucial, as they form the foundation for the rest of the school year.

As Smith argues from Scripture, human beings are fundamentally lovers. That is, what we love constitutes the core of our identity. Our loves determine every decision we make; after all, the two greatest commandments our Creator has given us both revolve around love (Matthew 22:27-40). This is an important point to ponder for teachers because our anthropology inevitably dictates our pedagogy. Our philosophy of human nature inescapably impacts our philosophy of education.

Historically, since the Enlightenment, Western society has largely conceived of human beings as first and foremost thinkers. Thus, schools have often reflected this assumption, placing a heavy emphasis on information–factual content and rote memorization. Learning information is very valuable, but I believe that it cannot become the ultimate goal of education since it is not the ultimate goal of human existence. I am convinced that the forefront of a teacher’s philosophy of education must involve formation–helping our students become the right kind of people, loving what is good.

I firmly believe that what ultimately matters is not what our students know but what they love. It doesn’t matter much if our students one day procure prestigious professions if they are not people of character. It doesn’t matter how much money they eventually make if they do not make a positive impact on the world around them. It doesn’t matter how much our students know if they do not know their Creator and lose their souls as a result (Mark 8:36).

This doesn’t mean that content is inconsequential. It also doesn’t mean that information and formation are mutually exclusive–I believe that they are actually closely connected. What it does mean is that teaching faithfully and Christianly involves engaging our students’ heads for the ultimate purpose of shaping their hearts. It’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and.

Teaching Life to Our Students

Whether we realize it or not, we are forming our students with everything we do, not just when we are formally lecturing or meticulously grading. Everything we do as teachers adds to what our students learn from us–from how we greet them to how we respond to their misbehavior to how we grade their work–all of these things carry and communicate unspoken, implicit messages to our students. Kids quickly catch onto these cues and learn (often subconsciously) from all the things that we teach them about how to live life. One of my old college professors once told me about a teacher he had who once told him, “Really, as a teacher, you’re not teaching history [or fill in the blank with whatever subject(s) you teach]. You’re teaching life through history.”

Our students pick up on our tacit teachings about life more often than we may realize. I was recently speaking with a colleague of mine who told me, “How is it that my students can immediately tell when I’m having a bad day? Even when I try to hide it, I can’t. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, and one of my students just told me that it seems like I’m having a bad day.”

Of course, every teacher has off-days. We all have lessons that flop, tempers that flare, and emails that exhaust. But are we intentionally trying our very best to consistently, holistically form our students for life (not just for passing a class)? Are we modeling for our students what it means to be a person of Christlike character? Are our nonverbal communications with our students conveying that they matter, that we truly love the Lord, that we always give our best effort and do our best to pursue a positive attitude day in and day out?

When I look back and reflect upon my own schooling, I don’t remember many specific lessons that my teachers delivered. I don’t recall much of the content that my teachers articulated (countless studies have shown that students forget the vast majority of the content that we teach). What I do remember is the way that my teachers made me feel. I remember the kindness that they showed me. I remember the enthusiasm that they exuded for teaching–and life in general. I remember the testimonies that they shared about God’s goodness in their lives. And these teachers were a huge reason why I decided to enter the field of education myself.

As the saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I think this proverb rings especially true for teachers.

Forming Christ in Our Students

What exactly are we trying to form in our students? Ultimately (at least in my book), it’s not an impressive IQ that earns sky-high SAT scores and Ivy-league acceptance letters. It’s not an American ethos. It’s not a tolerant attitude. Don’t get me wrong–none of those things is inherently bad. But they’re not the main thing. And as my grandfather (an educator of 50+ years), often says, The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing that we should seek to form in our students is actually not a what but a Who: in a word, the Word–Jesus (John 1:1), whose image they bear and whose character they are called to conform to.

As Christians, no matter what specific vocation God has given us, we all share a common call to Christlikeness. This is because God’s ultimate purpose in saving us is to unite us with His Son and to make us become like Him (Romans 8:29), growing the fruit of His Spirit in our inner being (Galatians 5:22-23). As teachers, our vocation (our divine calling, not just our job) is to work with God to help our students catch this vision and pursue this purpose.

Paul addressed the Galatians as “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19, ESV, emphasis added). We may not share the same spiritual responsibility that the apostle Paul felt for the Galatians, but God has nevertheless entrusted us with the task of tending to His sheep–and each one is precious enough to Him that He would leave 99 others to track down and rescue any one that is lost (Matthew 18:14). How often does our heart express an anguish to have Christ formed in those whom God has entrusted to our care? How often does our attitude toward our students reflect our Father’s persistent shepherding? If you’re like me, not nearly as often as it should. But it’s the goal that we’re called to strive toward.

Imitating Christ to Our Students

Paul urged the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, ESV). I believe that God has entrusted teachers with this calling–to imitate Christ to our students so that they can follow us as we follow Christ. Even at the best Christian schools, not all students have strong examples of Christ-followers in their lives. It is our calling to “put on” Christ (Romans 13:14) every day so that our students will see Him in us. Do we exude the aroma of Christ to our students? Do we emanate the fruit of His Spirit?

As I alluded to earlier, I was blessed to have countless Christlike educators who cultivated in me a desire to imitate them as they imitated Christ. Now, as a teacher myself, my ultimate goal for my students is that they would likewise encounter Christ through me–and be formed into His glorious image.

Because of all this, I would argue that the best professional development that Christian educators can get is to develop their own inner lives, to pay attention to their own spiritual formation. The more time and energy that we invest in Christ’s presence–communing with Him, meditating on His Words, and doing His work with His people–the more we will start to love like Him and be like Him–and the more our students will notice and (with the help of the Holy Spirit) follow suit.

As teachers, we may at times feel that we can only do so much. But I believe that we far too often overlook the power of the little things. Mother Teresa once said, “We can do no great things–only small things with great love.” Something as seemingly small as a smile or a compliment could really stick with a student and totally change her day or her life–we must be faithful to do our part by imitating Christ, trusting God to bring the growth in our students. God is more than able to bless and multiply our humble seeds of obedience and use them to bring about a great harvest for His Kingdom as we work with Him to form Christ in our students.

James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom:

William Davidson is a secondary Bible, Math, and Social Studies teacher at Asunción Christian Academy, an international Christian school in the heart of South America. He is happily married to his wife Sarah, who teaches 1st grade at the same school. He holds a BA in History from Wheaton College and an MA in Teaching, Secondary Education from Wheaton College Graduate School. He is currently working toward his PhD in Applied Theology, Biblical Spirituality at Midwestern Seminary.