Teaching is not for the faint of heart. It can be costly. What keeps us going?

Answers to that question might be as varied as the stories God is writing in each of our lives. I suspect part of the answer for most teachers is joy, a sense of purpose and hope that transcends daily pressures. It is significant that joy appears early in Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22); joy is a feature of the abundant life into which Jesus invites us (John 10:10).

Most teachers love learning, and we want to pass this love for learning on to our students. Essentially, we want our students to find joy in learning. Sometimes we confuse this with wanting students to have fun as they learn, which is a fine thing but not the same thing. How can we invite our students to find divine joy—purpose and hope—in the subject matter we teach, even if they don’t enjoy learning it for its own sake?

This brings us to what might be one of the most significant aspects of teaching subject matter Christianly: answering the “So what?” question from a God-sized frame of reference. What do I mean by this?

If I were to ask why you value the courses you teach, or better yet, why your students should value them, what would you say? We often give pragmatic answers to such a question: the material is needed for future courses, or it is important for life in general, or the course improves a college application. These are valid responses and students need to take them seriously. However, pragmatic benefits are unlikely to capture students’ imaginations, to inspire joy. Indeed, they are probably not the reasons we came to love learning.

As students become older, they increasingly wonder, “So what?” That is, they want to know why their schoolwork matters: what part it plays in their story. From a Christian perspective, we can offer them a narrative that includes not only pragmatic reasons to value learning but also a larger vision.

In the first book of J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, a small hobbit who has just begun a quest that will tax him to the breaking point, has a dream or vision. He is not sure which. In it, he hears, “a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.”

Sometimes, it is a vision of such a “far green country” that keeps us yearning and moving forward. Even Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2).

The well-known adage about stonecutters is appropriate here. Asked what they are doing, one stonecutter replies, “Trimming these stones to proper size and shape.” The other replies, “Building a cathedral!” The first is making a living and doing it well. The second has a vision of the larger purpose of his work; his efforts are touched by joy, whether he happens to like cutting stone or not.

How might we offer students an inviting vision of God’s larger purposes for their studies? Below are several suggestions, intended only as prompts to spur your imagination.

  • An excellent starting place might be to reflect on what you love about your favorite subject area. Pray for insight; sometimes the things closest to us are out of focus. Don’t stop with something like, “I just like science; I always have.” The most compelling reasons will remind us (and our students) of something of ultimate importance. For example, one thing I love about science is how the natural world is full of things that amaze us: extremes of all kinds, multiple ways to solve the same problem (breathing, for example), and so on. Students enjoy being amazed, but more importantly, these things put God’s power and genius on constant display. The Bible often uses examples from nature to demonstrate God’s greatness (e.g., Job 40-41). The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said it this way: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need a big God when life threatens to overwhelm us, and science has the potential to grow our view of God. This is unlikely to happen, however, if students merely learn facts without an inspiring vision of why they matter.
  • Articulate a compelling theme for your course and engage students with it often. As I hinted above, God’s genius was a theme in my science courses. (I unpack the theme at more length in a recent CACE blog.) It needs to be something that matters to you, so you will want to visit it often, and something concise, so you can mention it without disrupting the flow of instruction. This worked for me: “God is a genius! And you matter more to God than [whatever we are studying].”
  • Consider what might be lost to God’s kingdom work if your subject area was omitted from the curriculum. In other words, how does your subject matter equip students to love God and their neighbors? Some students would cheer if they never had to study English grammar or writing again. But what would they lose? Is it important for Christians, invited by Jesus to offer joy and light to others, to be able to write and speak clearly? Might learning to communicate well be an act of love, especially for students who do not enjoy it for its own sake? Another clear example of this principle concerns learning a second language in high school. Is this requirement merely an annoying hurdle to be crossed on the way to graduation, or might it equip students to understand and serve people they might not otherwise? In his book, On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom, David I. Smith (who taught French and German) shares how he wrestled with this idea.
  • Might the difficulty students have with a course be the very thing God wants to use to encourage and grow them? If you teach mathematics, you live with this reality daily, but most of our classes include students who find the course problematic in some respect. How can you articulate in a winsome, vision-casting way what God might have in store for students who embrace these difficulties? Googling the term “growth mindset” or the name “Carol Dweck” will locate resources for helping students with these challenges; I suggest this noteworthy growth-mindset website for math teachers.  How can you, who knows your course and students best, articulate and embody this vision Christianly?

As I mentioned, the suggestions above are mere prompts. As with most things related to teaching Christianly, one size does not fit all. Like master artists, we each create a classroom culture in our own way that puts Jesus’s beauty on display and invites students into the story He has for them.

That is the goal. Lest you become discouraged, remember that Jesus can take the few fishes and loaves we have to offer and do astounding things with them. Take small steps in the right direction and see what God will do.

Dr. Mark Witwer served for 41 years in four Christian schools, teaching many courses but especially Earth Science, Physics, Zoology, and middle school Life and Physical Science. Mark also served as an administrator, leading curriculum in three schools and serving as Dean of Faculty in one. He is currently adjunct Professor of Christian Education at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and loves helping teachers, pastors, and homeschooling parents explore what it means to teach Christianly. Mark has a bachelor’s degree in English with a science minor (Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana), a master’s degree in secondary school science (Villanova University), and a PhD in religion and society studies, focused on Christian education (Omega Graduate School, Dayton, Tennessee). You can explore more of Mark’s contributions to Christian education at the CACE blog and the science-and-faith website www.teachfastly.com.