Genesis 12: 1-4a (NIV)
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave the country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ So Abram left, as the Lord had told him.” (emphasis mine)
Hebrews 11:8 (NIV)
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (emphasis mine)
“On their walk through life, Christian pilgrims are not just passing through, leaving the world untouched. Neither do they travel as tourists who merely take souvenirs and leave litter. They doggedly seek blessing, practice works of mercy, and erect signs of the kingdom.” (Smith & Felch, 2016, p. 25)
What is a pilgrim? Webster’s dictionary defines a pilgrim as someone who journeys in foreign lands or someone who travels to a holy place as a devotee. I see Abraham as a pilgrim. He definitely was traveling in a foreign land and although the actual place where he was going may not be considered holy, he was in fact following the most Holy God and wherever God is, is holy ground. (Moses was on holy ground when he encountered the burning bush; not because the ground itself was holy, but because he was in the presence of God.—Exodus 3) Abraham left what he knew, his comfort zone, and dared to venture into the unknown because he was devoted to God and to God’s leading. He was in the presence of God.
As educators, we have a lot of comfort zones – last year’s plan book that will guide us as we approach a new year, units and lessons that we have taught so many times that we almost have them memorized, seating arrangements that make it “easier” on us, schedules and routines that provide structure. Comfort zones provide us with a sense of ease and safety, a place with less stress. However, if we stay within our classroom comfort zones, perhaps we are not fully embracing the idea of being an educator as a pilgrim, but rather we take and consume much like a tourist – taking test scores, “consuming” student projects that in the end become garbage can art. If a pilgrim’s destination is a holy place, then to what holy place as teachers are we going if we stay within our comfort zones?
Abram did not know where he was going when he set out on his journey. He only knew that he needed to go. God gave Abram vague yet trust-worthy directions, saying to Abram that He would show him where to go. In the passage above from Genesis, six times God says that He will. God is actively leading Abram. Abram just needs to follow.
What does that look like for educators in the classroom?
Perhaps if we as educators see ourselves as pilgrims on a journey to a holy land, being guided by the most holy God, we can begin to feel a sense of excitement and freedom as we approach our day-to-day teaching and guiding of students. Where is God taking us as educators? What holy places will He reveal to us within our classroom and within our students if we get out of our comfort zones, if we follow His lead, not knowing where He will take us but being open to the pilgrimage?
Meeting core curriculum standards and helping our students reach learning targets and academic goals are definitely a part of the journey throughout a school year. Perhaps though, we shift our perspective to see the learning that happens as part of the “supplies or tools” needed for the journey to holy places. What we as educators and our students “do” with the learning becomes the true “pilgrimage”. This can change from year to year, with different students, classroom communities, and curriculum. Allowing ourselves as educators to anticipate and expect the variance from year to year is in some way “leaving the security of home” as Abram did and setting out, following God’s guidance to holy places.
Teaching for Transformation is a way of teaching that encourages this pilgrimage – not only for the students but for the teacher as well. Unless we as educators become pilgrims and enjoy the journey with our students, we deprive our students of what true learning and pilgrimage really look like. Smith and Felch say that Christian pilgrims “seek blessing, practice works of mercy and erect signs of the kingdom” (Teaching and Christian Imagination, 2016). This is lived out by the call to ‘meeting a real need by doing real work for real people’ that is embodied within the practice of Teaching for Transformation. As pilgrim educators, we need to seek opportunities for our students to use their “tools or supplies” of the journey (their learning) to meet a real need for real people – not just to “take a souvenir or leave litter” (Smith & Felch, 2016, p. 25) – in the form of meeting curriculum standards, completing a project or taking a test.
Being a pilgrim can be a bit scary. Most likely, Abram had a certain amount of fear as he stepped out in faith into the unknown, out of his comfort zone. It can be scary to loosen our grip on the “ways we have always done it” in our classroom. But this fear can also be healthy. Parker Palmer says in The Courage to Teach (1998) that fears can help us to learn and grow. He goes on to quote Camus by saying, “Camus speaks of the fear we feel when we encounter something foreign and are challenged to enlarge our thinking, our identity, our lives—the fear that lets us know we are on the brink of real learning: ‘It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country…we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits….At that moment, we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.” (Notebooks, 1935-1942, pp.13-14). Becoming a pilgrim educator, setting out on a pilgrimage each year with our students, not knowing where exactly we will land, can be fearful. But, perhaps it is that fear that helps us to know that real learning is at hand.
Teach curriculum, help students achieve the academic standards that are required, maintain the integrity of education, but through it all, approach the learning as “tools” that educator and student alike will need in the pilgrimage God has set us on – finding our place in His story, seeking blessing, acting with mercy and erecting signposts of the kingdom.
Enjoy the journey.