A Christian school is not an elite institution where only the best, most successful students are accepted, nor is it a place populated by saints whose lives are untouched by the effects of sin. A Christian school is a place full of sinners, who are perfectly designed by God and covered by the blood of Christ, but who still daily struggle with living in a sinful world with a sinful nature. As a teacher, it will be part of my job to recognize the struggles that each individual student faces and help them. Jesus instructed Peter to “feed my lambs” and “feed my sheep” (John 21:15–16); Jesus knows that his children are like sheep, prone to wander and in need of constant guidance and comfort. Though I too have the heart of a sheep, taking up the calling of teacher means that I also must help shepherd. As a teacher, I must reflect the mercy and kindness of Christ through awareness of and empathy for students’ struggles, patient counseling based on scripture, considerate teaching methods, and above all, prayer.
When I walk into a classroom and survey the room, I must see more than a group of high schoolers whom I need to instruct. The difficulties that each student faces will not necessarily be obvious, but each one of them is a unique human, created by God and placed in a specific situation with particular gifts and struggles, wrestling with the effects of sin in their lives. These effects can be wide-ranging, but they can all be devastating. Looking across a classroom full of students, there might be one grieving the death of a grandparent, parent, sibling, or close friend. Another might face bullying in the hallways or online; some might struggle with learning difficulties or self-image issues. Many of them may be wrestling with depression and anxiety. According to the National Institutes of Health, 13% of young people aged 12–17 experienced a major depressive episode in the last year (NIH 2017); if I have 25 students, that means three of them have likely been touched by depression. Another student might have an unstable family life: perhaps he or she has a single parent or is being torn between two homes in a divorce. Or maybe he or she has parents who are constantly fighting or a mother or father who simply does not make an effort to show them love. Another student could be dealing with an abuser in her home. And it is quite possible that any one of them could be dealing with many of these issues compounded together or be scarred from any one of these events happening years earlier in his life.
All these difficulties are not detached from the learning that happens in school. Students cannot simply drop these burdens at the door; they will carry them into the classroom, where these burdens can quickly lead to academic struggles. For one, these issues will likely lead to an inability to focus. Imagine trying to pay attention to a discussion on The Canterbury Tales when you know you will face a torrent of bullying in the hallways or the next time you open your phone. Imagine trying to remember the structure of DNA when your parents are not speaking to each other. Further, depression and anxiety can lead to dropping grades, a lack of motivation and interest in activities, anger, difficulty with relationships (which only compounds these problems), fatigue, and even physical pain such as headaches and stomachaches (McCarthy 2018). A home in turmoil interrupts the environment needed to do homework and further contributes to depression and anxiety. Research has shown that family structure is correlated with academic performance and attendance; in one study of high school seniors, students with divorced parents had on average a lower GPA and missed almost 60% more classes than those from an intact household (Ham 2003). Students will inevitably come to class bearing anger, grief, sadness, disappointment, or loneliness, on some or many days, and the effects of students’ struggles will manifest themselves in their classroom performance. As a prospective teacher, I need to be prepared to help address these issues.
When dealing with struggling students, the guiding principle must be to model the love of Christ. In his earthly ministry, Christ consistently reached out to the downcast and the outcasts, thereby giving instruction on how I can minister to students today. One important step to being an effective shepherd in the classroom is to cultivate awareness and empathy. Christ knew the heart of each person he encountered, but often he took time to ask them questions and lead them to see their own needs before providing a solution (consider, for example, the blind beggar in Luke 18:35–43 or the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:1–26). I, of course, do not know the hearts of my students, but it is essential for me to cultivate awareness of my students’ lives and ask meaningful questions to draw out their specific needs. Precisely because I do not know their hearts, I must not be quick to assume or to judge but be careful to listen, working to build trust so that students feel comfortable speaking with me. Maybe this means inviting students to come chat during lunchtime, or maybe just being present in the hallways at breaks and in between classes, not lost in preparing lessons or deep in conversation with other teachers about my hobbies. I must actively take interest in students’ activities outside the classroom and build relationships. Like Christ, this all must be done with humility, and I must show love, not just to the students whom I personally feel bad for but for those that are least deserving of mercy. Students that are struggling will most likely not be the most kind or fun to hang out with; they may be distanced and aloof; they may lash out in anger. But I must strive to reflect Christ, although I will do so imperfectly, to reach those who seem unreachable.
Cultivating awareness of and empathy for students may give me the opportunity to speak directly to students about their needs; in this case, the best counsel I can bring is the word of God. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The word of God is applicable to any situation, and it is efficacious: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7). There will be times when students need help beyond what I can provide, but one of the most powerful things that I can do for one of my students is to bring the promises of scripture to them. God’s word is more powerful than any logical suggestions or words of comfort that I can give from my own head. Just as I need Christ daily, I can point my students to their Savior, the Lord who “will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble” (Ps. 9:9).
In addition to bringing the word of God to struggling students, there are other practical things I can do in my classroom to help students that are struggling. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, we read, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.” I can support students who are “weak” due to physical or spiritual struggles through concrete changes to the way I teach and by being flexible. If I know a student is going through difficult circumstances, I can be accommodating in expectations for homework. “Be[ing] patient toward all men” in the classroom means that when a student is lagging in schoolwork, I take the time to consider his situation and extend him grace and forgiveness.
This text also speaks to those students who may simply be less academically gifted. God has given each of his children specific talents and specific roles in the body of the church (1 Cor. 12:12–27). This means that not everyone will excel in the classroom, but that does not mean I may ignore them. As a teacher I will be called to do what it takes to come alongside the weaker students to help them to understand as much as they are able. This is an essential component of my teaching education: learning strategies to ensure that students with learning disabilities are not left behind and various methodologies to address different types of learners. By cultivating patience and making adjustments to how I teach, I will aim to support the “weak” and ensure that each student knows his worth as a covenant child of God.
Finally, the most powerful thing that I can do to help struggling students is to pray. Just after the admonishment in 1 Thessalonians 5 to help the weak, we are further exhorted in verse 17 to “pray without ceasing.” Prayer is the means that God has ordained for us to communicate and fellowship with him, and thus through prayer I can bring my burdens and the burdens of my students before our sovereign Father. Through prayer I will be reminded that God is faithful and will keep his promises to his people: “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” (1 John 5:14). By praying for the specific needs of specific students, I won’t be granted instant answers or solutions, but I will be reminded of God’s sovereignty over their lives, and I can ask God for the patience and love that I need to shepherd them. Moreover, I can pray with students; rather than simply telling them I will pray for them, we can come before God together and dwell on his promises to preserve his people and work all things for their good. We can pray confidently, knowing that my students and I, in all our struggles, are in God’s hands.
Having not yet begun my calling as a teacher, I confess that I do not know exactly what awaits me in the classroom. Right now, I can only imagine the struggles my students and I will face. But today I can foster awareness and empathy for those around me; I can continue to grow in my knowledge of God’s word so that I can more effectively bring words of comfort. I can study teaching techniques for students with special needs, and I can grow in my personal prayer life. I know that none of these things will make me a perfect teacher, for I too am touched by sin and struggles, but I pray and trust that God will guide me as one of his sheep to help teach his flock.
Claire McCarthy, “In Children and Teens, Depression Doesn’t Always Look like Sadness,” Harvard Health Blog, March 13, 2018, www.health.harvard.edu, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/in-children-and-teens-depression-doesnt-always-look-like-sadness-2018031313472.
National Institutes of Health (NIH), “NIMH » Major Depression,” Major Depression Statistics, 2017, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression.shtml#part_155031.
Barry D. Ham, “The Effects of Divorce on the Academic Achievement of High School Seniors,” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, vol. 38, no. 3–4, Routledge, March 2003, 167–85. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1300/J087v38n03_09.
Originally published December 2020, Vol 79 No 12