Amidst my first year teaching-administration-storm, there have been a few things threatening to shake me. One of these things has been a question that Paul addresses in his letter to the Corinthians:
Am I teaching in vain?
This question, I have found, is not confined to the first years of teaching. It seems to continuously echo through staff rooms and classrooms. My heart sinks as another red cross follows the same concord error I’ve been putting red crosses next to the whole year!
Do any of them listen?
As I look at so many schools around me; as I read the January newspaper reports on the country’s matric results.; as I hear news of increasing university dropout rates, as I question the content I’m teaching- there are things everyday telling me to be disheartened, my work is in vain.
As I pass through the staff room daily, I realise I am not alone in these questions.
Know that your work is not in vain.
“Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Paul says in 1 Corinthians to know, not to see or guess, but to know that our work will see life. Hebrews tells us that faith is being sure of what we hope for, certain of what we cannot see (Hebrews 11).
Sometimes in teaching, I feel like I can’t see; can’t see growth, progress, the fruit of my efforts. But, the question God has led me to ask myself continuously is, what can I see?
Have I ever planted anything in reality? Nope. In fact, I’m somewhat terrified of gardening. It seems a place of too little control. So what? I put a seed in the ground and then just let go and trust something will happen? How do I make the tree grow? I can’t even see it beneath all that sand.
What if teaching was like sowing seeds?
Putting a seed in the ground and letting go, knowing that a plant will come; knowing that though I may not be around to see it, seeds grow into trees. Knowing that my work is not in vain.
And sure, there will be seeds that fall on rocky ground, or thorny ground (I mean, I definitely can’t remember what a precipitation reaction is, and I don’t think I ever caught onto those trigonometry common angles). But in my hand God will put important seeds that I trust will find good soil.
In John 1 lies the story of Jesus and a man Nathanael, who, in a few moment’s interaction with Jesus, comes away with a significant seed of identity and purpose. A life changing seed.
In this story Jesus notes that he saw Nathanael standing under a fig tree. Maybe there are many reasons for this comment, but there is something in this picture that strikes me.
Jesus sees a fig tree and he sees Nathanael.
“Here is a man in whom there is no deceit”, he says, “…very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man”.
Jesus sees a tree and he plants a seed: This is who you are, and this is what you will see.
Are we able to look at an individual child now, and see the grown glory God intends for their lives? Are we then empowered to plant the seed of that glory, and speak those glorious intentions of God over that child?
Some of the biggest impact I’ve seen, has come from teachers who saw something special in a child and called it out of them; invested in it.
“You are a leader”, “You are a writer”, “You are intelligent, creative”… As we invest in our students with knowledge and skills, I believe that it is more often the words of life spoken over a student that end up being the significant seeds which, nourished by knowledge, have potential to grow into oak trees.
A teacher’s work will not be in vain when they invest, not only in what a student can do, but in who they are.
There was a shift in my experience of exam invigilation as I found something beyond counting the ticks of the clock and playing silent human Packman with other teachers. As I walk around, passing desks for a couple of hours, I pause at certain desks and ask God, what do you say about that one? Who is she? What will you raise her to see? And I hold out my hand for a seed.
I’ll never forget, in the midst of my doubt and fear as I stepped into new leadership during my time at school, the words of a teacher to me: God’s chosen the right person.
Now as I stand in my classroom, looking at expectant faces and caught up in a wave of demands, I hold to the seed of a teacher; a seed that has now started to take root in a new area. I am the right person to be right where I am. As I give of what I have in my hand I will stand firm, and know, that my teaching is not in vain.