It is because I know that you don’t hear this nearly enough that I begin this blog with the words, “thank you.” In a world that is increasingly difficult for, hostile toward, and/or negligent of teachers at nearly all levels, I want to take the time to extend my heartfelt appreciation for all that you do and to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on the gift that you are to the world.
You see, I am a youth pastor, and that means I tend to get a lot of praise (and sometimes blame) when it comes to the spiritual growth of teenagers. My job is seen as a vital part of the journey that students are on between childhood and adulthood, and I don’t disagree with this statement. However, I contend that your role in the lives of children, teens, and adults is far and away a more critical ministry opportunity than I will ever have. I believe this to be the case for two primary reasons.
Let’s begin with time. I love the moments that I get to spend with students, hearing about their day, their dreams, and sometimes their drama. I get the distinct honor of pouring into their lives through Bible study, worship services, community service, and other ministry opportunities. If they stay at the church from grades 7-12, I usually get to watch them grow from awkward, unsure, goofy middle schoolers to loving, faithful, Jesus-following young adults by the time they graduate. However, if you count all the time my leaders and I get to spend with our students throughout the year (including camps, mission trips, and retreats) and divide by 34 weeks (the average school year), we probably average somewhere in the neighborhood of 7-8 hours per week of contact time. Assuming they sleep at least 7 hours per night (laughable, I know), then this comes out to roughly 7% of their waking hours in a given week.
What about you? How many hours in a week do you get with your students? If you are a college professor, we probably have similar totals, though if you have the same student in multiple classes, you can double or triple your time. For elementary and secondary school teachers, though, you probably average at least 5 times the number of hours each week with those you teach. You see them on their good days and their bad days. You experience them at their best and at their worst. You get to hear about parts of their day they don’t discuss at church, and you can observe them with their friends that won’t be at youth group on Wednesday. They will hear your voice five times as often as they hear mine and will see you at your best and your worst as well. If they will allow you, you can be involved in their lives at a more consistently intimate level than I or my leaders ever will. Given these circumstances, how much more of an impact might you have?
Second, let’s talk about influence. When students come to church, whether with their parents because it’s expected or with a friend because they were invited, they are almost always expecting “churchy” things to happen. We will sing some songs, read the Bible, pray, and some adult will try and get them to make better decisions in their life. These are the things that are “supposed” to happen at church and, after a while, it’s easy for students to get desensitized or bored because they feel they know what is coming. As it specifically pertains to me, many students have a hard time opening up or receiving counsel from me because “it’s my job” to love/lecture them, so their trust level tends to start out lower. These can be tough barriers for my leaders and me to break through in order to establish meaningful relationships.
It is your job to teach them whatever subject you have been assigned. That’s what you get paid for and what you are expected to do. What you often aren’t expected to do, whether by administrators, parents, or students, is to be an attentive, caring, and even challenging presence in the lives of students daily. You don’t get paid to love them, which makes it even more powerful and impacting when you do. When students realize that you are genuinely interested in them as a person and what is happening in their lives instead of just whether they are passing or not, it opens up a level of relationship that their church leaders and sometimes their parents have a hard time reaching. In fact, so many of them have either toxic or non-existent relationships with their parents that your influence on them becomes all the more important. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know; I’m just reminding you of the possibilities because I know it gets tough to see sometimes.
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus tells his disciples (including those of us who follow Him today) to “go and make disciples of all nations.” As you may already know, the Greek word for “go” used by Matthew can easily be translated “as you are going.” You and I as followers of Jesus have been called to make disciples as we go, wherever we go. For me, that’s in a church context and in the community as much as possible. For you, that’s in the classroom. One of my favorite seminary professors, Richard Ross, always used to tell us, “Discipleship occurs best in the context of relationship.” You have the time and the influence to build the relationships with students that make discipleship possible. The work you do has great potential to expand the Kingdom. Yes, students need good pastors, but I hope I have made the case here that they need good teachers more. I pray that God will empower, enrich, and encourage you as you take the Gospel of Jesus to your students in word and action every time you see them.
Let me say one more thing in closing. Please, don’t give up. I know teachers leaving the profession has become an epidemic. I know students are more disrespectful and sometimes more dangerous than ever. I know (trust me) that dealing with parents can sometimes be impossible. However, I want you to know that you are seen, loved, and appreciated for the amazing work that you do. It’s not your job to carry the world on your shoulders, and I know education can feel like that sometimes. My final encouragement to you is this. Take Jesus at His word in Matthew 11: 28-30. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” If Jesus sent you, He will sustain you. Rest in Him.
Hillcrest Baptist Church, Cedar Hill, TX