Monday, July 30, 2018

The Death and Life of Mr. Thomas

A few weeks ago I was afraid that I would be drafted into sharing my insights into teaching for a training session. I have only done this for seven years, so I was guaranteed to have someone in that seminar who had taught for longer than me. Powers far above me spared me this perilous fate. I went back to my “summer funemployment”, the mysterious way time unaccountably passes between school years. (Even I forget what I’m up to, no doubt to the totally-justified suspicion of honest inquirers.) Nevertheless, I started thinking about what I would tell new teachers, mentors, or leaders. What have I learned in seven years of teaching?

I probably should have made a systematic, organized list or outline. You know, the way I teach writing. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there’s really only one big thing and it only makes sense to tell it as a story. Like dramatic revelations and bowel movements, it’s more satisfying with a lot of buildup. 

I started my career by lying so that I wouldn’t have any friends. 

I was 22 years old working at an “alternative to the alternative” middle-and-high school in Georgia. I was worried about being laughed off by students less than five years younger than I was. I was teaching the same school that had given me a diploma. I rode to work with my mother who also taught there. I had been in youth group with one of my students. Two of the juniors had been in eighth grade when I’d graduated. These facts all compounded the imposter syndrome I felt every time I put on my loose-fitting slacks and over-sized sport coat. I was playing dress-up and pretending to be an authoritative figure. Add to this the one thing I remembered from two days (two days!) of new teacher training: “Don’t be your students’ friend.” I loved making friends and had used charisma to melt otherwise icy supervisors, professors, and authorities into liking me for years. It felt integral to who I was.

So I decided to become someone else. I already felt like I was faking adulthood, so I might as well go whole-hog.

Hence was born “Mr. Thomas”, a chilly, stern, and demanding taskmaster. I drew upon my stage and improv experience to craft a persona to petrify my indolent, teenaged wards into compliance. Mr. Thomas was of indeterminate age in order to mask my youth (one kid thought I was 35). This character had few interests outside of the subjects he taught, though one of them certainly included people shutting up and following his orders. I couldn’t hide my true self entirely of course, so I twisted my sense of humor quickly into cold sarcasm. I wasn’t a total jerk all the time. Obedience could bring warmth and even laughter. Still, my model for classroom management was Cesare Borgia.

According to Machiavelli’s The Prince, Borgia hired the brutal Ramiro d’Orca in 1502 to govern Cesena, a city Borgia had recently conquered. The mercenary eliminated Borgia’s rivals, but also proved harsh toward commoners as well. They complained to Borgia about his lieutenant. Borgia said nothing. But soon after, one morning the citizens awoke to find d’Orca’s bloody, quartered corpse strewn about the piazza. The citizens were at once “stupefied and satisfied.” They knew their ruler was just and would listen. They also learned that he was not to be crossed. So the first time I heard a student made a cruel remark about another in the middle of class, I stopped everything and lambasted the bully for a full two minutes with all the fury I could muster. “Don’t cross Mr. Thomas, capisce?

In the years since, I moved to a new school and started over. The environment was much more strict, academic, and serious. This meant Mr. Thomas relaxed. Through some impressive detective work, my first 7th graders at this new school figured out I was 24. It cost me no respect. In my second year, I started going to the morning carpool so I could catch up with the previous year’s pupils. These casual conversations leaked stories from my real life. While I never disclosed anything compromising, what did get around never diminished my authority. If anything, discerning sharing built respect even amongst students I never taught. Colorful illustrations from the outside crept into Mr. Thomas’s lessons. Test answers were improving because of the entertaining tangents, not in spite of them. I shared fossilized personal problems when students shared their fresh ones (though I kept my new ones to a minimum). Soon, students solicited me for advice outside of academics. I knew the gap between the projection and the reality was narrowing as was the gap between my students and me. It worried me at first. But test scores kept going up even as trust kept building and Mr. Thomas kept becoming more like me. By the time my first 7th grade class was graduating high school six years later, they wanted to hang out with the “real me.” The funny thing was that I wasn’t sure there was a difference between the projection and the man anymore. They had become my friends.

A funny thing happen on the way to graduation. Somewhere along the way, I transitioned from managing through intimidation to managing through respect. Students knew I wasn’t going to put up with (too much) nonsense or time-wasting. They obeyed from deference instead of fear of punishment. (I know this because the one time I blew up at one of them for disrespect, his classmates were angrier than I was.) And with all due respect to Machiavelli, maybe you don’t have to choose between fear and love.

The dirty little secret in Christian education--ideally focused on character and virtue formation--is that you have to give your students what they do not know they need. That includes the obvious stuff like discipline, homework, structure, information, etc. They don’t need another peer. Just as in parenting, young people must learn about choices and consequences. They must know that there are authorities. God is not our buddy. He is our Lord, Master, Sovereign, Judge; in every way a superior to be obeyed with dread terror.

Scripture teaches us that in Christ’s Incarnation we see the “image of the invisible God”, “the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person.” Yet apart from the Transfiguration and Resurrection, Jesus’s recorded time on Earth is remarkably human. He attends a wedding with his mom. He eats with the Apostles. He goes fishing with them. He celebrates Hanukkah with them. They see firsthand conflict with his family. They see his anguish over the death of Lazarus. He asks them to pray with him and be near him the night before his crucifixion  He asks one to care for his mother after he is gone. These are only a few examples. The text never explicitly says so, and I was trained not to go beyond the text. Still, it’d be hard to imagine thirteen guys on a three-year road trip without someone cracking a fart joke to raucous laughter.

Could it even be that the people in Nazareth rejected Jesus’s teaching about himself because they had watched him live a heretofore mundane life? Who could imagine that “God-With-Us” is a guy you knew in high school?

This same Christ never compromises his authority. He curses a fig tree. He casts out demons. He denounces Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for rejecting him. He demonstrates the authority as Messiah to set aside the law. He chases money-changers form the Temple using a whip of his own design. He calls the most prominent Apostle “Satan” for contradicting him. He is not their peer or their buddy. He is their rabbi--their teacher--an authority at all times. Yet despite all this, at his final supper with them after Judas Iscariot departs, he says:

“Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” (Jn 15:16)

Catch that? “I have called you friends.”

The uniquely Christian truth of the Incarnation is that God became a man. The Word became flesh. The Truth became relational. Divinity took on humanity without sacrificing any divine attributes.

So the dirtiest, littlest secret of Christian education and the thing students don’t know they need more than anything--be they six or sixteen or sixty--is you. They need you to model a particular kind of life. They should see your enthusiasm for the truths you teach. They must receive your unique and irreplaceable story and person. They yearn for a relationship with the real you on your good days and on your bad ones. They ought to know why you care so much about what you have to tell them. More than that, they need to know that you care about them. And most of all they need to see you live and model the ultimate Truth you proclaim.

It means being appropriately vulnerable and honest (something you learn the first time you have to apologize to a twelve-year-old because you lost his grades). It means means your life is a mess just like theirs, even though you don’t burden them with your problems. It means you aren’t too good to talk about the pain of their braces or their anxiety about the upcoming dance. Such events may be remote to you now, but the emotions they are feeling are not. Our Savior did not consider divinity something to be clung unto but condescended to us without being condescending toward us. Therefore, draw near to your students where they are. Show them the way to live by being yourself. Only wisdom can guide us between the excesses of aloofness and over-disclosure. Fortunately, God gives grace to the teacher to learn even this.

You will only get there if you learn to be yourself. A Great Teacher once said that every student becomes like his teacher when he is fully trained. Christian educator, be like him. Don’t be a buddy, be an authority. Don’t be a projection, be a person. Don’t be a friend, be a teacher. With any luck and the good grace of God, maybe one day your people will realize you were their friend all along.