“I have some bad news. Mrs. Johnson passed away last night.” These words, spoken by my headmaster four years ago, caught me completely off guard. In a blink of an eye, my director—the lady who believed in me despite all my mistakes, comforted me through painful critiques, and brightened up my days with her loud, vivacious personality—was gone.
Thus began the most difficult year of my teaching career, for she left behind not only a devastated faculty but also three grieving children, one of whom was a student in my class. After a two-week break to recover from her loss, Kaitlyn, my director’s daughter, returned to my classroom a completely different person. Instead of the talkative, hardworking student whom I had come to love, she had transformed into a sullen, despondent girl who refused to complete her assignments or answer my questions. Her grades plummeted drastically, and she had to meet with my headmaster multiple times because of accusations that she had carved swear words into the bathroom stalls and threatened to burn down the hospital where her mother died.
As her teacher, I tried to do all I could to help her: tutoring her after school, initiating heart-to-heart conversations with her, and just trying to show her love and support through my words and actions. Yet nothing changed. At the end of the year when I found out she wouldn’t be returning for fifth grade, I wrote her a note with some encouraging thoughts and a brief presentation of the gospel, and then I never saw or heard from her again.
Now this story has no perceivable happy ending. Kaitlyn, at least to my knowledge, didn’t put her faith in Christ and change her ways. Nevertheless, this experience was personally life changing. Before this incident, I had felt frustrated and confused over how to be a Christian teacher in a secular environment.
Though I was teaching at a conservative private school, there were still limitations to how I could express my faith, such as the time the teachers were explicitly told by corporate leadership not to make any Christian references whatsoever when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis with their students. Even the values we were instructed to instill in our students were sometimes unbiblical.
For example, when discussing honesty and integrity, we were trained to teach our class that it’s acceptable and even commendable at times to lie and act selfishly. Subsequently, I grew concerned about how effective a witness for Christ I could be in a restrictive secular environment and wondered whether it would be best if I switched to a Christian school where I could freely and openly share my faith.
Counseling Kaitlyn, however, opened my eyes to the opportunities I have as a teacher to minister to my students individually and plant seeds of the gospel. For better or for worse, spending seven hours a day and 189 days of the year together helps you get to know your students quite intimately. Even while engaging in trivial conversations, I learn a lot about their beliefs, fears, insecurities, and family problems. One obvious detail I’ve noticed about kids is that the more care and interest you show in their lives, the more they’ll confide in you and ask for advice.
Those are the moments I eagerly pursue, for it is in those situations that God frequently gives me the opportunity to share truth with them. Sometimes it’s just little things like pointing out what’s most important when they feel depressed about a bad grade or giving them a different perspective when they have had a fight with their parents or friends. Other times, though, God has sovereignly placed me in their lives at a time of great difficulty and sorrow.
I’ve cried with a student who stayed up on numerous nights listening to her parents fight and threaten to get a divorce. I’ve watched a student go through a horrible custody battle where he had to eventually get a restraining order against his own father. I’ve helped a student who lost everything, including her house, in a devastating fire. In those situations, I’ve sometimes had the opportunity to share the good news with them. Yet even when I could only listen and sympathize with them, my relationships with those students deepened, opening up more doors for me to share my faith in the future.
The Bible is clear that the unbelieving world is closely watching how we Christians act (Matt 5:13-16). Working at a secular school, I am fully aware that I am often my students’ first exposure to Christianity. Their impression of me will most likely affect how receptive they are to the gospel in the future. On top of that, being a teacher almost automatically promotes you to role model status, especially with the younger kids.
Consequently, my students scrutinize every aspect of my life: how hard I work, what words I say, and how I respond to both the successes and failures of life. In the same way that I’ve watched them deal with hardships, they’ve similarly noted my reactions to daunting trials, such as my brother being diagnosed with cancer. Therefore, in both the inconsequential aspects of the day and the weightier difficulties of life, I try my best to live my life excellently (1 Pet 2:12). Unfortunately, that does not always happen.
I still say unkind things out of impatience, snap at them when they arrogantly point out errors in my lesson, and make unjust decisions out of pity or favoritism. Yet even in those moments as I seek their forgiveness, I pray that my words and actions reflect God’s humility and grace.
In his article “Planting Seeds of Truth in Your Public School,” Eric Buehrer notes that too often, teaching in a secular environment is viewed as a battlefield. The problem with that analogy is that nothing grows in that environment. Instead, we need to picture schools as gardens where teachers cultivate and nurture relationships, sowing seeds of truth in the hearts and minds of their students. Though we teachers may never see the fruit of our work, we trust in the fact that in the Lord, our labor is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).
*All names have been changed to protect their identities.