How do you function as a spiritual leader in your classroom? Are you a gardener?
Scripture frequently describes our walk with God metaphorically, and its favorite source for metaphor is the garden. The Psalter begins with this beautiful assertion: the one who meditates on God’s law “is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season” (Ps. 1:3). “A farmer went out to sow his seed,” declares Jesus in Luke 8:5, and he continues with one of the paradigmatic parables of the synoptic gospels, comparing our lives and our communities to four different qualities of soil. And Paul illustrates the partnership between various spiritual leaders by writing, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Cor. 3:6).
We who teach are spiritual leaders, fellow gardeners with Paul, and our classrooms are like gardens where God the Holy Spirit helps children grow. As I apply the biblical gardening metaphors to my work as a teacher, I find that the Word addresses me with the following questions: Who am I as a gardener? What kinds of soils am I working with, and how will I seek to improve these soils? How am I cultivating the plants that are growing in God’s garden? Who are my fellow gardeners?
We’ll ponder these questions one by one.
Who am I as a gardener?
The central paradox of tending God’s garden is that I am both the gardener and also a plant. I am being cultivated even as I engage in cultivation! My work for the Lord must begin by resting graciously inside that wondrous paradox. I am the teacher of my students, but at a deeper and more fundamental level, I am a fellow child of God with them, older and (hopefully) a little wiser, a mentor and role model to them, showing what it’s like to be a plant tended by the Lord. This paradox holds several implications for my teaching.
I am called to teach out of an awareness of the Spirit’s transforming work in my own life. Bill Hybels is reported to have said something like this: “Significant problems arise when I am too busy doing God’s work for God to do his work in me.” Teaching makes me terribly busy. If this “kingdom-busyness” prevents me from staying in tune with the Spirit’s work within me, I easily become a danger to myself and others, blind to bad habits that are hurtful. Spiritual leadership is always self-reflective, discerning how both God’s presence and sin’s tenacious grip are at war within me.
I practice disciplines in the classroom that strengthen the new self in me and put to death the old self that accompanies me into the classroom. My internal warfare comes to expression in my classroom. For example, I have the “gift” of being able to make witty, sarcastic comments on the spur of the moment. I have disciplined myself (most of the time) to put that gift to death in my classroom. It never furthers the gardening process, and invariably the only purpose it serves is to puff me up and put someone else down. I’ve learned that I need to be aware of the long-term trajectory of how the Spirit is strengthening the new self in me and killing off the old self, and I need to practice disciplines in my classroom that are in line with that trajectory.
Another example: students frequently ask questions in class to which I don’t know the answer. Something inside me wants to fake my way through a pseudo-answer, and sometimes I do. But I’m slowly learning to say something like, “Wow, that’s a hard question. I’m not sure how to answer it, but I think it challenges us to think about …” That kind of a response leaves me feeling more vulnerable, yet also frees me to walk with my students as an older pilgrim, searching for the Lord’s way.
I learn to be “appropriately transparent” with my students, using discernment to give them glimpses of my own walk with the Lord. Because I am both a gardener and a plant in the Lord’s garden, my gardening work is often enriched by sharing with my students some of the ways in which the Lord is cultivating me. Notice I said some, but not all. My gardening skills need to include a discernment that distinguishes sharing that will bless them from sharing that will distract them, undermine my trustworthiness, or compromise the confidentiality of others. I’ve seen my students receive blessings when I describe how a prayer retreat broke down struggles inside me; I won’t tell them how the Lord is working on my marriage or in the lives of my children, however.
I discern which colors from the “fruit of the Spirit rainbow” will provide the richest blessings in my classroom. Jesus declares, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16), and Paul identifies many varieties of fruit that flow from the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22–23), humility, compassion, forgiveness (Col. 3:12–14), letting go of anxiety (Phil. 4:6), weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15), amazed wonder before the mystery of God’s grace (Rom. 11:33–36), and many more. The beauty of this many-splendored rainbow is that when I intentionally seek to embody one of its colors in my classroom, the other colors tend to tag along and become present as well! What color flows the most naturally from you? I try to embody amazed wonder in my classroom, and I find that this color inherently brings along with it humility, joy, peace, compassion, and gentleness, and eventually the entire rainbow finds opportunities to dance in various corners of the room.
I allow my “conferred” authority as a teacher to grow towards an “internal” authority that flows from the Holy Spirit. After Jesus concluded the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells us “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:28–29). The teachers of the law had conferred authority, but Jesus had a different authority, which his listeners recognized to be deeper and truer. We are given authority by the schools that hire us, but this authority organically deepens as the Spirit within us works through our weakness.
Much more can be said about “who am I as a gardener,” but this is enough to get us pondering the matter. It’s my deep conviction that this is the most easily overlooked question in my role as a teacher, but is also the most important and foundational question from which all the others flow (which is why I teach a masters of education course that focuses entirely on this issue).
What kind of soils am I working with?
My wife Evelyn and I created vegetable gardens each time we purchased a new home, and we had to work with the soils we were given and gradually seek to improve them to become more hospitable to the plants we wanted to grow. It’s the same in our classrooms: we are given soils to work with, and we are called to enhance their fertility.
The soil we are given includes the following features:
- children at a particular stage in their development, and all the characteristics that come with that developmental stage
- a cultural context, with all of its assumptions and values concerning the good life, what it means to be a “normal” and “successful” human being, and a manner of interacting with and accepting one another that often flows from the cultural definitions of “normal” and “successful”
- the context of the Christian constituency that supports the school, and its assumptions concerning what is central to the Christian faith, how people are judged/accepted, how Christians worship, interpret scripture, and interact with the wider culture
- the school’s institutional context and its assumptions about excellence, student success (grades, sports, the arts), its financial constraints, and what is celebrated and what is ignored
Whenever we dug a new vegetable garden, there were times when I wanted to bring in a bulldozer, get rid of all the terrible soil that came with our home and truck in entirely new soil, but of course we couldn’t do that. Patiently and with perseverance, we worked with the soil we were given and sought to improve it in any ways that we could.
I do the same in my classroom, as I pray the opening lines of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
What can I change? During the first three weeks of the school year, my primary energy goes into cultivating a Spirit-friendly classroom ethos. A classroom ethos is the spirit that lives within a community of persons; it shapes how we perceive and relate to one another, tells us viscerally how safe this group is, and declares what kinds of people are valued and what kinds are not. When my students enter my room on the very first day, they instantaneously and unwittingly create their own classroom ethos, and it’s my calling to firmly and gently to work on whatever they’ve brought into my room and transform it towards one that is Spirit-friendly.
How do I do that? I get to know my students so that they realize intuitively that I love and respect them (and, in the classroom, these two verbs are synonymous). They complete short self-introduction questionnaires on the first day of class, and during that first month I’ll have one-minute conversations before and after class with individual students that deepen what they’ve disclosed. The demeanor I portray in class communicates that I am both their older brother in Christ and their teacher; as the former, I seek to embody the qualities described in the previous section of this essay. As the latter, I aim to be the best, most professional teacher than I can be, articulating clear expectations, teaching with clarity, variety, and just a bit of humor, working for that elusive blend of providing challenges and encouragement that evokes strong learning.
At the end of the first three weeks, my prayer is that my room is a safe place where students are free to be vulnerable during class discussions, where an atmosphere of respect pervades every corner, where wholesome laughter can erupt at any time, where we take learning seriously while not taking ourselves too seriously, where the stresses of education and of life are enclosed within the peace of a loving classroom environment. Sometimes the three-week point arrives and the ethos has grown beyond my wildest dreams and most fervent prayers; other times, it has barely moved since day one. So be it. I can’t exercise control over the soil that I’ve been given; I can only seek to invite its transformation. Regardless of the outcome, I am convinced that the success of my work as a teacher called to invite the Holy Spirit into my classroom depends more on the ethos that lives in my classroom than any other factor.
How am I cultivating the plants in God’s garden?
Wise cultivation always involves two complementary dimensions: sound gardening principles and a discerning, responsive manner of applying them in specific situations. Here are a few ways in which those dimensions operate in my classroom.
I seek to embed all my teaching viscerally in a biblical worldview. Many Christian teachers have had so many encounters with “biblical worldview” that the concept feels trite and worn. The call to teach out of the creation-fall-redemption narrative somehow excites and bores us at the same time. I’ve tried to navigate this tension by working with it viscerally, that is, teaching it from my gut instead of only from my head. My life is a c/f/r story! Each of my students is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139), conceived and born in sin (Ps. 51), and called out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9), and thus my classroom is like a boxcar on the c/f/r train. And every way in which God’s wondrous but terribly broken world works its way into the curriculum is part of that narrative as well, so phrases that honor that reality can erupt at any time in ways that resonate with intellectual honesty, emotional solidity, and a call to responsible action. In other words, I strive to embody a kind of “visceral organic-ness” concerning worldview in my classroom.
I aim to have classroom devotions and teaching complement each other. Most of the day the “teacher” hat is the largest one that I wear, but devotional times allow me to make the “older brother in Christ” hat larger for just a few moments. Those few moments are precious, and can reverberate throughout the day. I may spend nine weeks exploring the fruit of the Spirit, and during the week that devotional time is focused on gentleness, we may be called to gently understand the effects of colonization upon native populations, or to be gentle with ourselves when math concepts appear utterly incomprehensible, and so on. Devotional times become like yeast that permeates the entire day, freeing the loaf to rise.
I pray for grace to see my students from the perspective of God’s finished work. As I tend a tiny bean plant that has just broken through the soil, I envision it fully grown and filled with delicious beans and then continue tending accordingly. I need the same vision for my students, trusting with Paul that “he who began a good work in (them) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1: 6). This vision compels me to pray this petition: “Lord, grant me a glimpse that reveals what each child will be like when your work in him or her is done, and grant me discernment to know how to participate in your good work in him or her.” Perhaps the greatest blessing of having taught for thirty-five years is meeting students I taught more than three decades ago, seeing how that lifetime trajectory has continued from my classroom, and being able to bring that understanding into my classroom now. So often I am tempted to base my impressions of my students on their past and their present; I am called to base it on their future by glimpsing the beginning of God’s work in their lives now.
As much as possible, I honor the uniqueness of each student in my classroom. One of the givens of the soil we work with is that we teach large numbers of students “en masse,” and this requires students to conform to group activities. But inside that requirement, we have a certain amount of “wiggle-room” to honor their personal uniqueness. Often this wiggle-room can feel very small, but small is usually enough. A tiny step sends this message to a student: “I see you in your uniqueness, and I am treating you accordingly.” For most students, to know that one is known is to know that one is loved, and to be loved is to be brought into a teachable space. This wiggle-room comes through my comments on their assignments, very brief conversations before, during, or after class, occasionally tweaking requirements to match their situation, inviting their stories into the curriculum, and using pedagogies that invite whole-person learning as much as possible (discussion, creative assignments, reflective journaling).
Who are my fellow gardeners?
Teaching bears with it an almost overwhelming responsibility (hence the warnings in James 3:1 and Matt. 18:6), but we share this responsibility with a mighty cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). Our fellow gardeners include the entire administration and staff of our schools, our students’ parents and families, their church communities, and their peers. Certainly at times we feel as if our fellow gardeners are undermining our work, but forming intentional partnerships in any way that we can is almost always fruitful.
Ultimately, each child that we teach is a mystery beyond our understanding, and every clarifying glimpse that we receive strengthens us to labor inside the mystery. Colleagues can often provide such glimpses. I would approach parent-teacher interviews with the prayer, “Lord, may they give me one insight into their child that will strengthen me to bless him or her; help me to discern which question I can ask that might unlock that insight.” An awareness of church communities, sports teams, clubs, and so on also helps to bring other gardeners onto my radar screen. Sometimes all I can do is pray this prayer: “Lord, as far as I can tell, I was not able to reach this child at all. I trust that you have placed others in her life to do your gardening work in ways that I could not.”
An awareness of one’s fellow gardeners is perhaps the most tangential of the gardening activities one is called to do in the classroom. I’m not able to put hours of research into attempting to visualize the larger cultivation picture of each of my students. But day by day, little glimpses reveal themselves unasked, and if my radar screen stays turned on, these glimpses become embedded within the overall gardening strategy.
I can imagine a prospective teacher reading this essay and concluding, “If this describes what’s involved in Christian teaching, I’m out of here. It’s far too demanding.”
Yes, “demanding” is an appropriate word, but three other words take precedence over it. First, it is a privilege. God invites us to be gardeners with him and for him in his own garden even while he cultivates us! His glory lives in jars of clay like you and me (2 Cor. 4), and he calls us to be contagious with that glory.
Second, it is a mystery that liberates us from the temptation to take ourselves too seriously. We are not called to control the garden; we are not called to be perfect gardeners. We are simply called to work faithfully. “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well” (Eccles. 11:6). To work at something too big for us to understand or control is not scary; it is liberating.
Finally, maturing as gardeners is incremental. I’ll never forget the advice of my mentor as I began to teach thirty-five years ago: “Allow yourself five years to grow into the teacher you are called to be.” I remembered that advice countless times during those first tumultuous years, but I still draw strength from those words today! When I become aware of a new dimension to work on in my teaching I say to myself, “Okay, let’s develop this during the next five years.” The Lord does his best work when we are patient; when we invite him to mature us step by step.
You and I, fellow plants in God’s good garden, are equipped to take on this demanding calling, confident that his promise to bring the good work begun to completion also applies to us.