“Don’t smile until Christmas!”
This (terrible) piece of advice was given to me and countless other new teachers as we embarked on our first year in the classroom. The advice comes from a generation that looked at education differently. “Show ‘em who’s boss!” “Don’t let the prisoners run the prison.” These phrases naturally lend to an ‘us and them’ mentality. We aren’t working against our students, we are working with them.
Why wouldn’t we want our students, and our co-workers for that matter, to see our vulnerability? If they think I am some sort of machine that doesn’t feel or understand the way they feel, they aren’t going to want to do work for me. And the “doing work” part is just the bottom of the barrel. They won’t want to build a relationship with me, and isn’t that what education is about? Building relationships to better understand experiences and knowledge and information?
As a woman teaching theology I was given all the advice above (and stranger advice too) but I was also criticized at different times for being both too vulnerable and not vulnerable enough. Last year I had a student that everyone warned me about. It was my first year at a new school and the warnings were of the “Oh, he doesn’t get along well with women” vein. For a 16 year old to have that reputation already I was expecting the worst, even though I knew that this student and I would forge our own relationship and because I am a different person and teacher than his previous ones I shouldn’t let that warning cloud my judgement of him.
When Jake walked into my Church History classroom I could tell he wasn’t impressed. He did not want to be learning Church History, he did not want to be taught by me, and he did not think he was going to learn anything he didn’t already know. He was stubborn.
Little did he know that he was already on my radar. I wanted to find out what made him tick and why some other women in the building couldn’t connect to him. He was polite, but held me at a distance in the beginning.
The wood of a fig tree is hard and durable, as the tree grows it doesn’t seem like there is any way those branches could sprout life or bend to hold the weight of the figs. But slowly and surely “the branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves” when it is ready to bear fruit.
I dug a little harder with Jake than with other students. The reflection and journal questions started easy and then built up to more personal questions. The scaffolding of trust and feedback--they shared and then I responded. I tried to respond back often so that when they opened their journals they saw that someone was reading and interested. Jake bit. He warmed up when I would ask him out loud during check-ins about some of the things he mentioned in his reflections. He began to follow up his short answers with longer stories and now he is one of the students that stops me in the hall to talk and check in. Those branches became tender and started to bend.
I’m not patting myself on the back when it comes to Jake, or any student who doesn’t get along with another teacher for some reason. But the reading about the stubborn fig trees that will bear fruit if you give them time reminded me of him. I didn’t need for him to think differently about me as a teacher (though that is always a win), he needed to see that people could think differently about him. I wasn’t going to write him off because he showed up in my classroom as tough as a fig tree. I was going to water that tree and make sure it had all the conditions it needed to start to bear fruit.
Jesus is like that with all of us. Think of the waiting we have put him through sometimes. How many “almosts” were there in our relationship with him. Where we almost had it, we got close, but then hardened our hearts again, or ignored a call, or turned around because the path he pointed down seemed too challenging.
The advice that those older teachers gave to us newer teachers is silly. When we allow ourselves to be tender, when we allow our students to be tender, transformation can happen--those leaves can grow. My example is teaching because I spend most of time thinking about how to be in relationship with my students, but this example goes for all relationships. We can’t expect fruit if we don’t provide the right conditions for that fruit to grow.