Being a Priest in Turbulent Times

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
– James 1: 19, 20

Anyone looking to lead a life of quiet contemplation should not become an elementary or secondary school teacher. The incongruity of being a K-12 teacher is that there is plenty to think about, but not much quiet in which to do the thinking. Every day, decisions must be made amid the buzz of classroom activity. The oft-made comparison of the classroom to a three-ring circus is not far from the truth: Linda is sneezing, George forgot his permission slip for the field trip, Peter wants to know when he can make up the test he missed last week, the back row is acting up, and the class is two weeks behind where they should be in the math curriculum. What’s a teacher to do?

With the pressures teachers face, it is easy to be quick to speak and slow to listen. Your principal, the parents, and the students are expecting you to take charge. Say something! Make a decision!

In his excellent book, Teaching Redemptively, Donovan Graham says that taking charge is only one of roles of the teacher. Important, yes, but not the complete description of being a teacher. Another role, he says, is that of being a priest. The teacher as priest intercedes for her students through prayer, through listening to them, and by comforting or confronting them when needed.

A former student of mine learned early in her first year of teaching the importance of the priestly role. Julie was in her eighth grade class and something was the matter with her. Suddenly, this lively and funny girl was transformed into being sullen and withdrawn. Ordinarily, Julie was neat in appearance, but now she had an unkempt look about her.

The new teacher was tempted to lash out against Julie. The pressures of the day were great, and Julie’s shortcomings were just one more irritant. But the Lord gave her the grace to hold her tongue and to listen to Julie, though not to her sullen words. Instead, she listened to Julie’s body language which spoke volumes about some problem in her life. She almost seemed to be folded in on herself. At lunch, the teacher was able to take Julie aside for a conversation. Slowly, then rapidly, the words gushed out from Julie. Her step father had become violent, and Julie had become the victim of verbal and physical abuse. The teacher quickly took steps to get help for Julie and began the long priestly process of healing with her.

All the busyness and decision-making of teaching won’t go away. Even now teachers must implement important changes to curb disease. Direction must be given to the class, and the teacher has to take charge. But taking charge does not mean becoming a tyrant, imposing a domineering spirit on a cowering class. The wise teacher is also a priest who is quick to listen and slow to speak. And, happily, slower to become angry as well. Daily turbulence is best met with priestly wisdom.

A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
– Proverbs 25:11

Stephen Kaufmann
Covenant College