Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. – I Timothy 1:15-17
Sometimes teachers react the same way to Paul’s claim to be the worst of sinners: “Paul can’t be right, because the real ‘worst of sinners’ is sitting in my classroom!” Many teachers have had innocent little Davids in class, only to see them turn into bullying Goliaths on the playground at recess.
When I started out as a teacher, I subscribed to the “don’t let them see you smile until Christmas” school of classroom management. The term “management” is apt because that was what I was doing – managing students as if they were products going down an assembly line. “Don’t give me your excuses,” I said, “just do as I say.” Any student who challenged my authority would be doing push-ups or running laps. I still think fair rules consistently applied makes for a settled classroom, but looking back to those early years, I wonder if some of my management strategies were missing the mark.
Paul’s description of how Christ treated him is different. Before he was converted, Paul was a persecutor and a blasphemer, finding Christians and participating, in some cases, in their death by stoning. But Christ saved him, this worst of sinners, and in the saving displayed his unlimited patience that others might believe. Great sinners call for great patience.
Patience was not one of my classroom management tools. I preferred to deal with the overt behaviors of students, rather than to exhibit the patience to understand why my “David” students had more than a little “Goliath” in them. Healing heart issues requires empathy and patience; dealing with the external misdeeds only requires a fixed set of rules. The result, however, is that students are treated as objects to be controlled rather than subjects to be engaged with patience. Having fair rules is important; reaching the heart through patient discipling is even better.
Parker Palmer says that good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young. A good host meets the needs of her guest: shelter, food, rest, good conversation. Our students are needy people as well: they need acceptance, and a safe place in which to grow as students. When my son was in middle school, I asked him what he liked, besides sports, about school. Without hesitating, he named a teacher: “I like Mr. Jones because he makes us work hard, and he believes that we can succeed.” I think Mr. Jones showed educational hospitality to my son by believing in him and expecting him to do difficult tasks. He gave my son what he needed, which was a real mercy.
Our classes will always have sinners in them, and the sinners will need to be held accountable. But how we treat our students says much about how we really view them. Are they guests to be shown hospitality or objects to be managed? The teacher who has the humility to think of her students more highly than herself will make a good host. She may also have the grace to see that perhaps the worst of sinners is sitting in the teacher’s chair.
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:1,2