Shepherding Angry Sheep

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
– Proverbs 15:1

Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life.
– Proverbs 4:13

In an act of frustration and anger, Susan wrote on the top of her test “I HATE MATH!!” and turned it in to her teacher, Mrs. Smith. Susan was ordinarily a respectful sixth grader, but her temper had gotten the better of her. Now her three word gesture of defiance was on her paper for her mathematics teacher to read.

What is Mrs. Smith to do with Susan? Should she respond in anger herself and send her out of the room to be punished? Should she say nothing, hoping that if she ignores Susan’s disrespect, Susan will get over her petulance and all will be well? After all, Susan’s words aren’t that big of a deal, are they?

Donovan Graham explains that teachers should tend to their students as shepherds tending their sheep. Shepherds remain patient, despite the foolish behavior of the sheep. To lose control will frighten them, and so it is with students. Students need guidance, even rebuke at times, but never harsh words from teachers. “A shepherd never harms the sheep themselves, just as a teacher must maintain the dignity of students when they are being corrected and directed,” says Graham. Sometimes a gentle answer can turn away wrath and preserve the dignity of the student.

When Mrs. Smith looked at Susan’s math test, she was dismayed. Susan’s words, I HATE MATH!!, seemed out of character for her. So the teacher replied: “Oh Susan, you didn’t really mean that, did you?” The teacher chose to take a step back from confrontation and give Susan a chance to reconsider.

Susan, now a grown woman, remembers her response quite well. She writes, “Thankful she didn’t declare to the class what I had written, I sank in my chair. ‘No’ I said quietly. My teacher looked up, a little distraught. It didn’t take more than that. I walked up to her and crossed out the harsh statement on my test.” Later on, teacher and student talked privately, but the crucial act of shepherding occurred when Mrs. Smith gave a gentle answer to Susan’s hostile words.

The full range of human emotions comes out in school. Many of these emotions are positive, reflecting good relations and work well done. Immature students, however, can bicker among themselves, or lash out in anger at teachers. Immature teachers allow their sense of self to be defined by how their students respond to them. Those teachers can easily become angry and speak harshly when students misbehave. Mrs. Smith showed discernment to exercise authority wisely, and she resisted the temptation to respond in kind to Susan. She gave Susan instruction that she could hold on to without embarrassment, and Susan has never forgotten it.

Teachers are never certain what the class day holds for them. What they do know is that they will be making dozens of judgments and decisions often without time for thoughtful reflection. When days are long and emotions are on edge, teachers will need to ask for the Lord to fill them from the deep reservoir of his grace. Only then they will be ready to tend the sheep.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
– Matthew 5: 7-9

Stephen Kaufmann
Covenant College