Trouble at School

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
– Psalm 51: 1-2

Sin and school. Although it isn’t included in any school’s brochure, including Christian schools, sin is very much a part of what goes on in school. Why are students cruel to one another? One teacher observes a third grade student offer coconut flakes to another student. They turn out to be soap flakes. A practical joke? Sometimes the line between a joke and meanness is pretty thin. A parent worries about her fifth grade daughter who no longer wants to go to school. Her daughter says other students pick on her. In ways big and small, schools suffer at the hands of sinners.

Several years ago, I observed a teacher struggling to teach his middle school students. The subject matter wasn’t the difficulty; student hostility was. Any student brave enough to turn in homework and try to do well in class risked the ridicule of fellow students. Working hard was “giving in” to the teacher and was not the cool thing to do. Sinful behavior had created a culture war in a middle school classroom with the victims being those who could not or would not learn.

Neither are teachers immune to the sin problem. Frustration leads to anger and intemperate behavior. Teachers will treat some students better than others. Why is that? We say what we shouldn’t and don’t say what we should. The theologian Henri Nouwen writes of frustrations that pastors face, and what he says definitely applies to teachers. He writes, “Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm….This is not an open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart.”

People don’t become teachers to lose their generous hearts. That’s why we all are greatly in need of the gospel of grace. There is no other remedy for the sin that begins in our hearts that spills over into the classroom. But in order to fully appreciate grace, we need to look sin fully in the face, and recognize its power to attack all the good intentions of teachers. Cornelius Plantinga warns we must not speak of grace apart from sin: “To do this is to trivialize the cross of Jesus Christ, to skate past all the struggling sinners…and therefore to cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it.” To minimize sin is to “cut the nerve of the gospel,” says Plantinga.

During my years as principal of a Christian school, parents would occasionally remark to me about some problem we were having at school. They said, “This is a Christian school. We didn’t think such misbehavior would happen here.” To such comments my reply was always the same: “We’re not perfect and problems will come. The important thing is what we will do about our problems. Our hope is not in our ability to create a problem-free school, but in Christ who is a friend to people with problems.”

Christian schools shaped by the grace of God readily acknowledge their shortcomings. They know that they have a sin problem that cannot be fixed apart from God’s gracious provision. For these schools, the gospel is essential to their mission. That’s what makes them more hopeful places than schools that strive to be sufficient in themselves.

Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts, thou fount of life, thou light of men, from the best bliss that earth imparts, we turn unfilled to thee again. Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood; thou savest those that on thee call; to them that seek thee thou art good, to them that find thee all in all.
– Hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux

Stephen Kaufmann
Covenant College