Category CSE Magazine
Title Please Grow Up!
Author/s Linda Montgomery Buell
Preview Our journey into professional maturity and excellence is our journey of transformation into His likeness.
Text

"Oh, for Pete's sake, just grow up!" How often have you shouted-or desperately wanted to shout-those words to rude, misbehaving, insolent, and irritating students? Or worse, to colleagues at the end of a long day's faculty meeting with its bickering over the length of Christmas break, girls' skirts, and boys' hair? "Oh, puleeeeeeeeze! Are there any grown-ups around here!" "I need to grow up," Michael Vick admitted to his fans, his teammates, God, and the whole world after his guilty plea to shocking misbehavior in the summer of '07. While I was writing this article, news about the fraudulent use of school district credit cards by teachers, principals, and office staff filled the headlines of the Dallas Morning News almost daily. Yes, even "professionals" can behave far worse than kids. So, let's consider what it means to be a grown-up in this vital profession of teaching-not just now and then but at all times-in the classroom, the faculty room, and the conference room. Of course, having a grown-up present is important in any school setting, but in a Christian school, where we professionals claim to represent Christ and His kingdom, it is a matter of life and death.1

But growing up is hard to do! It is a cross-bearing journey, one fraught with obstacles, roadblocks, and tempting detours. It is also an adventurous journey, one that leads to a glorious destination and to hearing the words that make every difficulty worthwhile: "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matthew 25:21, 23). For such a journey, we need preparation, adequate provision, and a "North Star."

Preparation 

Let's be honest. The challenges of teaching are so great that scores of new teachers abandon the profession within the first few years. If you are a beginning teacher, perhaps you too are looking for the exit sign. Lacking the knowledge, skills, self-assurance, vision, and emotional resilience that your seasoned colleagues have gained in the trenches, you may conclude that you simply are not "wired" for the enormous responsibilities of classroom teaching. Instead of growing up, you want to cut out. Before you do so, reflect on your preparation. Three preliminary steps were essential: first, a conviction that the classroom was exactly where God was calling you to be; second, the understanding that with His calling came the gifts and capacities that the work demanded; and third, the attaining of a level of knowledge that was adequate to begin the journey, however falteringly. Remember, since the beginning of time (think Garden of Eden), God's intention for us is that our work be a blessing to ourselves and to others. To pursue work that is outside your gift mix and your calling is to take a path that leads to despair, for the work will never feel natural or fulfilling. In such a circumstance, cutting out is the right thing to do-a step in the process of discovering your true calling and giftedness. But if something in you longs to serve the kingdom through the work of K-12 classroom teaching, stay the course!

Convinced that calling matters, we must acknowledge that our work has everything to do with our relationship to the Caller.2 Know this: Our journey into professional maturity and excellence is our journey of transformation into His likeness. Scripture does not pussyfoot around about the relationship of our work to our worship and to our fruitfulness:

Acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works.... As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you'll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul- not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us....

...And don't just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you'll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you're serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being Christian doesn't cover up bad work. (Colossians 1:10-12, 3:22-25, The Message; italics mine)

Provision

When God calls one of His own into the work of a particular profession, His purpose in part is to use the challenges and opportunities of that profession as avenues to spiritual maturity. How we go about our work is a spiritual issue. Before we are teachers, we are disciples of Jesus Christ, called and empowered to look more and more like Him every day that He grants us temporal life. As we hear and do the Word of God, we can look our students in the eye and say with increasing confidence and without laughing hysterically, "What you see me doing and hear me saying in our classroom and out on the playground is exactly what Jesus would be saying and doing if He were wearing my skin." Obviously, our daily provision is the Holy Spirit Himself.

Does this mean that a mature professional is perfect, never erring in judgment or practice? Of course not. But he or she has, in relation to the knowledge and skills and dispositions of the profession, grown up, a process that takes place over time and through deliberate intention, just as growing up in the faith takes place over time and through intention. Being called-which is to say, gifted-doesn't make professional growth a slam dunk; it makes it possible. Not surprisingly, the traits that are most characteristic of novice teachers destined for greatness are not only a mind-set and capacity for learning but also the hard-to-define quality that conveys authentic caring. These teachers finish the course well because they continually learn more and more and more about their subject matter and assessment strategies and curriculum design and about whetting kids' appetite for learning. Gifted novices discover fairly quickly that while the most respected and effective of their colleagues vary widely in their personalities and styles, those colleagues have much in common: They possess a passion for their students and a kind of radar that alerts them to what is going on in the minds and hearts of their kids; at their back these teachers "always hear / Time's wingéd chariot hurrying near" (Marvel 1681), and so they are forever asking, "Why am I teaching this [unit, concept, skill, story]? Does it matter-really matter?" or "Are my approaches working? Are my students hungry for more or fed up?" Leadership guru Jim Collins echoes these dispositions and practices in his observation that a school can become great only when the right teachers are in the classroom, teachers "who are productively neurotic, those who are self-motivated and self-disciplined, those who wake up every day, compulsively driven to do the best they can because it is simply part of their DNA."3

Here's a correction to Collins' assertion: We are Spirit driven to do the best we can, and because we are on a journey of spiritual transformation, almost daily we encounter challenges-the slings and arrows of our profession, if you will-that threaten to sidetrack us. I have met and even supervised teachers clearly gifted for teaching who are unwilling to travel the hard road from novice to journeyman to artisan: Personal crises unrelated to school drain the time and energy owed to their students, or a lack of discipline in their lifestyle leaves them without the moral courage and physical energy to turn off the TV and the computer in order to complete lesson plans and assess student homework. Or a legitimate concern over certain conditions in the school morphs into a poisonous fume that transforms enthusiasm into cynicism. Most of us have experienced how quickly two or three faculty curmudgeons can generate seeds of professional and spiritual defeat.

Friends, when we ponder how much more we could earn in the public school down the street and get miffed at the stark contrast between the student and faculty parking lots (Beemers versus heaps), when our disappointment with board decisions becomes an assumption of stupidity or of something worse-when, in other words, the normal everyday trials of teaching become grounds for discontent-then we may hear ourselves saying, "Hey, professionalism is great. I certainly want my surgeon to be totally professional while he's doing my brain transplant and to respond calmly no matter how upset I get in his office. But he's making a ton of money, more in one surgical procedure than I'll see in a year, maybe 10 years! When this school wants to pay me what a professional is worth, then it can expect me to be a professional."

When we forget who our real Master is, there is a price to pay-physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Now I recognize that there are schools where practices, policies, marginal leadership, or a combination of these creates dispiriting working conditions for teachers. I have met, counseled, and wept with wonderful Christian school teachers driven to despair and even driven from the profession by what amounts to "teacher abuse."

Fortunately, most of our Christian schools understand that their teachers are the most critical resource they have for fulfilling their mission. Most of our schools are committed to developing their teachers, and many of our schools allot significant resources to in-service programs and to the continuing education of their teachers. Few of our schools, though, can afford to be cavalier with the funds they have, trying this or that program or development strategy in hopes of finding one that really works. Besides, teachers are individuals who have diverse needs. So the goal of professional development in any school- however abundant or limited its resources-should be to release whatever capacity each teacher has, given his or her natural and spiritual gifts, so that the teacher becomes autonomous, that is, in charge of and committed to his or her own growth and improvement, not dependent on a supervisor's ongoing direction and counsel. By autonomous I do not mean becoming a law unto myself. I do not mean retreating into the sanctum of my classroom and hibernating in isolation from the rest of the faculty. I do not mean refusing to allow anyone else-supervisor, colleague, parent-to provide constructive feedback about the way I go about designing curriculum, delivering instruction, and relating to students and colleagues. Not at all. Genuinely autonomous teachers are highly communicative, highly active, and highly energized about overcoming obstacles to achieving their goals for their students. Regardless of your school's resources or commitment to teachers, you can grow and improve and mature. How? By observing and talking with the champions you know in your school and in other schools, by seeking out and attending meaningful seminars and conferences that address your particular growth needs, by pursuing a graduate degree in your discipline, by mentoring one or more of the new teachers in your building, and by studying the Gospels to discern and imitate the approaches that made the Master Teacher so effective. Perhaps your school has little or no budget to offer the resources you need for fulfilling your personal growth plan. Negotiate for as much as you can, knowing that what you spend for professional development is not an expense: It is an investment-in yourself, your students, and your calling. It is an investment, too, in the cause of Christian schooling and in the ultimate success of your own school. As you grow up in the profession and play like a champion, you gain a reputation that gives you the power and leverage to change conditions in your school that hinder its mission and progress.

"North Star"

Finally, in order to stay on course, we need a "North Star"-a compelling vision for our profession and for why growing up matters so much. We expect attorneys and doctors to be very good-professional-in what they know and do, not because they are paid so much but because the outcomes of their work are of such enormous consequence. So too are the consequences of the decisions we make in our profession. The intellectual, spiritual, and emotional health of Johnny, the developing attitudes about life, learning, God, and Christian discipleship that Janie is developing-these characteristics are being shaped right now by the decisions their teachers make every day. In no time at all, Johnny and Janie and their classmates will leave our classrooms and move into our pulpits, war rooms, legislatures, K-12 and university classrooms, law offices, businesses, operating rooms, corporate boardrooms, courts, and research labs. Most important, they will give birth to the coming generation of students and citizens. In short, the kids in our first-grade, fifth-grade, and twelfth-grade classrooms today are the very people we as a nation and as a peculiar people cannot live without!

This vision for our work is what risk-proofs us against the almost daily temptation to take it a little easier. Our vision is what fuels the DNA that drives us to productively serve our students and thus our Master. Our vision is what energizes us to stay the course despite the disappointments and frustrations and to keep the end in view. Our vision is what engenders hope despite the latest breaking news. Envision with me our Christian school graduates being so excellently mentored, taught, loved, and led that they in turn grow up to move confidently and skillfully into the world that God has called them to, and there prove to be-as were Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego-"ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in [the] whole kingdom" (Daniel 1:20, NIV). Surely, Moses' words to the Israelites as they took possession of the Promised Land apply to us: "What do you think God expects from you? Just this: Live in his presence in holy reverence, follow the road he sets out for you, love him, serve God, your God, with everything you have in you" (Deuteronomy 10:12, The Message; italics mine). Hard? Without question. Also without question: growing up is a holy thing to do.

Notes 

1.Consider Luke 17:2: "It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin" (NIV).
2. Os Guinness beautifully explores this idea in his wonderful book The Call (2003).
3. Although I would choose a different word than neurotic and though I do insist that we are Spirit driven, not compulsively driven, Collins does well in making the point (2005, 15; italics in original). 

References

Collins, Jim. 2005. Good to great and the social sectors: Why business thinking is not the answer. New York: HarperBusiness.
Guinness, Os. 2003. The call. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group. Marvel, Andrew. 1681.
To his coy mistress. In The Norton anthology of English literature. Vol. 1, 1974, ed. Meyer Howard Abrams. Toronto, Canada: George J. McLeod Limited. 


Linda Montgomery Buell, EdD, has served in Christian education at the secondary and university levels for over 30 years. She now works with her husband, Jon, the president of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics. Their publications include Of Pandas and People, The Design of Life, and Sex and Character. 

Download Please Grow Up!