Being a Real Christian Teacher

Matt Kägi

My main concern is that Christians who work as teachers will maintain their conviction and their joy for their profession, and will thus remain as “contagious Christians” in the schools. I believe that the message of Christ – real love – is core nowadays as it always was, and that the schools are therefore in need of real Christians.

What do I mean by “real Christians”? I mean Christians who know that they are not themselves the authors of their love, but that they may and must receive this love from Christ, and that they may and must let Him guide them in their behaviour and actions. I mean Christians who not only give a “redeemed impression” (as Nietzsche asked of Christians), but are redeemed – from their fear for themselves, from their worries for survival, from the burden of their guilt. They have an anchor, a direction, a contagious joy, which do not depend on circumstances.

“Love”, though, is a dangerous word nowadays – because it has been misused so much, and therefore it is easily associated with sex. A cunning strategy of God’s enemy! But if we understand the word in its true biblical sense, it is immediately clear that it is core in all of life, and especially in schools. “If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but do not have love, I am nothing”, says Paul in 1st Corinthians.

Haven’t we all experienced this in school? Which teachers have had a positive influence on you? Wasn’t it those who were loving – and that doesn’t mean soft, or bland, or without limits! But you were important to them, and they took you seriously.

I recently experienced this again at a network conference of QUIMS in Zürich (“Qualität in multikulturellen Schulen” giving support to schools with more than 50% immigrant students). Four young students talked in a seminar about their experiences in Swiss schools. What impressed me was that each of them somehow traced their success back to a person who loved them and supported them. In one case, this was a Gymnasium teacher who went out of her way for her Congolese student and not only encouraged her, after dropping out of Gymnasium, to keep her head up, but also paid her access to a private school. Today, she studies at the University in Zürich. She told her story with emotion, and I’m sure the love of her teacher will radiate further in her life.

In my work as a special education teacher, too, I experience again and again how children can flourish who had formerly given up on themselves. And I pray every morning that God will give me the love and the wisdom I need to provide these children with what they need.

Unfortunately love is misunderstood by many to mean that you have to fulfill all the children’s wishes. I can only say that this is one of the worst misunderstandings nowadays. Children whose parents have not dared to set limits, are among the most pitiable. True love requires that we apply our reason and experience in order to habituate our children to the limits which are indispensable for a meaningful life with others.

When a teacher understands his or her task in a Christian sense as a service to humans-in-training, then this profession is beautiful, but also very demanding. In relating to children, you are asked day by day, and hour by hour, and minute by minute, to be present with your total being. For many, this alone brings them to the edge of their strengths. Failure cannot easily be seen as a partial failure, but is easily perceived as failure of your total being. That’s quite threatening. And so the temptation is great to forget about your ideals and concentrate on the demands which are placed upon you by the system: Good class performance and yet individualized attention, relaxed classroom atmosphere and yet high demands on the kids, wholehearted participation in school development projects and yet careful preparation of the teaching subjects, impartiality and yet tolerance, etc. etc. How often have I seen teachers first breathlessly pant under these excessive demands, and then give up!

I was quite disturbed by what I heard from teachers in England at the occasion of the EurECA conference in Croatia last summer. Schools in England are rated annually, and the ratings are publicized in the papers. And it appears that everything in the schools is so geared to these tests, that one young Christian woman, who had started teaching full of enthusiasm, had to admit in disillusion after one year, that her only goal in school was to get the children through the tests! In Switzerland, too, the practice of ratings is beginning to take hold.

Experienced teachers, as well, groan under the load of relentlessly rolling reforms. Overnight, one has to start teaching with a new math emetics book, which requires the teacher to read through about 1000 pages and is not even geared to the needs of the respective level; overnight, one has to apply a new system of grading after being introduced to it in just one day; the new rating system for teachers requires that you write a dossier about yourself and justify your work to the examiners after a few of their visits; where the new school managements have been introduced, teachers are often confronted with a new kind of struggle for power; manifold measures of saving money are promising to cut down on quality, and you have to ask constantly “must we / dare we accept this just like that?” In a word: either the burden of the classroom or the pressures of the environment wear you down.

After my three months sabbatical course in 1999, which all of the 35 participants started, so to speak, with tongue hanging out, one colleague put it to the point: “Better to be a happy teacher than a good teacher!” What he meant was “Better not to try to be good at everything, it will only bring you down; but save your strength for your ideals and for the confidence in life, which our kids need from us.”

That’s what I would like to say to my Christian colleagues: Resist the temptation to spend your energy in doing everything well! But keep the wide perspective for your ideal: To pass on God’s love – “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).

Matt Kägi