Why are we doing this?

A review of “The Ministry of Teaching, L. Martin Nussbaum” as reprinted in the ACSI Legal/Legislative Update, Winter 2007.

This brief one-page article recently crossed my desk and struck me as summarizing many of the things that we do as teachers that need our constant remembrance. The heart of a teacher can easily be forgotten in the midst of his duties. There are huge numbers of tasks involved in teaching at a small private school. These cannot derail our primary mission just because they have to be done. Our primary calling is that of ministry to our students.

Mr. Nussbaum begins by stating his thesis, that teaching is a ministry in much the same manner as that of Jesus with his disciples. While the Christian school teacher does not have the same authority as a pastor or certainly as Christ, we are in a place of great influence. Our school’s mission statement makes it quite clear that teachers here will be in the ministry of cultivating wisdom and virtue (both of which are completely impossible without the aid of the Holy Spirit).

He moves on in his article to deal with the obligations of the teaching ministry: moving student from knowledge to understanding and thus on to wisdom. Though he does not say as much directly, he mirrors our school’s beliefs that school go beyond the facts to the great unifying Ideas of the world. He mentions the order and discipline of math and science. He admonishes moving beyond basic skills in reading and writing to seeing the spiritual purpose that lies behind human communication.

He uses Paul’s words in Phil. 4:8-9 to properly compel teachers to focus on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in everything that is taught. He then states clearly the focus of our school’s mission, that wisdom and virtue are cultivated in our students by being embodied in the teacher’s lives. Our greatest lesson prep is the time we spend with our Lord in confession of our sin and seeking all of Him to be in all of us. The teaching life is a path of integrity. If you don’t match your words, you effect no change in your student’s lives. In a society that values transparency and authenticity, we must be transparently and authentically true, good, and beautiful.

It is his last paragraph that seems the most “controversial” to me. It is not that I disagree with it; it is that implementing it is very difficult. Community is a matter of commitment. As a covenant community, our school has the agreement that every student is being raised in a home where at least one parent is a believer active in a local church. Nussbaum translates his thesis into the notion that every Christian teacher is seeking to assist “their students in becoming active in their respective church communities.” Certainly the teacher must not only be active in his own church, but be passionate enough about it so as to be obvious about it with his students. But our students do not make decisions about church attendance by and large; their parent’s do. So as they come into the school they are asked about their church involvement under an honors system of a parent interview. If they say the right things, they are in.

But then the truth comes out: “My parents never take me to church.” Now what is the right and ministry oriented thing for the school to do? Call the pastor? But in our day of large churches, he might not even know them if they are there for every service. Ask others in the school? I am concerned this will be somewhat cloak and dagger. A direct frontal confrontation seems the best, but now we are back at the honor system.

I go back to the careful language that Nussbaum has in place in his article: he uses words such as “model,” “assist,” and “lead.” We must be who we should be and then we have to trust the rest of the community to take their role as seriously as we take ours. Certainly teachers have great opportunity to encourage and guide parents both in regard to their children and in regard to their spiritual pilgrimage. A growing Christian community must be tied into the growing Church and the Bible states to us clearly that growth of the Church is tied to such things as discipline, confrontation, rebuke, suffering, and the like. It is not simply a picnic.

This brings me to a point made in the middle of the article. “Teachers in a Christian school must be ever mindful that they instruct not only through rational explanation of formal subject material but even more powerfully through word, deed, example, and shared experience.” It is impossible to teach just one aspect of a child. At any given moment, both in the classroom, and out in the halls/lunch room/play ground, the school is cultivating either wisdom and virtue or foolishness and vice. There is no choice here – it simply is a law of God’s world. So wise and virtuous teachers purposefully “plan” their lessons both in and outside the classroom by choosing to be who they should be.

It is sheer delight to work in this context when it is working well. It can be a real pain when sin rears its ugly head. Many believe it is the absence of horrible sins that makes for a great Christian school, but I heartily disagree. It is not the absence of sin but the fact that when it occurs it is properly and promptly dealt with that makes us a Christian school. God give us all grace to do our duty. My thanks to Mr. Nussbaum for his reminder of our principle calling: ministry to our students.

For my teachers, I have placed a copy of the article in each of your boxes. For my other blog readers, I have been unable to locate the article online, but I have referenced the citation above.

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