Loving Our Students Well
Teachers the world over are looking forward to spring break. We’ve returned to the classroom while emerging from COVID to find students as unprepared as any we’ve ever seen. If you’re a teacher, by now you’ve seen the fruits of two years of limited learning.
By all accounts, the effects have been worse for those who can afford it the least: those from lower socioeconomic classes, those with less access to fast Internet at home, and those from less stable families, with parents who themselves have been struggling. At school, standards were lowered, and kids were shuffled forward, leaving the next year’s teachers to clean up the mess. Two years in, the mess is huge.
Those of us who are Christian educators try to bring the love of Jesus into our classrooms every day. We read:
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law … Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
This text speaks of love as a debt we must pay. Elsewhere we’re told to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), and to let all that we do be done in love. (I Corinthians 6:14) What does it mean to love our students in this way?
I think it means to seek their greatest, long-term good. To give them what they need, not necessarily what they want. It means that grade promotion must be meaningful. Or we’re kicking the can down the road.
Some students bring unrealistic expectations to our classrooms. They may be used to complaining their way to higher grades. Or blaming the instructor. How do we love students who feel entitled, or who have an inflated view of their own skill set? By setting accurate expectations, by caring enough to tell them how it really is, and by going the extra mile to create opportunities to help them catch up.
Content and Tone
Love needs to be in word and deed. In what we say and what we do. And while content matters, so does tone. There are ditches to avoid on both sides of the road.
- An overly relational approach seeks to be the students’ friend first and teacher second. Trying to score points with students by ending class periods early, canceling assignments, or teaching less. We want our students to like us, so we try to be cool, as if we were their peers.
- A distant, authoritarian approach is too harsh, especially now. This approach goes for sternness but comes across as inhuman. As if we’re mere taskmasters who get our kicks by making students’ lives miserable.
We can strike the right balance. We’re in charge, but for your good. To lift you up, not kick you down. The standards are an expression of love. Not power. Love. The standards are appropriate to what the students need for long-term success. How we structure our courses, what tests or projects we assign, the homework, it’s all driven by love — by a desire for our students to be prepared. We want our students to develop the right habits of mind, to know what they’ll need for future courses, or to be college-ready, or fit to enter the work force, or to be more competent, virtuous citizens.
If they know and feel that we care as much about their future as they do, it increases our effectiveness. It enables us to speak into their lives, even when our message is one of correction.
This means we need to give extra attention to the craft of teaching, to the structure of our lessons, to the opportunities we give them to exercise critical thinking. Rigorous teachers will be excellent teachers, or they will be unpopular teachers. Because if we hold them to high standards, they’re likely to return the favor.
If their long-term success means they fail our class and repeat it, so be it. If it means changing their major into something for which they’re better suited, so be it. We don’t need them to fit into our preconceived mold. We love our actual students, not some idealistic concept of what we wish they were. We meet them where they’re at. With all their faults and foibles.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book Life Together, wrote of those who love their dream of a Christian community more than their actual Christian community:
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.
He was talking about churches, but it has broader implications. If we love an idea of the perfect student — and most educators do! — it’s easy to project that idea onto our actual students and be disappointed. Or we think of the students that we once were and wonder why more aren’t like us — oblivious to the fact that we got where we are precisely because we were unique in this regard. Too much love for the idealized, mythical student not only makes us proud, but it tends to make us impatient and frustrated towards our actual students. It’s a temptation we must constantly fight.
May God help us love our students well. Their future depends on it.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).