In 2006, I retired from 41 years of teaching— 18 years of teaching literature and composition at Johnson Bible College and Lincoln Christian College and 23 years of teaching grammar and literature in public schools in Illinois, Tennessee, Florida, and Indiana.
It has been six years since I walked into a public school; I don’t miss the thousands of hours spent grading papers, endless discussions about TCAP, FCAT, or ISTEP, in-services, faculty meetings, pep rallies in the hot Florida sun, appearing before a juvenile court official about a student’s classroom fight, discussions about evaluation instruments (and the subsequent evaluations), and so much more. But, I miss those kids—Marisol, smuggled in from Cuba at age 15 with her baby, yet graduating as valedictorian of her class two years later; Marie, smuggled in from Haiti and headed to Wellesley on full scholarship; Bill with special needs, making every class a delight with his unusual wit; La’Keisha, proudly going to Howard University as the first in her family to attend college; Tameka, beginning her senior year with a three-week-old baby and a four-year-old son, yet determined to make it; Tyler, coming to class and knocking over all the desks, angry at the father who had promised to rescue him from the car where he was living with his mother and who did not show; Kathy, fresh from rehab and shaking uncontrollably through most classes; Princess, recently a witness to the shooting of her father in a drug dispute; Sara, arms scarred from cutting, who one day took a knife to the throat of another student in an art class; beautiful Amira, strong in her beliefs though taunted
and bullied in the aftermath of 9/11.
America itself walked into my classrooms. It came young and old, short and tall, anorexic and overweight, energetic and apathetic, angry and positive, challenging and delightful, hungry and well-fed, loud and quiet, scholarly and athletic, agreeable and disagreeable, homeless and wealthy, conservative and liberal, motivated and unmotivated, college-bound and GED-bound. This America came from many nationalities—Mexican, Guatemalan, Colombian, Cuban, Haitian, Swedish, Indian, Egyptian, Chinese, English, Japanese, American, Nigerian. This America came as Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, self-proclaimed atheist and non-religious. It came from farming communities, from inner-city pockets of poverty, from boats smuggled onto Florida shores from Cuba and Haiti, from mansions, from blue-collar homes, from cars, from migrant worker shacks. It came pregnant, abused, addicted to drugs or alcohol, supporting a family, accepted in prestigious universities, active in church and school activities, involved in community work with non-profits, on probation from the juvenile courts, wearing ankle bracelets. And, this America did not come alone; on its back was carried the family and the culture from which it came.
It has become easy for some Christians to dismiss public education as being too expensive and too prone to public pressures that do not always reflect a Christian worldview. Of course, what I taught in my classes was largely dictated by the materials that have to be taught and federal, state, and local objectives that have to be reached (and often interrupted by pep rallies, special assemblies, administrative absences, behavioral crises) and yes, government programs do not always reflect the realities of the modern classroom. Yet, despite the limitations, I remain totally convinced that public education matters and that a Christian teacher in the American public school has a ministry like no other: to reach and to affect the lives of young people in a profound and lasting way.
In an article entitled “Preparing the Soil: The Mission of Christian Teachers in Public Education” for the fall 2009 Stone-Campbell Journal, Carrie Birmingham of Pepperdine University points out three ways that Christian teachers can carry out the Great Commission initiative and reach the young people with whom they come in contact. She suggests surrounding the students with God’s love, teaching students to love nonmaterial goodness, and to understand and to respect the power of narrative. To those three I would add the opportunity to present oneself as the ultimate professional—well-prepared, well-read, well-grounded in the pedagogy, and, most importantly, well-grounded in the Scriptures. In my experiences, the opportunity to reach students and colleagues in these ways presented themselves all the time.
Most importantly, a teacher becomes a “silent witness” of God’s love in relationships with his/her students, with their parents, and with other faculty and staff members. In fact, some of the strongest Christians I have ever encountered were colleagues in all five school districts where I worked, all of whom saw the need to demonstrate love and mercy to hurting, angry, apathetic, abused students. Christian teachers also become models of high expectations for performance, for behavior. Students who came into my classes knew clearly that rules would be followed, profane and crude language would not be allowed, and papers would be turned in on time and then thoroughly assessed. If someone challenged my correction of language use, I always explained that I was a Christian and that his/her language offended my beliefs and that I had a right to live by my beliefs. As students, they had an obligation to respect the rights/beliefs of those in authority. I have sat in parent-teacher conferences with tears in my eyes as terrible stories were poured out by hurting parents; I have prayed silently for those people, for the crises they faced, and, most importantly for their souls. For me, another important ministry was the mentoring of younger teachers and the participation in many important decision-making committees, including textbook selection.
Teachers also affect the moral and ethical development of their students. Middle school and high school students particularly are seeking for answers and are not afraid to ask questions. For me, teaching literature allowed for discussions of values, ethics, and ideologies. A lesson on Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” one innocuous afternoon with a group of very bright AP seniors led to a very frank and revealing discussion on their attitudes about sexuality. I certainly had the opportunity to explain what the Bible says about purity and what I, as a Christian, believe. My stance led some of the Christian kids in the class to speak up as well; I like to believe that we had some impact. I recall other discussions about racism, materialism, abortion, etc. These opportunities arise daily in all classrooms.
Likewise, teachers help students understand where they fit within the larger story of God’s work in creation. I have been reflecting on the importance of “story” this fall because of the theme for Johnson University this year, taken from Psalm 107: “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story.” I was so vividly reminded of this in an Honors Senior British Literature class at Lake Worth High School, Lake Worth, Florida. There were 34 students in class, with 12 countries represented in the student population. In the introduction to our unit on Beowulf, I was not getting a very enthusiastic response. In a moment of inspiration, I asked the students to come back the next day with a story indigenous to their cultures/countries. They responded, and we spent two days listening to stories from 12 countries. At the end, I told my story—the biblical story of Creation. Two things resulted immediately: these students who had never connected with each other gained an identity through the power of narrative, and the whole climate of the classroom changed. That led to further discussions and questions, which then led to most of them reading and enjoying Beowulf, which is a profoundly Christian meditation on living out our “story” in the face of loss and evil.
I am glad that God placed me in the lives of approximately 3,200 kids in those public schools, and I pray that I was worthy. I am grateful for the strong Christian foundation I received here at Johnson these many years ago. Now I am grateful for the excellence of the teacher education program here at Johnson University, and I ask your prayers for the many Christian teachers who have chosen teaching in public schools as their ministry.
About the Author:
Janis Weedman started college at age 16 and earned Bachelor of Arts degrees from Johnson Bible College and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She earned a MS in English Education from the University of Tennessee. Janis taught literature and composition at Johnson and Lincoln for a combined 18 years and taught grammar, literature, and writing in public schools in Illinois, Tennessee,
Florida, and Indiana for 23 years. Currently she is first lady of Johnson University. Janis and her husband Gary have four adult sons.