About two weeks after I started substitute teaching at Charlestown High School — over twenty years ago — the assistant headmaster called me into her office one day after school and said, “You like English, right?” By the time the conversation ended, I was filling in for one of the English teachers who hurt his back. “He’ll be out about a month,” she said. He came back in April. I went up to the room to see what he had left and there was one file folder with attendance sheets for his five classes with thirty-two students each. Thus began the Year of No Sleep and Great Learning. (Wait — I’ve had several of those.)
I quickly developed a routine. I got up about 4:30 so I could be in the building at 5:30 when it opened — that meant I could get to the copier without facing a line. The school day ran from 7:15 until 2:30; I would stay and work for an hour or so, come home and work on lesson plans and do what else needed to be done, and then get what sleep I could so I could get up and do it again. I held on to two pieces of advice that saved me in those early days. The first was from Ginger. Everyday as I left for school, she would say, “Remember not to take their behavior personally.” My school was made up of urban kids, most of them poor and seventy percent of them nonnative English speakers. All but about fifteen percent of them lived in another part of the city and had to negotiate trains and buses to get to school by 7:15. And they were teenagers. Their angst and anger spewed out all over the place and often I was the one who got caught in the crosshairs. When I did remember what was getting thrown at me had nothing to do with me I was able to do more than exacerbate the problem by joining in the power struggle.
The second thing came from Jeter Basden, who was a seminary professor, friend, and member of University Baptist Church in Fort Worth when I was youth minister there. I asked him to do some teacher training for my Sunday School teachers. He began by writing a sentence on the board:
I teach students the Bible.
“You tell me the direct object of the verb teach and I’ll tell you what kind of teacher you are going to be,” he said. After a short discussion, he continued, “If you think the Bible is the direct object, you are going to be frustrated and ineffective. If you think students is the direct object, you can read from the phone book and change lives.”
I didn’t know how to teach English, but I did know how to teach kids. So I asked them to write their stories and then I looked for stories to read together that would help us all communicate better. After a couple of weeks, we found an equilibrium that allowed me to not operate in constant crisis mode. The problem for me was I had never been in a high school English classroom as a teacher. I didn’t know if what was happening in our room was normal or effective or awesome or ridiculous. There were three other English teachers — all veterans — on my floor, so I went to each one and asked if I could come by on my off period and just sit in the back of the room to observe and see if what happened in my room bore any resemblance. All three said, “No.”
The science teacher across the hall befriended me and offered me a seat in the back of his room. His kindness allowed me room to develop the courage to ask him to cross the hall into my room: “Come, tell me what you see,” I asked.
The story came back to mind last week as I looked back over some of my travels with the book. I have been in several different flavors of churches, if you will, and I have been struck by how little we talk to each other outside of our closest circles, how little we ask to sit in the back of the room. We have much to learn from those who don’t do it the way we do. I love that many mainline churches are working to be more evangelistic, but often it seems they tend to consult one another about how to do it rather than ask those who have been doing evangelism for years. In the same way, the energy of the emergent movement is exciting as they embrace the inclusive power of the gospel and they aren’t the first ones to discover it; some of their mainline friends could offer words of wisdom and encouragement. And it’s not just with churches. In everything from local city councils to state legislatures to big nonprofits to families, we aren’t very practiced at saying, “Tell me how you handle this issue. I need help.”
I would love to be able to tell you that every year I taught I went and asked if I could sit in the back of the room during my planning period, but I only did it my first year, and only that one time. I found my rhythm and developed my way of doing things. As an extrovert, I thrive on connectedness, so I have always liked to collaborate, yet I continue to realize I need more conversations about sharing our “best practices.” One of the great things about working in a restaurant kitchen is sharing knowledge is essential to success. At the computer store, one of the first things they told us in training was to not be afraid to admit we don’t know something. If a customer stumps us, the best thing we can say is, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.”
At the core of what both Jeter and Ginger taught me is the truth — whether in the classroom or sanctuary or any other room in life — that I am not called to be the expert; I am called to be a participant, or perhaps a facilitator, which means sharing and listening are at the heart of the deal. I am both teacher and student, depending on the moment, which has less to do with a power structure and more to do with the question at hand. Sometimes I am both simultaneously. In either case, my world is as big or as small as my questions.
And there’s always something to learn if I am willing to ask, “Come, tell me what you see.”
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