Friday, September 25, 2009

Fall like rain

Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. Deuteronomy 32:2

A print of a watercolor calligraphy of this verse, a member gift from LEA long ago, hangs on my office wall. The verse is my prayer each Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before I pick up my bag and head down to my classroom. It is a potent reminder of my responsibility, and of the grace offered by my Savior.

I don't teach kindergarten anymore. I don't even teach in a Lutheran classroom anymore. One of the nice things about teaching children is that no one tells you to not get emotionally involved. Getting emotionally involved with your students is a blessing. You spend all day with them; you learn their quirks and endearing mannerisms. You get hints as to the struggles they face and know all too well the struggles they might cause in your classroom. While no teacher relishes the need to talk with parents about tough situations, and we all dread having to call Child Protective Services about possible abuse, it is, none the less, a blessing that we can do this. We can make a difference in a child's life; a difference that some children desperately need.

I don't teach young children, anymore. Now, I teach big kids on a university campus. These students are, for a mere 16 weeks, on my roster. I see them for two hours a week and some not even that much. What does "teaching fall like rain" mean in this situation?

I am starting to get to know some of the 82 students I teach. One young man has asked me for writing advice as he and his father are writing a book on divorce. Another young man turned down an offer to play pro baseball because he wants a degree in business. He will probably have that pro career but he is thinking beyond that. Another athlete gets physically ill when his football team loses a game. Then there are the students who struggle with unexpected issues, like the two students who missed class because they attended the funeral of their best friend's fathers. Or the young man who admitted to me, in a paper he handed in, that he has a drinking problem. I can't forget the foreign students who have so much beyond language to translate as they swim in this culture so different from their own. And I worry over the young man who is struggling with seizures and doesn't want to register his condition as a disability so he can ask the professor for pre-written notes from class. Then there are the students who are on academic probation due to their indulgence in new-found freedoms. For many of them their habits of last semester are still driving their decisions this semester.

For some of them, I want to call their parents and set up a parent/teacher conference. I threaten to do it, but the students and I both know, I can't. The best I can do is to refer them to available help. Again, I ask, what does teaching that falls like rain mean in this type of setting?

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants not he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. I Corinthians 3: 6- 7

This verse helps me to put things into a better perspective. I asked God to let my teaching fall like a gentle nurturing rain. I do not ask Him to give me the responsibility to make the grass grow. This responsibility always belongs to God. He blesses us by allowing us to be a small part in the process. With this small part, come huge responsibilities to take care of our behavior and to pay attention to how we represent our Savior to the young ones in our care. We are to work, through the power of the Spirit, to follow the opening line of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. The efficacy of the rain is God's responsibility. Sometimes we plant a seed, sometimes we water the seed previously planted. The growth of the plant is God's job.

To my friends who teach: I will remember you in my prayers this week. May God always let your teaching fall like rain. And may He show you the growth; you seek, in your students.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Control issues, again

I have an interesting bunch of students in the study skills classes I teach for the University. Some are seniors getting ready for graduate school and some are sophomores who crashed and burned during their freshman year. I also have a dozen or so student athletes, including seven who play football for the Huskers.

Part of learning study skills is in understanding what motivates you to change. I just finished a seminar class on motivation so I have a whole bagful of constructs tricks to use with this group. This past week we have been talking about "locus of control." We have been discovering where each of us believes the control of our life lies. Do we, personally, have control over what happens to us or is our life left up to external forces such as fate, or perhaps professors? People with internal locus of control have much happier and productive lives. They are less likely to gamble, to become addicted, are more persuasive, take better care of their health and are less likely to suffer from debilitating depression. They are this way because they consider themselves to be in control of what happens to them. This means they see reason to problem solve, put in effort, and motivate themselves to make good decisions. People with an external locus of control tend to complain, do little to improve their lives, and are ready and willing to give up in the face of problems. People with external locus of control are even less likely to survive a tornado. I guess they figure if they are going to die anyway, they might as well sit on the front porch and watch that F5 cloud of dust heading their way.

However, there is one notable exception to the locus of control rule: people with a strong faith in God. We know that our locus of control is external. In fact, it couldn't get more external. Yet, we are goal setters, achievers, persuasive, and happy; all markers for people who have an internal, or personal sense of control. Furthermore, this fact has not gone unnoticed by researchers. They just cannot adequately explain it.

We do not compare, in any way, to the huge football players in my class. They are remarkable athletes who had their pick of scholarships to division one schools. In achieving this goal, they have had to work harder than most of us can imagine, yet they have an external locus of control because their lives are carefully orchestrated by the athletic department, members of whom have access to all their classes, grades and assignments. This department schedules their every waking minute, even when they get their homework done, in a supervised environment. They have no motivation to change their study habits, and even in the face of real evidence; still refuse to take any notes in class. They do not believe they have any control over their life; and maybe they are right.

So why are we, as children of God, not like these football players? We have an external locus of control; we know that God is in charge of everything that happens to us. We have a goal of "going pro" (I am thinking heaven, here) but yet, we do work, in the here and now, to have a healthy control in our day to day lives. We are living in a paradox. We are simultaneous saint and sinner; we are children of an all powerful God who have been granted free-will. We live under the law and are surrounded by grace.

The twin gifts of justification and sanctification put our lives into perspective in a way no motivational construct can. We are completely responsible for our fall from grace, in no way responsible for our forgiveness. At the same time, because we have free will, we also know that through the work of the Spirit we can gain some control over our deficits and can make the best use of our gifts. Our locus of control is external but is fine tuned for our survival and benefit. Only God could create a system that works as beautifully as this.

For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 2 Corinthians 5:14

They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. 2 Peter 2:19

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 2 Corinthians 4: 7-9