Monday, September 19, 2016

Guard the Door

In my last entry, I described my fears about taking the next step in my teaching journey: starting to substitute teach. After sharing the whole story with you, I ended up sleeping well and feeling well prepared for my first assignment, which turned out to be sixth-grade Reading.

After misplacing the rosters and finding them in the staff bathroom just before the bell rang, I recovered my composure, and the day got off to a fairly smooth start. Thankfully, my first period had a Special Ed aide who was able to show me not only how to turn on the document viewer but also what a document viewer is. Whew!

And then the fun began. I enjoyed doing a bit of teaching as I introduced the assignment on the prefix "post." Everything came back to me, and it felt like I'd never left the field. The kids were well engaged, and I was able to manage a few minor discipline issues using proximity; when someone started to get off task, I simply stood next to him and smiled kindly.

Mr. B. and I made a great team as we circulated among the groups, gave pointers, and answered questions. At the end of the period, he asked what subject I had taught before.

"Reading," I replied.

"I can tell," he said. I beamed.

Things got a little rougher in the afternoon. For one thing, my feet were screaming. During second period, the middle toes on both of my feet had twisted into charlie horses, and I'd had no choice but to walk on them for hours. Have you ever noticed how much harder it is to be cheerful and patient when your feet are killing you?

Many of the same children returned to me in the afternoon for their Writing classes, and they had apparently undergone a sea change over lunch. They weren't that bad, I guess. They were just being boys. They made annoying noises with their mouths. They tapped their pencils incessantly. They put Scotch tape over their mouths. They put the sock erasers that went with my homemade whiteboards on their heads like tiny caps. And occasionally they made comments that were at best obnoxious and at worst mildly off-color.

I took it all in stride and still managed to engage them in a lesson on four types of conflict (man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature, man vs. society). But I had to work so hard to keep them on task! To make matters worse, I was now getting a bit hangry; when I'm working from home on my usual job, I can just run to the kitchen at the first sign of a growling stomach. Not so at school. There was no time for munching except on lunch and during my planning period.

When the final bell rang at 3:15, I could barely walk, my stomach was moaning piteously, and my bladder was bursting. And I was so wiped out that I could barely straighten the room and gather my things, let alone carry my heavy box all the way back out to the car--which is why God sent a very kind assistant principal to carry that box out for me.

On the way, I told him about my career plans and about my mostly fun day. He said he hoped I'd come back and teach there again.

"I will," I said. "I have a request from Mrs. C. for Friday."

"Excellent," he said.

I forced a smile. "Looking forward to it."

But I wasn't. I was actually regretting accepting that request from the kind teacher across the hall. I was thinking that sixth grade was probably not my place, and maybe this whole thing was a bad idea. It was just as hard as it was before, except that now I was 20 years older.

I felt down all the way home and all the way to church that evening. I wondered how I'd feel if I just changed my mind after all of this dreaming and working toward my goal. Would I be walking away from my calling? Or could there be a chance that teaching isn't my calling? I wondered for the hundredth time if I'd heard God correctly when I started on this journey.

As He so often does, God had picked that night's sermon out just for me. It was on hearing the voice of God. The youth minister talked about how we sometimes need to quiet ourselves in order to hear God talking. It was good stuff, but he didn't really get my attention until he read Genesis 4:7:
If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (emphasis added)
Just 24 hours earlier, I'd written this line on my blog:
But today fear was crouching at the door, and I let it in.
When those words flowed from my fingers. I recognized them immediately as a variation of the verse in Genesis. I've always loved the imagery of sin crouching at the door, because that is such an apt description. As I wrote the blog entry, it occurred to me that fear does the same thing, and that I can choose whether to open that door.

Hearing the same verse the next day felt almost like a sacred echo, so I listened closely to see what else God might have to say. I was intrigued by the minister's interpretation of the Genesis verse. He said he'd always thought that God was telling us that we must rule over sin, but that had never felt right to him because we really can't rule over sin. We are sinful beings in constant need of grace, and we can't overcome sin in our own power.

"What if God wasn't telling us to rule over sin, but to rule over the door?" he asked. The door, he explained, is what we do have control over. We can decide what to let into our mind, and what to let out through our words and actions. If we immerse our minds in negative influences or even just waste our time on too much media, we will be more susceptible to sin because we won't be able to hear God's voice over all the noise. But if we say no to those influences and focus our minds and hearts on God instead, we'll hear His voice and obey Him.

This made a lot of sense to me, and I pondered what changes I needed to make to my busy schedule in order to make a quiet space to listen for God's voice. Again, I wondered whether I'd been hearing God clearly about going back to teaching.

At this point, the minister closed his message and invited us to pray about what we needed to be on guard against. "Maybe you're overwhelmed with stress," he said, "and you need to close the door on it and not let it rule over you. Or maybe it's worry. You need to stop letting worry come through the door."

The hair on my arms literally stood on end when I heard his last example. "Maybe you need to shut the door on your fear, and start believing that God can help you overcome it."

Now it was officially a sacred echo. I found this doubly comforting because it confirmed for me that I do hear God's voice clearly. He'd spoken the same message to me just the day before, and over the past four years, He'd used many different circumstances to lead me into His will about teaching.

I went home with a renewed determination to guard my heart and my mind against the lies and discouragement of the enemy. I carried that into my second subbing day on Friday. This time, I was able to focus on loving my students first, and managing their behavior second. I faced many of the same challenges, but I this time I didn't fall into my old pattern of seeing the kids as obstacles to my goals for the day. I still had to redirect them, but I wasn't as frustrated about it, even though my feet were still killing me despite my expensive new shoes.

Three days later, I'm still smiling over the connections I made that day. First there was the seventh-grader whom God sent to carry my box in; I so enjoyed his chatter as he led me through the labyrinth of halls. Then there was little Adrian, who seemed to have AD/HD. Instead of focusing on his inability to sit still and stay on task, I saw his heart. As he sought my attention with negative behavior, he really desired to feel wanted. It was a beautiful thing to see him blossom when I found something to praise him for.

Finally, there was Edgar, who stood head and shoulders above the other kids. He, too, craved my attention. So I gave it to him, in a spare moment here and there. As I asked him about his favorite books, he told me about his sister who is in the hospital with a condition he doesn't understand. (To me, it sounded like she's having seizures.) I touched his shoulder. "I'm sure it must be very hard to have a sister who's sick and not to understand what's happening to her." He nodded and then ducked his head.

During my planning period, I got out the seating charts and prayed over many of the students, especially the ones who'd caused me trouble. And then I prayed for their teachers and the administrators. I prayed for the Holy Spirit to rest over the classroom and everyone in it. I prayed for peace and rest for the students and their teacher.

I knew the same students would be returning for the afternoon, so I braced myself for that rough group from second period, Adrian's and Edgar's class. But they seemed to have undergone a sea change over lunch! After I'd greeted them each warmly at the door, they settled pretty quickly into their seats and started their silent reading with very little prompting. And then they stayed on task through the rest of the period and needed almost no redirecting.

On their way out, Adrian and Edgar both gave me hugs. I hope hugs are allowed these days! I certainly enjoyed them.

A Little Dab'll Do Ya
The next period was an absolute delight. When they arrived, a couple of them asked me if I dab. "What's that?" I asked.

They roared with laughter.

I shrugged theatrically.

"Let us show you," one boy said. "It's dancing."

"The bell just rang," I said.


"I am a spectacularly bad dancer," I said. "But I'll tell you what. If you're very good, and if we have time at the end of class, I'll let you teach me some dance moves."

They were the best behaved children I've ever seen!

"Were we good?" one girl asked after they'd turned in their tests on The Cay.

"You were so good," I answered. "In fact, I think you're the best class I've subbed for."

"Really?" a few kids asked.

"Yep." I grinned. "Well, this is only my second day," I admitted. "But I think you'll be my best class for a long, long time."

"Hey, you promised we could teach you to dab," a couple boys said.

I could feel my face turning red. "I'm telling ya, I'm a terrible dancer. But you can try."

Five or six kids gathered around me, cell phones at the ready.

Two of the boys guided me through crooking my left arm and sort of dipping my head into the opening my arm made, while I held my right arm straight out to the side.

How Dabbing Is Supposed to be Done

The whole class laughed uproariously.

"I know I look ridiculous," I said. "Do they call it dabbing because it's like wiping your nose on your sleeve?"

"Do it again!" they pleaded.

So I did my closest approximation. "I got it on Instagram!" one boy said.

They laughed so hard they couldn't breathe.

"Now show her the whip," they said.

The two dance instructors showed me how to bring my knees sort of together, and then spread my feet apart while punching my left arm out in front. I was apparently even worse at this move than the first one. Some of them may have peed their pants, they laughed so hard.

"Now show her the Nae-Nae," they said. But then I was saved by the bell.

"I never knew you could have this much fun at school," I said. "I hope I see you all again."

They all spilled out the door, trailing laughter behind them down the hall.

At the very end of the day, two boys stayed to help me clean up trash and straighten desks. Can you believe that, on a Friday afternoon?

I was just as exhausted at the end of my second day, but this time my soul wasn't tired. Even though my new shoes had made my heel bleed, my box felt lighter on the way out. Nevertheless, I was still happy to relinquish it to the same kind vice principal who'd helped me on Wednesday.

I laughed as I recounted the dancing lesson. "I have a feeling I'm going to go viral on Instagram," I said. "And not in a good way!"

He laughed.

"Good times," I said, as he tucked the box into my trunk.

An Older Crowd
Today I taught 11th- and 12th-graders Reading Improvement at a beautiful high school overlooking a lake. I found that high schoolers are much easier to manage, but not nearly so much fun. With a little effort, I was able to get a few of them engaged in the very cheesy reading comprehension passage about a girl and her werewolf father.

I also got to observe a ninth-grade teacher during my planning period. I was inspired by the way she lavished love and affirmation on her students, and the way they soaked it up. I guess sixth graders aren't the only ones hungry for love and acceptance.

But the highlight of my day came at lunch time.

"Goodbye, Amaya," I called to the last straggler at the end of fourth period.

"Oh, I stay in here for lunch," she said.

I stared at her in confusion. After a moment, I said, "Oh, so you just hang out with Mrs. C?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

"Okay," I said. "I just need to heat up my lunch."

I prayed on the way to and from the teachers' lounge. Would I be able to connect with this young woman?

Yes, I would.

I started our conversation by asking her why she wasn't eating. She pulled out her earbuds. "Oh, I don't know."

"Aren't you hungry?"


I offered her some grapes, but she waved dismissively. "I'm good, miss."

I told her about how hungry I get when I'm subbing, and how I have to get used to not being able to run to the kitchen for snacks all day. That led into talking about my prior experiences teaching, and on to her potential career choices: cosmetologist, chef, or meteorologist.

She asked for advice, so I gave it to her. I told her to follow her heart and do what she's most passionate about, and not to settle for anything less. I also gave her some advice about marriage while I was at it. "Don't think you'll always be in love," I said. "Real love comes in the struggles."

"Like when you're fighting all the time?"

"Yes. That's when you figure out what love is. That's when you can choose to honor your commitment."

The sixth period bell rang too soon.

"Thank you for talking with me, Amaya," I said. "I'm sure this will be my favorite part of today."

She grinned. "You're welcome, miss. Are you coming here again?"

"Yes, several times. I hope I see you again."

She nodded and hurried out, just as I shook hands with my first sixth period student. (With these small classes of 5-12, I shook hands and formally introduced myself to each student. It was fun to see their surprise. Some of them looked at me as if I were from another planet, but it was gratifying when a few of them looked me in the eye and stated their names confidently.)

As I look back on my day, I can't point to any great teaching moments. I probably didn't make much of an impression on most of my students. But that conversation with Amaya was worth getting sore feet for.

I'm sure there will be Amayas and Adrians and Edgars in my classes every year. What a privilege it will be to get to know them.

In the meantime, please pray for my feet. I'm serious.

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