Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On the Select Team

I'm five weeks into my long-term subbing assignment, teaching 9th- and 11th-grade English. I've been saving up so many stories for you that I don't even know where to begin. I guess at the beginning....

My feelings about myself as a teacher have followed the same trajectory as they did the first time I started teaching, over 20 years ago. The first couple of weeks were glorious. I loved my kids, and they loved me. I was elated at how easy and fun it was to engage them, and I felt that I was doing what I was made to do, like a horse running or an eagle soaring.

After a couple more weeks slipped by, harsh reality set in as the honeymoon faded. This is a really, really hard job. All day, every day, I had to juggle the responsibilities and interruptions, the planning, the grading, the challenges of classroom management. And I had to do all of this with a smile on my face, preferably with my sense of humor intact. I went home utterly exhausted each night, too keyed up to sleep soundly.

Through all of this, the mutual affection between me and my kids continued to grow, yet the same enthusiasm and spirit that had charmed me that first week began to grind on my nerves as I faced the realization that freshman aren't so far removed from middle schoolers. Just like my seventh-graders years ago, these students delight in throwing pencils, markers, paper wads, and even backpacks whenever my back is turned. Since all I ever get is a glimpse of the projectiles in my peripheral vision, I don't know who to blame. I'm so focused on teaching the skills they so desperately need, and on monitoring for understanding, that I can't seem to take in all their misdemeanors, let alone mete out punishments.

During weeks three and four, I nearly buckled under the weight of my disappointment. Surely I was still not cut out for this job. I was not stern enough, not organized enough, not confident enough. More than once, I thought, "When this 12 weeks is up, I should go back to my old job." Back there, I'd never had to worry about whether I would succeed at my work.

When friends asked me exactly what I was having trouble with, I couldn't even explain. My lessons were actually going pretty well, and discipline was going as well as could be expected. The kids seemed to be learning and having fun while they were at it, and I was forming bonds with more and more of them.

I decided that I mainly felt inept at planning. Although I can plan an engaging lesson, I can't seem to get the pacing down. I can't predict what we can get done in a day, let alone a week. At the end of the week, I wonder if I've taught them anything, and whether they wouldn't be better off with another teacher.

Some Wise Counsel
One evening I talked it all over with Allyson on our way to church. "I don't think you'll be able to relate to this," I began, "because you're good at everything you do: schoolwork, soccer, anything you set your mind to."

"Well, I-"

"I'm used to being really good at what I do, too. But overnight, I've gone from being an expert to a novice. I don't like the way that feels."

"Oh, I do understand," Allyson replied.

"You do?"

"Remember when I first started playing on a select team?"

I looked in the rear-view mirror and nodded.

For the next few miles, Allyson vividly described how it felt to go from being one of the top two players on her recreational soccer team to being the worst player on the new team.

"I didn't know any of the footwork. I didn't have any of the skills. I couldn't run as fast. It was so embarrassing for a very long time," she said.

I thought back to those first couple of seasons, how I'd been embarrassed for her but had naively hoped that she was too young to realize that she was... not one of the gifted ones. Now I realized how keenly she'd felt her inadequacy, and I wished I had talked with her about it at the time.

"I had to let go of trying to be the best," Allyson went on. "I had to stop comparing myself to everyone else, except to try to learn from them. I had to just do my best and keep trying, and trust that I would get better. And I have."

I nodded, thinking back to her goals and assists in recent games--the first ones in a few years.

My ten-year-old proceeded to teach me about patience, perseverance, and humility. "You're in a position to grow, Mama," she concluded. "It's easy to stay where it's safe and comfortable, but now you're in a place where you can learn new things. It isn't easy, but it's worth it."
Allyson Back in the Rec Team Days

More Wisdom
Her words, along with several encouraging moments in class, carried me through the rest of that week. But at church the next Sunday, I still felt heavy and worn out. At first, I felt there was a dark cloud over me that even God's word couldn't seem to penetrate.

One line in a new song moved me to tears: "Find me dreaming."

I realized that after four weeks on the job, I'd already let go of my dream--just like I'd done 20 years before. "No," I prayed silently as warm tears splashed down my cheeks. "I don't want to lose my dream, not after the way You gave it back to me."

Despite my lethargy and drowsiness, the sermon breathed life into me. Pastor Stephen said that we must lead with authenticity, by being ourselves even in our weakness. "God can't bless who you're pretending to be," he said. "He wants to bless the real you."

He also reminded us of Genesis 3:15, a prophecy about Jesus defeating Satan:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.
He warned that we should expect Satan to bruise us, but we must remember that Jesus gives us the power to crush his head. "If you're not limping a bit," he said, "you're faking a lot."

He then encouraged us not to get bogged down with looking at the need right in front of us. He said that we should see the need, but then look ahead to the vision God has for our future. "Faith doesn't deny the problem," he said. "It denies the problem a place of influence."

As I replayed the sermon in my head on the way home, I realized that the root of my struggles was my old, familiar perfectionism. Somehow I'd expected that I could walk into the classroom as an accomplished teacher, all put together from day one. I'd expected to be like the other, experienced teachers around me. In short, I'd expected to become someone else, when God only ever called me to be me.

Further, I realized that He didn't call me to do everything perfectly and to be everything that my students need. Instead, He called me to be available, to surrender my heart completely to His so that He can do the work through me. It doesn't matter that I'm weak, when He is so strong.

The last week or so has been different, though no less challenging. I've chosen to focus on the joys rather than the struggles. For example, there was the time when I rolled the dice for an inferencing game I'd cooked up out of a standardized test prep worksheet. "If your desk says Alliteration," I announced, "I need you to go to the corner that corresponds to your team's answer." When A. stood up, I felt a stab of concern. This quiet, timid girl always ducked her head when I asked a question, and I wondered how she'd respond to the pressure of explaining the text evidence behind her team's answer.

I had to lean in to hear her, but A. performed admirably, earning two points for her team. After class, I quietly expressed my pride in her. "You were so articulate, A!" I smiled at her confused expression. "That means that you can express your thoughts clearly. I know that you are very shy, but you explained your answer very well."

She positively glowed. "To tell the truth," she said, "I think you should stay at this school always."

I grinned, ducking my own head.

"And I hope that you can be my teacher," she added.

I felt my heart expanding. "That would make me very happy, A. If I'm here next year, and I teach 10th, I hope you will be in my class."

If this is what it means to be on the Select Team, sign me up.

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