Irrigating Deserts: Why Relationships With Students Matter

Posted by admin in August 21st, 2009
Published in teaching, Uncategorized

C.S. Lewis said that too often educators approach teaching as deforestation. You go in and tear down every preconceived notion, pull up roots of ignorance and clear the land for planting. According to Lewis, that is the absolutely wrong approach. To his mind, we should be irrigating deserts. Bringing knowledge, life, learning, information, worldview to our students is like bringing water to a desert: once irrigated, it will bloom! And how is this done? Through relationships, hard work, lesson planning, preparedness and earning students’ respect.

Jesus’s Relationships with His Students
Jesus built relationships with his students. He was intentional about this. He knew them well, and most importantly, he called them by name. Learning students’ names is the first step in building relationships with them. Studies have shown that students who are known by their teachers and called on by name are less likely to be disruptive in class and perform better. They are no longer incognito or anonymous in class. Learn who your students are and what they are about. As quickly as possible, find out their hobbies, what they do for fun, how many are in their families, where they are from. Take a genuine interest in them. When possible, watch them do their thing. Go to plays, speech tournaments, football games, drive over to Sonic when you know your student’s working that shift—let them know you see them as whole human beings and that you value them. I was a bad student, very bad, but I never failed a class when I knew the teacher liked me. I never wanted to disappoint someone who cared about me. I flunked the classes where the teacher couldn’t have cared less. Please engage. Watch. Learn. Cheer. Respect. Involve. Believe in them.

Teaching Christianly (you know, like Jesus) means demonstrating concern for your students. This usually begins by listening to them and being interested in them as fellow human beings. We must not see them as an enemy to be conquered, or a wild animal that must be broken. Seeing them as persons, having their best interests and well-being at heart, are the first steps in building relationships with your students.

Jesus invested in his students’ lives by developing mentoring relationships with them. Mentoring is simply investing in your students’ lives and being available to them— whether it’s a game of chess, playing tennis or helping them edit their college applications. It is spending time with them, caring about them, and giving direction to their lives. Jesus as the model teacher loved his students; Christian teachers must do the same. Following Christ’s example as teacher means that students and their learning is central to our teaching strategies. It means that students come first.

In order to build these relationships and teach students, Jesus knew and understood his students’ needs. He used his knowledge of his learners to meet those needs. He was able to stimulate interest and make his lessons relevant because he knew his students and related to them as valuable individuals with worth and dignity. He learned their particular struggles and how they understood the world around them. Teachers must likewise plan and carry out every teaching activity so that students can succeed in their efforts to learn. Whether it’s a bad home life, cross-cultural issues, pressure to do well from parents or even an egocentric student who thinks he’s the center of the universe, good teachers find ways of reaching students with learning.

It’s important to note here: those of us that work in secular schools must remember that folks without Christ act like, well…like sinners! We can’t put unrealistic expectations on students (nor colleagues) in secular institutions. People without Christ struggle with issues of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies. “He lied to me! He stood right there and looked me in the eyes and lied to me!” Sure he did. He’s a son of Adam that hasn’t been regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit. Confront students with your expectations, make clear what your rules are, but be willing to forgive them while they are yet sinners. (Romans 5:8 folks).

Jesus’s Expertise
When Jesus spoke, people listened. Matthew 7:28-29 shows us the impact of his teaching:

“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority.”

Jesus spoke as an expert. He had a broad knowledge and he also had discerning wisdom. He was able to effectively convey and reveal subject matter to students by creating multiple paths to the concepts, principles and ideas he taught. He could clearly communicate the knowledge in a manner that his students grasped. They got it. And that, my fellow teachers, is the definition of teaching: communicating knowledge in a way that students get it.

Following Jesus’s model in the classroom means professional preparedness. Kickin’ it old school, Dr. J.M. Gregory in The Seven Laws of Teaching wrote back in 1884, “Without full and accurate knowledge of the subject . . . the teacher certainly cannot guide, direct, and test the process of learning.” Preach it Gregory man. Jesus had full and accurate knowledge and we must as well.

Teaching purposefully, being well-equipped and having knowledge of the field are important parts of following Christ as a teacher. Christians teachers must be able to teach with “clarity, insight and authority” regarding their subjects. They must possess a growing store of knowledge and understanding of their fields and of teaching in order to emulate Jesus. They must grasp how their subject area is organized, linked to other disciplines and applied to real-world settings. This is how we earn the students’ respect. This is how we minister to them. (Note here: Do NOT just dust off your old lesson plans from the last ten years and teach from those again! Saves time sure, but it stinks. Get some fresh manna for pity’s sake).

Jesus as a Servant
Jesus was a servant. He came to serve in order to serve. What is involved in serving? Being a servant means we are humble. Humility is demonstrated to students (and colleagues) through a spirit and actions of servanthood, gentleness and meekness. Teaching by its very nature is a thankless job. Taking on the spirit of a servant helps us remember Who we are really doing this for. It is also vital if we want to reflect Christ in our teaching.

One way Jesus demonstrated to his students that he was a servant was by washing their feet. Foot washing in ancient Israel was a job for a slave. No self-respecting, non-slave would ever wash another’s feet. For a rabbi—a teacher—to wash his students feet was unheard of. Yet Jesus did this for his students as a way of modeling for them humility, brokenness and unconditional love.

As Christian educators, we must ask, “What does it mean for me to wash my students’ feet?” This will look different for each person, but the principle of servanthood remains the same. We are to serve our students with humility and unconditional love. We are to demonstrate to them that, like Christ, we are willing to lay down our lives for them. We are willing to live sacrificially for them. We are willing to do everything we can to help meet their educational, spiritual and emotional needs. This may mean working hard to grade papers carefully and clearly. It may mean going beyond the job description and helping a student who is struggling with difficult concepts. It may mean doing menial tasks such as cleaning our classrooms, emptying trashcans and straightening desks—all without complaint. It may also mean not reacting to the obnoxious student that pushes your every button and gets on your last nerve. Whatever it requires, we must deliberately live out Christ’s servant attitude and with a spirit of humility and love our students as unto Christ.

Jesus as Servant met the needs of individuals—he fed them, he healed them and he taught them principles that would forever change their lives. Jesus also rebuked them when necessary, but because of his great love for them he rebuked them perfectly and without defeating their enthusiasm or their passion. All of these are ways in which we can follow Jesus’ example of serving our students in our classrooms.

Jesus Prayed for His Students
Jesus prayed for his students. He prayed for their unity, their protection from the evil one, their safety, their future, and that God would sanctify them (John 17:6-19). Jesus prayed for his students’ eyes and ears to be opened. We must do the same. Praying for students is a vital part of building relationships with them and serving them. It is also a powerful tool in learning to love students. Never underestimate the power of prayer.

Many classes taught by Christians overseas for example, are in countries where there is no Christian witness. Most students in these creative-access countries do not have anyone in the world interceding for them before God. In Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, secular, communist or atheistic societies, there may be no viable Christian witness anywhere in students’ lives. (In fact, it’s looking more and more like that here in the States as well). Kneeling daily with a class roster in your hand and praying for each student by name, every day, is one of the most significant ways that Christian teachers can follow Jesus’s example as teacher. You will see attitudes change, work improve, even a different classroom dynamic when you pray daily for your students by name. God moves through those prayers.

Praying is also a vital part of lesson preparation. Pray over your lesson plans. Dallas Willard says that Jesus is the smartest man that ever lived. Jesus knows more about your field than you do! Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). Hey, ask the Creator of the universe, the BEST teacher who ever walked this earth, to give you insight, creativity, ideas for your lesson plans. Get real with God and asked him about objectives and goals. Pray over your stuff! It matters. As we follow Christ’s example and strive to honor him in the classroom we must recognize our teaching as a holy calling and sacred work. When we enter our classroom, we must be deliberate in bringing Christ with us. As we bring his presence into that room it becomes a sanctuary for worship of the living God. Even if our students are not aware of it, when we who love God cry out for him to be honored in our teaching, we are engaging in an act of worship. The classroom becomes a sacred place where we ask for the Holy Spirit’s anointing as we present our lesson to our students. With our hearts and minds focused on Christ our teaching becomes a sacred act. I want to leave you with this story from a couple of IICS professors in Romania. You never know how God is going to use you in the lives of your students. Peace.

Scott (and Christy) G., J.D., Law Professor, Romania
Every semester we take students out to lunch after class in order to get to know them better. We always pray and ask the Holy Spirit to show us which student to invite on which day.

Iulia lost her dad when she was a little girl. On the anniversary of his death she was feeling really sad and prayed to God that she would “really like to do something with him [her dad]; have a pizza or something.” Christy and I had no idea about this, but guess who we asked out for lunch that day? Yep, it was Iulia. Guess where we went? Yep, we took her out for pizza, and she told us her story. She said she knew she was praying for something impossible, that she couldn’t be with her father that day. When we asked her out for pizza, she knew that God had given her us instead.

We have been very close to Iulia ever since. Even though she has been away in France on a scholarship, she communicates regularly via computer. She recently started reading a Bible she borrowed from a fellow student. We had one of our supporters send Iulia her very own Bible from America. We pray that Iulia will believe in Jesus with her life.
Gregory, J.M. (1982). The Seven Laws of Teaching (Rev. ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. (Original work published in 1884).

5 users Responded In This Post

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201. grannieannie said,
August 21st, 2009 at 8:18 am

Interesting comment between a couple of teacher/friends on FB, talking about difficult students:

I read in the book Transforming the Difficult Child that sometimes kids who think they’re “bad” don’t believe you when you praise them, and try to do things to prove you wrong. (Seen it happen lots.) It says you should get them used to hearing you say things to them in a neutral sense. “I see that you’re using a green pencil.” “You’re wearing a “Spiderman shirt.” “You brought Doritos in your lunch.” It’s not a compliment. It’s not a criticism. They know you know that they’re there, and not doing anything wrong. You have to be really creative to find enough neutral statements to make a difference. Then, slowly, they’ll begin to accept praise. Maybe this will help with your little firecracker.

Just thought you might find a use for this!

202. admin said,
August 21st, 2009 at 8:24 am

Thanks Anne.That’s good stuff. Very insightful. I like it.

203. Texas cuzzin Linda said,
August 21st, 2009 at 8:57 pm

I’m sharing this with my teacher friends. This is such good advice.

586. Zivile said,
January 15th, 2013 at 1:38 pm

This article is such a blessing! Especially for inexperienced teachers like Z. C.!

587. Zivile said,
January 15th, 2013 at 1:42 pm

P. S. and in my vocabulary now are for about 41 new english words 😀

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