I trained to be a teacher a good few years ago now, before which I worked for churches. I worked as a youth and community worker for a while, and before that I interned at a church in Oxford. I complained about things a lot at the time, because I was young and idealistic, but one thing that I always did before work was spend forty-five minutes to an hour sitting in a coffee shop reading the Bible and writing in a journal (I don’t say that to insinuate that’s normal, just that it’s what I did).
It would be no lie to say that I was proud of my knowledge of the Bible; I knew where passages were found and I’d often thought deeply about them and when I spoke to people, I found that verses would come to mind. I felt close to God, both in church and to some extent during the week.
I was also deeply unhappy and destructive, both to myself and to those around me. I was a ruthless perfectionist and terribly idealistic, and so I put great demands on people, which is a terrible trait to have when you’re leading people. The church that employed me as a youth and community worker was a community whose kids work was ambling along well enough until I showed up and, in my first year, tried to change the entire structure of their volunteer rota in a way that meant volunteers would never get the chance to go to a church service. Many of them stepped down and the rest looked exhausted, and I praised the ones who did step up and despaired that people weren’t more committed. I was twenty-two when I started. About a year and a half in, I hit a point of total burnout when after running seven separate weekly youth events with less than five volunteers to help out, one day I woke up and found that I was so exhausted I literally couldn’t hold onto a single thought.
All of that happened when I was spending an hour’s ‘quiet time’ every day. For all the good that it did me – and I’ve missed it, believe me – I don’t know that it made me more loving, or compassionate, or understanding. If anything it made me more demanding, because I was doing it and so should others.
When I became a teacher, my hour’s quiet time disappeared, almost overnight. When you get up at 6am daily, it’s no joke telling people to get up an hour earlier. To get eight hours sleep, I would have had to go to bed at 9pm each night. Coupled with work stress, and long hours, and planning for a wedding, I was lucky if I managed to read my Bible for ten minutes a day. There just wasn’t time! Church felt like a slog, particularly because I felt judged for my failings – failure to serve, failure to invite people, failure to spend time in prayer – and it hardly seemed like I was going to get back into it when that was my feeling every Sunday morning. Admittedly, things are better on that front now than they were when I started teaching, but that took a while, not to mention a move to a new church.
It’s hard being a teacher. Every day you are required to show endless patience and compassion to kids who are often distracted, or irritating, or personally vindictive towards you (in my case at least). You are under huge pressure to plan good lessons and to stay on top of marking and to get results, and it can feel overwhelming at times. It’s the kind of thing where you need to be spending time with God, not just to ask for help but also to get refreshed (non-Christian friends, if you’ve read this far, I can only say from experience that this is definitely one of the benefits of those times). There’s rarely a week that goes by when I don’t think wistfully of those mornings spent in coffee shops.
However, a few years into teaching, I’ve started to notice something odd. All that choosing patience, and having to show compassion to people who you don’t want to, and asking for help when it’s insanely difficult to do so – all of that has started to reshape me. I’m more compassionate that I used to be, more patient. More (whisper it) loving. I think somehow am starting to look more like Jesus, against all the odds and without even really trying. It’s a hard thing to explain and I don’t know what to do with it, really. I thought theology came first, followed by practice, but years of getting my theology right didn’t change my heart; getting out there and doing it has, which doesn’t mean that all those years in coffee shops weren’t valuable, but it does make me think they weren’t quite enough. Maybe that’s why some parents can have a greater experience of compassion and patience – all those years of loving somebody who can be an enormous pain. I don’t know, really.
Don’t mistake me, I got it really wrong when I started out teaching, and alienated a lot of my students. Yet in spite of all of that, a few years in and with less time to read my Bible than ever, I’ve found myself being rewired and renewed all over again by the experience of trying to follow God at school, in a way I never expected to be. Has anybody else had that happen to them, in schools or elsewhere?