As an Adventist educator, I find myself frequently referring to the book Education. Written in 1903, by Ellen G. White, the book presents a model for Adventist education that is as revolutionary and relevant today as it was well over 100 years ago.
Reading Education can elicit a lot of responses. At times, it is exciting, thinking of what can be and who we are partnering with. At other times, the seriousness of the educator’s responsibility can elicit feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes, it can be challenging, causing the reader to reflect on their professional practices and how they might be adjusted to better serve students and families. Some passages can lead to confusion.
One such passage can be found on page 292. Describing teaching, we read that “this work is the nicest, the most difficult, ever committed to human beings.” (White) I have spent quite a bit of time pondering this statement. It can seem contradictory and confusing.
When I think of “nice” work, there are definitely many parts of the work of an educator that seem less than nice.
It was less than nice, the time that I sat in an office for 20 minutes while a disgruntled parent yelled at me and accused me of not liking her son because she disagreed with some discipline that had been administered.
It was certainly not nice the times that I have met with families to let them know that their child would not be able to return to school due to choices they had made.
The hours spent in board meetings, staff meetings, professional development seminars were not always nice.
It was far from nice, working with law enforcement, social workers, reporting abuse and neglect.
Long weekends full of activities with little time to recuperate before returning to school on Monday morning did not seem nice.
Being insulted and harassed by parents because their student does not have the grade they would like was not high on my list of pleasantness.
Days of sickness from interacting with young people with poor hygiene habits, with coughs and runny noses were unpleasant.
The list could go on and on. In my 24 years serving in the roles of classroom teacher, vice-principal, principal, superintendent, in boarding school and day school, there are many experiences that I would not classify as nice. It could be the reason that the previously quoted sentence includes the caveat, “the most difficult.” We work with people, and people have issues. We bring our own issues with us.
This is challenging work.
If we focused solely on these negative, less than nice things, it might be hard to find a reason to continue. As easy as it is to be consumed by the negatives, the slights, the insults, it is essential that we acknowledge the positives. We must dwell on the positives to enable us to endure the difficult.
When you watch a student, struggling with behavioral issues, start to mature and gain control after hours of discipline, guidance, redirection, love. That is nice.
Steering a class through a difficult subject, watching the understanding dawn on their faces is nice.
Teaching alongside a former student who has chosen teaching as a career is rewarding.
Building genuine connections and relationships so that students feel safe coming to you with challenges and seeking advice is positive.
Watching your students rise from the water in the baptismal tank, publicly giving their hearts to Christ is exhilarating.
Being invited to graduations, weddings, baby dedications of the students you have worked with is very exciting.
Watching an entire family join the Adventist church after enrolling their children in your school is nice.
Seeing your students move through school to become successful in their careers is great.
Having students take on leadership roles within the church is affirming.
There are many more nice things that could be listed.
One of the things that has become clear to me is that we often do not know the impact we are having while we are having it.
Two stories have driven that home.
A few years back I was working during an academy alumni weekend. It was late Saturday night and most people had left campus. One former student was still on campus visiting with us. This student had graduated a few years before and he was more than ready to get out of the there. He had become frustrated and complained frequently about the school and the staff.
As we visited, he was reminiscing about his time at the academy and was listing all the things that he liked, the fun times he had experienced, how great the school was. I asked him about how frustrated he was when he graduated, and he acknowledged that was the case. He responded, “sometimes you don’t know how good you have it till it is gone.” Despite how he treated his teachers, we were making an impact on him. Even though it did not seem apparent at the time, he would come to appreciate what was done for him and the opportunities that he had received. That was nice.
From that point on, I have looked at student complaints very differently. While still hearing them out and adjusting as warranted, I also consider how these things will be perceived after a period of time.
Some years after this experience, I heard from another student. He reached out and said that he would be in town and wanted to stop by for a bit. This was a student who had made more than a few poor decisions and had ultimately been asked to withdraw from the school.
When I heard he was leaving the school, I went to find him and visit with him for a bit. I wanted him to know that regardless of his mistakes, he was still important to us and we cared about him.
Years later, as he sat in my living room, he shared how that had meant a lot to him. My reaching out to him had made an impact and he knew that I was not judging him. As we continued to visit, he talked about the church he was attending and the roles he was serving. He shared how he had found his way back to Christ. That was extremely nice. It was very humbling, and I can only say praise God that He worked through me this time.
As educators it is essential that we cling to these instances where the curtain is drawn back and we catch a glimpse of the difference that we are making. It doesn’t happen often enough and we frequently find ourselves questioning how effective we are. These fleeting moments where we see the impact can encourage us as we struggle through the difficult times.
If we continue to read the full paragraph from which are initial quote was taken, we find:
This work is the nicest, the most difficult, ever committed to human beings. It requires the most delicate tact, the finest susceptibility, a knowledge of human nature, and a heaven-born faith and patience, willing to work and watch and wait. It is a work than which nothing can be more important. (White)
I can assure you that the Adventist Church has many, many teachers who fit this description.
It takes enormous amounts of tact and patience to hear out a venting parent, to avoid being defensive. Many times, just providing the opportunity for them to be heard is all that is needed to address the situation.
Teachers have to possess an understanding of “human nature” in order to help redirect students when they are exhibiting inappropriate behaviors. The knowledge of the workings of the human mind aid in providing instruction and guiding young minds.
They have to exercise faith, to work, to watch, and to wait to see the fruits of their labors. I believe that in many instances we will not fully know how God has worked through us until we get to Heaven.
What can be more important than the young people of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? It may be a bit self-serving, but I believe that Adventist education is the one of the most important ministries of the church. Ellen White seems to support that belief.
We should continue to put educators who possess tact, knowledge of human nature, faith, patience, a willingness to work and watch and wait, into as many schools as we can. We should make an Adventist education available to every student in our churches. We should look beyond that and reach out to our communities, seeking families in need of the love of Christ.
While education can be extremely difficult, it is also very rewarding. “It is a work than which nothing can be more important.” It is most surely the “nicest” work.
White, Ellen Gould Harmon. Education. AB Publishing, 1903.