Lessons learned from my students

A few weeks ago I saw my first "Back to School" flier of the season. In the past several years, such fliers stirred up emotions of stress and panic for me, along with excitement. As a teacher, back to school sales served as glaring reminders that I had a lot to do.

This time, the sighting of a back to school flier surfaced a whole new set of emotions: gratitude and relief. I felt grateful for my time as a teacher, and relieved by the reminder that this year there is no "back to school" for me.

To my surprise, in the past year I have felt called to move on to a new ministry and not renew my teaching contract. I am not convinced that God needs me, as a Catholic sister, to serve in traditional, institutional settings and have desired to stay open to new and creative forms of service. True, I didn't expect to be a high school teacher for the rest of my life, but I thought I'd remain in this meaningful ministry for at least a few more years.

In previous summers, I spent a lot of energy redesigning my curriculum and classroom. Recently, though, I have been in meetings with the staff of the spirituality center I'll be joining soon. As I head toward a new ministry, I am challenged to consider what I need to carry forward from where I have been. Serving as a retreat and program presenter, I will continue to be an educator and a youth minister; I hope that a major aspect of this coming ministry will be leading confirmation retreats at parishes throughout the Midwest.

Teaching high school in Chicago and La Crosse for eight years has been formative for me. I learned a lot about culture, people, relationships, management, organization, communication and injustices. Staying open, listening, remaining flexible and being fair were other valuable lessons. Responding with compassion and creativity to the needs of individuals was important; what worked for some students wouldn't work for others. I learned through trial and error and from making a lot of mistakes.

I learned from the people around me; gleaning wisdom and tips from my colleagues and from the feedback of my students. Much of what I learned from interactions with my students feels especially significant for me right now, as I think about how to plan future presentations at the spirituality center.

It has occurred to me that many of the lessons I learned from my students could apply to improving our entire society or living a strong Christian life. Sort of the like the "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" poem, I think you'll agree that many of the lessons I learned from my students are quite universal:

Lighten up

Sure, hard work and dedication are necessary. Yes, learning and growth require a lot of seriousness. But, according to my students, playfulness, good humor and entertaining stories help people remain engaged, interested and relaxed.

When I asked my students what they enjoyed and appreciated about my class I often heard "your stories" or "I never know what to expect" and "every day is different and fun." Similarly, I realized that it benefits everyone if I lighten up the homework load; too much work is never helpful. Keeping things light-hearted and simple gives space for learning to bloom.

Keep it real

When I started teaching I would get really anxious about the things I wasn't: hilarious, tidy or strict. I would try to be just like the teachers I admired, and I kept failing at it miserably. Students disrespected any false version of myself that I tried to present to them. Eventually I realized that the best thing I could offer my students was myself, no matter what shape I was in. Once I gave fully of who I was, I began to experience incredible respect. Despite my messy desk or spacey mind, the students wanted to hear my true stories and get to know who I really was. There was never a reason to "fake it to make it." Being honest and true helped make my Christian witness effective and also helped me build strong relationships.

Listen

As a teacher I was often tempted to think that I was the most informed and knowledgeable person in the room. Most of the time, though, my role wasn't to share information, but to help my students trust their own wisdom and experience. In fact, it turned out that my students' favorite activities were class discussions, where they got to learn from each other. It was especially important that I asked a lot of questions and listened well when I was serving in a culture that was not my own, to be aware of my own privilege.

Even if I push you away, please, actually, stick around

At times I experienced a lot of resistance from my students, oftentimes in the form of misbehavior. It was exhausting but I continued to feel driven to persevere, determined not to give up on anyone. Turns out, that's exactly what my students needed from me. Well into my first year at a particularly challenging school, one of my students apologized and actually admitted that he and his classmates had tried to push me away because they resented the fact that I took another teacher's place; they were used to teachers coming and going so frequently and they didn't want to get attached. Remaining in relationship meant that we were transformed and all got to know more of God's love together.

Let me pray how I like

There is often a temptation to assert our ways upon others, to try to make people be like us — and to judge them when they are not. When it comes to prayer and spirituality, my experience is that youth have too often been given too small of a framework out of which to be in relationship with God. I tried to broaden their exposure to different prayer techniques and provide variety. They would savor any prayerful ritual I offered like it was a rare treat. Still, I would be fascinated when they continued to prefer certain prayer styles that were right in line with who they were again and again, whether it was reading from a particular book, saying traditional prayers, or praying with a song. It was important that I allowed the freedom and the choice.

No matter what, your brother will always be your brother (or sister)

After observing certain behaviors between youth, I'd anticipate lingering grudges and intense classroom dynamics. Instead, they'd surprise me with forgiveness and affection for one another. Down the road a real familial camaraderie emerged, especially around the things that could unite them, like sports. I remember once asking two of my students who had gotten in a fight what it had taken for them to make up. I heard, "Sister, no matter what, my brother will always be my brother; we are a family here." Even though teens, like all people, can be cliquish and prefer to be around people with a similar worldview, they know it pays to forgive, reconcile and find something new to unite around besides the conflict.

As we move into late summer, many of my teacher friends are starting to share about professional development days and the work of setting up their classrooms. I am working on planning a confirmation retreat for youth at a rural parish. As I think about the activities and approach I will take with the next group of youth, the lessons learned from my students are echoing into my future and having an influence. As I move forward, I will always consider myself a teacher. I will continue to remain grateful for the lessons I've learned from my students, and all the ways they've helped me to grow.

[Julia Walsh FSPA is a retreat presenter and blogger found online at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]

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