“STOP pushing the desk, Khushi! How many times have I told you the SAME thing! Sit up straight and don’t lean against the table!” The plump, untidy little six year old gave me a shame-faced grin as she did every single time I corrected her which was probably every other minute of the thirty minutes I sat with her.
A couple of months ago I started teaching remedial reading to a few struggling students from different classes in the school we’ve partnered with before. Emmaus has two main focuses in what we do- sharing Jesus and serving the poor. As I ended three months of volunteer training in December, and was preparing for a new year, I felt the Lord calling me to live a little more closely to the poor, and serve them in a more practical and regular way. When we did a Story Club last year in the same school, we noticed that there were many, many children who struggled with even the most basic reading. I have a background of teaching, know something of phonics, and I LOVE reading, so it seemed like the right way to serve.
So four days a week, my team mate Sandra and I would head to the school and sit in the library with the kids. How exciting to give these children skills that could transform their school experience, their education, and probably their future careers! If you can’t even read English, what chance have you got? But if you can, how many more doors are opened, how much more confident you are likely to be!
We didn’t want to just teach them to read though. We wanted to show each of these children the love of Christ, to acknowledge their value and dignity as irreplaceable, unique, unrepeatable children of God. We wanted to be kind to them, to be a loving presence in their lives.
But then they came along, and they pushed the table into me every two minutes, rocked the bench until it fell over, interrupted and called out answers when it wasn’t their turn, pushed each other, complained about each other, lost their pencils, and erasers, and made the same mistakes again and again and again. And I would find my voice rising and sharpening as I corrected them again and again and again.
This is not who I wanted to be! I have had enough of sharp, irritated teachers, and I can’t stand it when I see teachers yelling at kids all the time. Angry and irritable teachers sure aren’t going to change the world, let alone show kids that they are loved.
But what was the solution?
I realized I needed to keep a stricter watch on myself. Just because I could get away with being impatient and angry, and using my sharp tongue as a weapon, didn’t mean it was okay for me to do so. But I had a new chance every day to be different. I didn’t beat myself up every time I spoke more sharply than I needed to, but stopped myself as soon as I noticed it, and tried to soften my voice and my attitude.
And instead of just trying to eradicate my own negative behaviour, I replaced it with something good. Instead of just trying to control their thoughtless or naughty behaviour, I started to affirm them every time they did something right.
When they finally sounded out a word correctly after struggling with it and doing it wrong many times, I spoke a delighted, “Good job!”and high-fived them. I gave them sweets at the end of class for good behaviour, and affirmed the ones who were participating or even trying. I learnt to stop acting as if they were ‘bad kids’, or in some way opponents, grudging every word of praise (which is strangely easy to do), and instead took every opportunity to encourage them. I read them story books occasionally, and found things to laugh at with them.
It’s only been two months with these particular kids, but I already love them. I see what God sees in them, as they give their shy little smiles, as I surprise a laugh out of them, as they pass the library when I’m with the older kids and give me a little wave from outside.
I’m pretty sure many of these kids have difficult home lives, either because of poverty or because of the common evils of alcoholic parents, broken marriages, harsh discipline methods, or just a lack of affection or consistent and kind discipline.
But when they come to reading class every day, they know they are loved, even when Susanna Miss sometimes loses her cool. And day by day, I hope the Lord is turning me into a slightly more accurate representative of HIS kind, patient, consistent love.
Here's a poem my mother wrote which she shares with teachers when she does teachers' training and formation sessions:
A Teacher's Dream by Jackie D
Based on Matthew 25: 31-46
I had a dream the other night,
(Or should I say, ‘nightmare’?)
There was a King upon his throne
With visage just and fair.
Above and all around him bowed
Angels, with wings unfurled;
And standing in a crowd with me,
The teachers of the world.
The King stepped down
And searched each one
With steady, measured gaze.
This one he sent to his right hand
That one, the other way.
And finally, when all had moved
Either to right or left,
He turned to those at his right hand
And said, ‘Welcome, you blessed!’
“For when I walked into your class
Ill-clad and shivering,
Your eyes were blind to faded shirt,
Your smile made me a king!
And, you, I never will forget,
For when I lost my notes,
You sat with me and patiently
Dictated while I wrote.
The day I failed to pass the test
And squirmed with fear and shame,
You hid my marks from curious eyes
And helped me try again.”
The King went on, his grateful eyes
Embraced each one with joy
Till, to my wond’ring eyes he seemed
Not man, but little boy!
When he was done, he turned
And walked to where the others stood.
His gaze grew stern, his voice grew hard
As he said, “Off with you!”
“Each time I failed to make the grade
You poked at me in fun,
And when you caught me copying,
You looked as if you’d won!
A hundred times you made me write,
‘I am a dirty cheat’
You didn’t know, that with each line
The good within me ceased!
I know that you had work to do
And troubles, hard to bear,
I gave them so your heart would learn
To feel my children's’ care.
If you had only seen your sin
And put aside your pride,
I would have helped you; you’d be saved
And many more beside!”
So, gathering the ‘Blessed ones’
He took them to himself
While all the rest, with blank despair
Stood gazing after them.
The scene was printed, sharp and clear,
Upon my waking mind.
One question loomed:
‘Was I with Him, …Or was I left behind?’