By Adam Green
Any person reading this blog is likely well aware that teaching often feels quite bleak. We have a lack of instant-gratification in a world that thrives on that very thing. Teaching requires patience and perseverance in a culture of rapidly increasing quick-fixes and focus-changes. To make matters worse, we are called by God to instill patience, perseverance, personal connection, and meaningful pondering to teenagers –a demographic simultaneously most impressionable and most affected by the contemporary culture. Sometimes I feel like the Little Engine who could…only as I chug along, I see other people continuing to building and lengthening the track I am on.
I swear I love my job, but I sometimes question a God who would call me to such a frustrating career vocation. I trust that the fact you are reading this blog means that I am not alone in this seemingly contradictory mindset of frustration and fulfillment. This tension brings us to my point: As teachers –particularly theology teachers- our job is to honor the past so that our students can move into the future, by means of encountering the present. Put a bit more directly, I have developed my own teaching mantra: “I am not teaching the teenagers of 2019, I am teaching the adults of 2050 when they are teenagers.” Any person who agrees with this mindset is likely able to do so only because they were once young and nurtured by an adult who was encountering the same struggles we do now.
When I was an undergraduate studying theology, my mentor was a beloved Jesuit named Fr. Gray. I remember Fr. Gray saying that “the purpose of Catholic education is to humanize students.” In other words, the true purpose of any subject matter when approached from a Catholic worldview is to help the learner grow in their own humanity. This is admittedly difficult in a world that is becoming more inhumane –more disconnected and sterile, less compassionate and empathetic. Attempting to operate with a sense of hope –not optimism, but hope- can remind theology-nerds of the mantra of Realized Eschatology: “Already, but not yet.” And thus, we return to our title: Honor the Past and Move into the Future by Encountering the Present.
In times of doubt and frustration –when the “not yet” seems to obscure the “already”- I remind myself of Fr. Gray. Although I would love to say that thinking of the future of my students restores my hope, I would be lying. I must honor my own past. When it is hard to imagine the future, looking to the past often gets us where we need to be. When I’ve hit a wall teaching, it helps me to remember that my job in the present is a way of honoring my past. So ask yourself: “Who is a mentor that you honor in your vocation?” What memories of a person in your past helps you continue moving into your own present? Connect with that memory now.
Presumably the individual or individuals you conjured into memory are people you wished your own students knew. Well, guess what…your students can know them through you. As teachers, we bear the privilege of linking our students to teachers whom they will never meet. In doing so, we link back to the Ultimate teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. What a privilege, to introduce the young people in front of us to the wisdom of people whom they will never meet so that our students’ futures can be a bit better. And yet, this is not purely altruistic, we do not teach merely for our students. We also do not teach merely to honor our own past. Honor the Past and Move into the Future by Encountering the Present.
Honor the Past is laudable, and moving into the future is progressive. But do not forget that Encountering the Present is to encounter God. By encountering the present we tread on hollowed ground no less than Moses did before the burning bush. To encounter the present is to enter God’s realm, to enter Kairos. In teaching, this is our primary responsibility. The student in front of you…that is the present. The “you” that you are in the classroom on any given day…that is the present. When we accept the present as it is –not as we would have it be- we honor the past and move into the future. The present moment is the linchpin. And so we ask: How can we encounter the student in front of us today? How can we authentically honor who we are today? How can you –as you are today- participate in the reality of the moment you are in?
Adam Green teaches Scripture, Ignatian Spirituality, and World Religions at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, OH.