Teaching as a Spiritual Discipline

By Ian Mosley, Instructor of Latin, School of the Ozarks

When I was a fairly new-minted Christian, I was introduced to the concept of spiritual disciplines by the writers Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. Particularly Foster’s Celebration of Discipline helped me enter imaginatively into the role that practices and habit play in spiritual formation. In a culture like ours that values spontaneity and authenticity, it had a big impact on me to have to consider how specific practices—things like fasting, deliberate times of solitude and silence, set times for prayer and ways of reading the Bible meditatively, such as lectio divina—could play a role in forming me as a believer.

At times, the definition of spiritual disciplines was stretched so expansively that it risked losing meaning or becoming a trendy label. I read one article in which the writer explained that his morning coffee was a spiritual discipline—though I would be a little more open-minded now (does not St. Paul say that we may eat and drink to the glory of God?), my reaction at the time was skeptical: was this writer putting spiritual window dressing on something he just happened to like?

But I have come to understand that it does make a difference to approach something as a spiritual discipline, even if outwardly you are performing the same actions anyone else would. Particularly, I have come to realize that teaching can be approached as a spiritual discipline, and that this attitude, if consciously cultivated, can help us grow as teachers and believers at the same time.

Briefly, approaching teaching as a spiritual discipline means approaching teaching as a training in loving your neighbor. To an ever-increasing degree, our social networks are now the products of choice, not chance or necessity. As distance fragments extended families, as friend groups become interest groups rather than neighborhoods thrown together by physical proximity, as even churches become self-segregated sociological units according to age demographics and common interests (Cowboy Church, anyone?), we are increasingly exempted from the necessity of loving the person in front of us, and instead constantly enjoy the privilege of putting in front of us those we love.

A teacher, however, has no such luxury. He confronts a group of people—a class—disparate more or less from himself in age, coming from a cultural background that may be deeply unfamiliar to him, with a wide range of personalities and—yes, even in Christian schools—levels of spiritual commitment and maturity. The mission of a teacher is to find a way to love and value each and every one of them.

One’s growth as a teacher, then, can be measured academically by things like the amount of material covered and the greater understanding of the students. One’s growth as a teacher spiritually must be measured in a different way. We must ask ourselves this question: am I better at loving people I had a hard time loving before?

I have often had the curious experience of growing impatient with someone, feeling my dislike for him beginning to grow—and then suddenly something in the way he looks or acts will remind me of one of my students, usually a student who got on my nerves at first, but whom I grew to like. Immediately the resentment will fade, and I will find myself beginning to appreciate that person.

“As a father pities his own children, so is the Lord merciful to those who fear him,” says the one hundred and third Psalm. “For he knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust.” (vv. 13-14) To live, pray, and learn with children is to be reminded of our own poverty and insufficiency, of our limitations and fundamental condition of dependence. The teacher cannot easily be deceived by the all-too-common and deeply diabolical lie that we adults sprang fully-formed from the womb, that our careful concealment of our sins (a skill that comes with maturity) has in fact annihilated them, that our fashionably broad phylacteries have made us God’s favorites.

The teacher cannot easily be deceived by this because he takes up daily the task of disabusing his students of it. He gently rebukes the seventh grader exalting himself over the pitifully immature sixth grader, and he is reminded himself of his own temptation to do the same. He sees the student puffed up by his meager attainments and is reminded of his tendency to underestimate the scarcity of his own. He sees the student strutting with the pricey water bottle or fashionable backpack and is rebuked himself for his own temptation to place his value in material objects. As he yearns for pity from God he learns to extend that pity to others.

Of course, just because the teacher is resistant—just because examples are paraded before him daily from which he ought to learn—hardly makes him immune. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a teaching mentor was to take up every year some hobby or practice that would force me to start from the very beginning. In so doing, she said, I would be constantly reminded of what it is like to be a student.

My church has a small choir, so small, in fact, that when we split into different voices I ended up being the sole tenor. Though my mother gave private music lessons for many years, I am not talented musically and it has taken me many years to learn and understand the basics of the discipline. Though I practiced the piece diligently, I was still fairly mediocre at performing my part.

I caught myself developing a fairly bad attitude about the whole thing: why sink all this time into something I was so average at? Why not concentrate my leisure hours on something where I excelled? Then the realization dawned on me: don’t I expect my Latin students to try their best even if they are not naturally talented at languages? How could I expect anything less from myself?

Simone Weil’s essay “Reflection on the Right Use of School Studies” wisely points out that it may be the subjects that we least enjoy as students that benefit us the most spiritually because they more than others train us in the habit of paying attention whether we feel like it or not. This is a useful habit spiritually because we often have no natural desire to pay attention to God.

We teachers are often tempted to point constantly towards our successes: the class with whom we have a rich relationship, the student whose attitude we turned around, the lesson that could not have been more compelling and impactful. But Weil might remind us that our failures (and let us be honest with ourselves, they happen every year!) may benefit us more in a spiritual sense. To love the students who joyfully absorb what we teach: don’t even gentile teachers do as much? To love the student who is proud, recalcitrant, moody: that is to store up treasure in heaven. Amen!

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