By Paul McFadden
Success as a teacher is a weird concept. The days of sitting exams are over and unlike my university exams which usually had one correct answer, there is no “right” way to teach. Every teacher and classroom is different. Every class and lesson is a unique experience.
We can begin to place our value and success as teachers in a host of places. Is it being the teacher with the best relationships? Or having the fresh and exciting activities? Or being an expert in assessment? Or even just an absolute marking machine?
As a pessimist, I always focus on the things I feel worst at. Sometimes that has been the more challenging kids and the hope that one day they might enjoy my subject as much as me. But mostly (rightly) they just look at me like I’m insane.
If we start placing our metric of success on any of the above things, we’ll find ourselves in a hole pretty quickly. There will always be a child who doesn’t like you. There will always be someone with better activities. There will always be a class that outperforms yours in assessments. And my Physics teacher colleague is definitely a faster marker than you!
"Success is illusive in teaching"
Success is illusive in teaching. There is always more we can do or something we are not doing. We can’t live or succeed in an environment where true success is unattainable. For every moment of success with one learner, there’s another where the chances are we will feel that we’ve failed them. We can’t live like that. We need the gospel. We need God’s help. We need a way of being as a teacher that allows us to be calm in the toughest of situations; caring in the most frantic of environments; and passionate when things get tricky.
In Philippians 3, Paul gives us a model of how to live a life that is passionate yet centred on something certain. He was the model of success in his day and if you consider yourself successful, Paul was better. Look at how he describes himself.
“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”
He was the creme of the Jewish crop. Abiding by the law at every turn. From a tribe with a reputation of purity, a pharisee - one of the top religious leaders. In the eyes of the nation of Israel he was faultless. Imagine that being your feedback after that tricky observed lesson.
And yet. Paul’s response is staggering.
“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him”
Paul’s world was turned upside down by the gospel. All that he once held dear about his own identity, value and glory was now useless. Instead. He had a new prize, a new king. Not his family, nation or work – but his union with the Lord Jesus. This was his new glory and prize. So much so that he centred everything upon knowing Christ more deeply (verse 10).
There’s so much in these verses that there is barely space here to scratch the surface. Look at what Paul gains. The headline act from which everything else flows is Christ. His first and most important prize is Jesus himself. The comparison he makes between what was once his prize, and Christ, is staggering. Our polite translations use “rubbish”, but his word in Greek is much stronger. Paul’s prize is Christ and being found safely in him. The effect is that he doesn’t desire right standing on his own, but righteousness through faith in Christ. He desires to live for Christ in life (resurrection) and death (sufferings). His new goal is Christ.
What does that mean when we get to the sharp end of another placement?
So what does that mean when we get to the sharp end of another placement, when we face the challenges of supporting the vulnerable in our classes or even encounter tricky chats in the staffroom?
Quite simply, it means we can work and rest harder because our success is safe in Christ.
Paul’s example doesn’t end with simply kicking back and enjoying his new-found success in Christ. In verses 12-14 he tells his fellow believers that though he knows all this he keeps going:
“I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Paul reminds us that our certainty is found in the already completed work of Christ and our union with him. This means that we are freed to focus on another goal: to focus on Christ. That might mean focussing on the parts of our attitude where we stumble, particularly with the regular frustrations of school life. Or perhaps investing well in our friendships and seeking to make Christ known as the opportunity arises.
Our goal in all of this remains one thing. Pointing to Jesus. Making him big and ourselves small. So our success is not the quality of our learning and teaching, the eloquence of report cards or the number of presents we get at Christmas. It is faithfulness to the God who was faithful to us first.
God’s grace stands over our lives and our teaching successes and failures. If we are joined to him we are ultimately successful in him and all he asks of us is faithful living in response, as worship. We can press on towards our heavenly goal wherever we are. In another letter, Paul tells the church in Thessalonica to work at everything as if working for the Lord.
So as you load up on more responsibilities, plan late into the night, face the unending stress of another uni-observed lesson. You can do so knowing that your prize is won in Christ, he is honoured by your hard and faithful work. And rest too, assured that your success is found in Christ.