Though our culture would prefer faith stay in the private arena rather than the public one, God calls all Christians to engage their workplaces with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every vocation presents unique challenges and opportunities to follow this call, and the public school system is no exception. As a part-time tutor married to a math teacher, I’ve seen how teachers, coaches and administrators have unique opportunities to creatively leverage their character and the classroom for the gospel. What does this look like? How do you champion the gospel in one of the most guarded places in society?
Faithfulness in the Public Schools
While the opportunities are unique, they are not without their challenges. The public square, very much including schools, is no longer deemed an appropriate place for personal, religious conversations. However, God has made it clear in Scripture that He cares about good teaching, both inside and outside the Church (Deut. 11:19; 1 Tim. 5:17; James 3:1). So how can educators take advantage of the opportunities God has placed before them? I’ve tried to summarize the wisdom, observations and insights from my own experience and that of family and friends in the field to offer some hopeful suggestions.
Teachers and coaches set the cultural climate of their classrooms and locker rooms, for better or for worse. Christian teachers should consider how their persona and class management can create an inviting environment for student engagement.
The establishment of this culture begins the moment students walk in the door. One teacher I know asks her students to write a letter about themselves to her, so she can get to know them. As a template, she does a slideshow about herself for her students, in which she briefly mentions her faith. This shows her students that spiritual beliefs (Christian or not) are a topic worthy of being included in their own letters and that the topic doesn’t need to be tense or unapproachable. The teacher makes sure to thank each student for sharing, which establishes a culture in her classroom where students are comfortable talking about themselves and their personal lives.
Another teacher regularly reserves a 10-minute window in her class schedule for herself or her students to share funny, scary, surprising, endearing and embarrassing tales. These spare moments of “story time” foster an environment in which real life is not suspended for the sake of learning. Neither math class nor the locker room is an “inappropriate time” to be honest and engaging, nor is it the wrong time for students and teachers to encourage one another with laughter, kind words and caring hearts.
Other assignments can also be leveraged to promote spiritual conversations. Essays on the topics of justice, fairness or absolute truth might be obvious examples, but from math word problems to Spanish sentence translations, a curriculum can be shaped to spark rich conversation that is tilled for gospel seeds. With a bit of strategic lesson planning and follow-up, a teacher can cultivate deep conversations. Students often want to talk about topics other than the lessons in front of them. A teacher whose Christlike character is on display will be set up well for meaningful and ministerial conversations.
Teachers and coaches can strategically leverage their authority to model gospel principles. Behavioral correction that is calm, consistent and genuinely caring shows students the kind of loving discipline we know of our Father, and it may be the first time they receive such discipline. These moments are ripe with gospel opportunity because they provide chances to show unexpected love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that interrupt students’ perceptions of their teachers and themselves (Gal. 5:22-23).
One teacher shared this particularly touching discipline moment: A student was acting up and, after being corrected, showed disrespect and anger toward his teacher. In the hallway, away from the other students, she asked, “Hey, what’s going on? You seem really frustrated,” and learned that her public rebuke had embarrassed him. Rather than pointing out his wrongs, she lingered on his grievance, humbly apologizing, committing to be more sensitive in the future and asking for his forgiveness. She asked if he would agree with her to respect each other mutually in front of the class. In a case like this one, a teacher’s sincere apology and request for forgiveness may be a student’s first glimpse of gospel humility.
Moments like this require teachers and coaches to step back from the system of discipline and consider the person being disciplined. Unsurprisingly, this requires genuine humility and careful discernment. But by extending the benefit of doubt, teachers can build up notions of grace and mercy that jolt a student’s sense of justice and fairness. Knowing when to make an exception illustrates that people matter more than the systems that manage them.
Beyond gracious and loving discipline, teachers can proactively care for their students by praying for them. One elementary teacher goes through her roster, praying for four students each week. She also looks for opportunities to pray specifically for students when needs arise and, when appropriate, follows up with the students she is praying for. Another teacher shared this example: “I had a student last year who became depressed after his mom was evicted, and he was doing poorly in school. I had to remind him every day that he had the ability to make a better future for himself. He needed to know that someone in his life cared enough to imagine a better life for him.”
Formal Activities and Organizations
Teachers, coaches and administrators should also take advantage of any formal opportunities that exist for spiritual formation. In most schools, students have the freedom to form and lead religious clubs, and in many districts, these clubs must have a staff sponsor. There are rules regarding the extent to which a sponsor can be involved in leadership, but a Christian adult’s presence in the club offers endless chances to encourage and caution young Christians as they seek to engage the world around them with their faith. As much as you’re able and invited, participate in the spiritual clubs and organizations that meet in your school, even if they are not explicitly Christian. Below is a short list of organizations to consider:
Character that Builds Platform
All of these practices start with an authentic love for students and an unshakable passion for letting them know it. Small moments can add up and establish relationships strong enough to hold the weight of gospel conversations. Simply the amount of time teachers and coaches are able to share with students is enough to make any youth pastor jealous. A teacher who thoughtfully takes advantage of this time will earn the platform to speak gospel truth into their students' lives.
One coach rejoices at the privilege of spending four years demonstrating to her team Christlike character, so that by the time they are graduating seniors, she can invite them to coffee and a conversation about spirituality. They don’t all take her up on the offer, but she understands her role in planting the seeds, others’ roles in watering them and God’s power to make them grow (1 Cor. 3:6).
Paul writes to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24). It may not always seem like much, but teachers and coaches have significant opportunities to influence their students with the gospel through the culture of their classrooms, their demonstration of loving authority, and their interest and participation in the spiritual lives of their students.