Teachers as Non-Anxious and Hope-Filled Presences
"What is the hardest thing about being a young person in our world today?”
I recently asked students in my junior and senior high Spanish classes to respond in writing to this prompt, and their responses were revealing and, in many cases, heartbreaking.
Repeatedly, they articulated that society looks down on young people while simultaneously holding unreachable expectations for them to get good grades, navigate gender norms, and – most importantly – manage a positive public image on social media. In addition, many saw themselves inheriting from older generations an increasingly bleak and unstable world characterized by political polarization, broken families, diminished economic prospects, and the growing difficulty of separating truth from falsehood. As one student wrote, “I think one of the hardest things is knowing that eventually we will be ‘in charge’ of the world when we are older. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, especially when the world is crazy.”
These responses should be no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to recent studies on the rise of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide among America’s young people.1
As a guest on a recent podcast, I was asked what kids need most from us as Christian educators, to which I responded: More than almost anything else, our young people need adults in their lives who serve as non-anxious and hope-filled presences.
Of course, that’s much easier said than done, isn’t it? Although some of the pressures the students expressed are certainly unique to their life stage, we adults occupy the same world they do – with additional adult pressures and responsibilities to boot! How can we become what they need when our own fears, anxieties, and discouragements often take center stage in our lives?
The answer – to refer to a Christian Deeper Learning staple – is to live within the Story.
Dallas Willard once stated that “[t]he ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow our minds to dwell upon.”2 While faced with some anxiety-inducing circumstances over the last few years, I have played on repeat within my mind another of Willard’s phrases: “This world … is a perfectly safe place for you to be – no matter what happens.”3 Certainly, things will happen to us – in part because walking the cruciform way of Jesus includes it – but we can still hold fast to the truth that absolutely nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). This conviction has undergirded many conversations I have had with students in recent years, and I would encourage us to place this phrase and verse on the walls of our classrooms to remind us of this fundamental truth.
I have also engaged in two forms of contemplative prayer. The first, popularized by 17th-century French monk Brother Lawrence, is to practice the presence of God in the commonplace events of life.4 For Lawrence, this cultivation of habitual awareness of God took place while washing dishes in the monastery kitchen. In our domain, we can plan lessons, interact with students, grade papers, make copies, or hang out in the teachers’ lounge with this same awareness.
Within my classroom, I also invite my students to realize that God is with them. As they enter the classroom each day, I greet them with a finger slap/fist bump (which during the pandemic has shifted to a no-contact variety) and ask that they tell me a password in Spanish. Sometimes this password is a silly word or phrase, or a language structure I want to teach them. Most of the time, though, it is a truth about themselves, God, or the world – such as the reminder “God is here” (“Dios está aquí”). Once everyone is inside, we begin class with a time of prayer. For the first-year students, this includes expressing gratitude to God for the day itself (“Gracias, Señor, por este día”) and everyday blessings they identify such as pencils, basketball, squirrels, and pancakes. In more advanced classes, we progressively memorize and pray lines from the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23, frequently pausing to reflect upon them and discuss concepts such as what it means to have a Loving Father and a Good Shepherd. Then, as class concludes, I send students on their way with a benediction of sorts that culminates with the phrase “Go with God” (“Vayan con Dios”).5
The second form of contemplative prayer I have undertaken is, in some ways, opposite from the first. Instead of focusing on God’s presence in the hurly-burly of life, I have spent a greater-than-normal amount of time in solitude and silence, meditating on short phrases or passages of scripture. This requires stilling my body and mind in order to focus on and rest in God. Admittedly, I’m not very good at it, as my mind still wants to travel at the speed of a thousand thoughts and concerns a minute. By slowing down, though, I acknowledge that I don’t need to move at our culture’s frenetic pace in an ill-guided attempt to manage and control the world by my productivity. Rather, I trust that I have a Father and Shepherd who is far better able to deal with things than I am, and that by slowing down, I can more clearly see the world as it truly is, which allows me to see others and reach out to them with the love that God gives.
I recently encountered a beautiful example of this in Madeleine L’Engle’s forward to the book Seeking Peace by Johann Christoph Arnold. In it, she writes:
A decade or so ago one evening during Lent, at Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, I listened to the Reverend Canon Edward West talk about the peace we seek, and use the rather unexpected metaphor of a subway. Most of us in the audience that night rode the subway, to the Cathedral, to and from work. He pointed out to us that if we looked at the people riding in the same car with us, most of them would look as though nobody loved them. And that, alas, was largely true. Then he told us that if we would concentrate inconspicuously on one person, affirming silently that this person was a beloved child of God, and, no matter what the circumstances, could lie in God’s peace, we might see a difference. Peace is not always something you “do”; it is a gift you can give. The next time I rode the subway I glanced at a woman in the corner, hunched over, hands clenched, an expression of resigned endurance on her face. So, without looking at her, I began to try to send God’s loving peace to her. I didn’t move. I didn’t stare at her. I simply followed Canon West’s suggestion, and to my wonder she began to relax. Her hands unclenched; her body relaxed; the lines of anxiety left her face. It was a moment for me of great gratitude, and a peace that spread out and filled me too. It is something I try to remember as I ride a subway or bus, or walk down the crowded streets, or stand in slow-moving lines at the supermarket. If God’s peace is in our hearts, we carry it with us, and it can be given to those around us, not by our own will or virtue, but by the Holy Spirit working through us. We cannot give what we do not have, but if the spirit blows through the dark clouds, and enters our hearts, we can be used as vehicles of peace, and our own peace will be thereby deepened. The more peace we give away, the more we have.6
In recent months, as I have stood at the front of my classroom glancing out at various students, I have found myself thinking, “This student is a beloved child of God and can lie in God’s peace.” While I do not always see the immediate physical results that L’Engle did, I am confident that my overall state of mind is helping to create (with the Spirit’s assistance) an overall atmosphere in the room in which students feel safe to be themselves. If young people can absorb our anxieties, the converse is also true. They can also absorb our peace.
Finally, I am convinced that we can radiate hope to our students. After all, they need to know that their future is not merely secure, but also one to which they can look forward with anticipation and joy – whether later in the day, decades down the road, or ultimately when Christ returns and establishes the Kingdom in all of its fullness.
This is not Pollyanna or wishful thinking. As Lesslie Newbigin famously said, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”
Our students do not automatically have Resurrection Hope, so we must call them into it, reminding them that those things that are broken will one day be redeemed as our Risen Lord makes all things new. And as we follow him, we will not only share in his sufferings; we will also share in his glory! In the words of Romans 5:1-5, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
To date, I haven’t yet implemented many forward-looking practices to encourage myself or students to view the future in this way, but I have some ideas percolating. Maybe you have some too? Christian Deeper Learning includes expressing our deep hope for our students, and I’d like to extend this by offering my hope for those of us who teach them as well, in the form of this benediction: May we know the peace that passes all understanding and the hope of the Resurrection, so that we may become bearers of peace and beacons of hope in the lives of the students we love. Vayan con Dios, my friends.
For example, see Matt Richtel and Annie Flanagan, “‘It’s Life or Death’: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens,” The New York Times, April 24, 2022, sec. Health, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/23/health/mental-health-crisis-teens.html; Derek Thompson, “Why American Teens Are So Sad,” The Atlantic, April 11, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2022/04/american-teens-sadness-depression-anxiety/629524/.
Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 95.
Dallas Willard, “Lecture: Dr. Dallas Willard, ‘How Is God with Us? How Can We Know It?’ May 26, 2011 – YouTube,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhobThHUzcA.
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God and The Spiritual Maxims (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2005).
My inspiration for the password and benediction originally came from Bryce Hedstrom, although I have obviously modified them to fit a Christian school context.
Madeleine L’Engle, “Foreword,” in Seeking Peace, by Johann Christoph Arnold (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 1998), xi–xii, https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/reconciliation/seeking-peace.
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk