Let’s start with a trigger warning. This isn’t about Donald Trump, identity politics or Southern Baptists. None of those words appear in this article, so it’s unlikely to feed the list of causes for righteous indignation for those who consider themselves progressive Christians.
As a psychotherapist I spend most of my day working with anxious, depressed and occasionally suicidal adolescents in an underfunded high school in Knoxville, Tennessee. Many of these students face a myriad of issues that play an outsized role in their relational and academic performance: from neonatal drug exposure to housing and food instability to physical, sexual and verbal abuse, not to mention the environmental cocktail of institutional racism, high stakes testing and active shooter drills.
At my school we have four school counselors, four administrators (i.e., principals), a nurse, a social worker, administrative assistants and bookkeepers, as well as 90-plus educators and support liaisons for a student population of almost 1,200. While this number may seem high, we are down more than a few teachers again this year, as are most of the schools in our community. The Learning Policy Institute reported in 2016 that by the 2017-2018 school year American school systems would be short a combined 110,000 teachers. By all indications, they were right.
It isn’t news to say that teachers are underpaid, overworked, lack little professional and personal support, and can’t afford to live in the cities where they work. In a cover story last year, Time magazine profiled the plight of America’s public school teachers. The article outlined the stark economic reality facing teachers like Rosa Jimenez in California and Hope Brown in Kentucky:
“My child and I share a bed in a small apartment, I spend $1,000 on supplies and I’ve been laid off three times due to budget cuts.”
“I have a master’s degree, 16 years of experience, work two extra jobs and donate blood plasma to pay the bills.”
A recent Forbes article argues that instead of referring to the substantial lack of teachers in America as a “shortage” (like crops in a drought), this crisis should instead be understood as the simple failure of school systems and “the Market” to adjust to unlivable and inhospitable conditions awaiting future educators. A “shortage,” the writer contends, lays the blame on circumstances outside our (or anyone’s) control, whereas the very real and controllable realities of wage stagnation, lack of support in often hostile work environments (most turnover happens in poorly performing schools) and constantly-changing outcome measures should remind us how much power (and blame) rests on our shoulders as a citizenry.
“What if we started talking about – and joining – America’s public school teachers in the miracle that is their work, rather than being immobilized by the size of the problem?”
As a former Baptist pastor, I remember regular conversations about how the Church is experiencing a “shortage” of its own as it hemorrhages people, trust, authenticity – and, in many cases, square footage – in its decline toward irrelevancy. The logic typically follows that in a world crippled by partisan violence, student loan debt, Silicon Valley and income inequality, the Church is a victim of circumstances mostly outside its control.
I acknowledge that much of this handwringing is right about the state of faith communities in the 21st century. What it usually fails to notice, however, is that the Church’s anxiety and desperation to survive – much like that of our reeling education system – frequently occludes its view of how to be helpful both to the world and to itself.
For example: Think of arming middle school teachers with guns as the “what if we started a contemporary worship service at 9:00 in the fellowship hall?” of bad ideas motivated primarily by anxiety.
What I mean is that the Church’s “shortage” isn’t a shortage at all. It’s the natural response of a populace that can’t help but notice the human out-of-touchness leaking out of congregations that often care more about a clearly-articulated list of declarative statements regarding things none of us know for sure than about people being abused, oppressed and marginalized right under the knowing gaze of these aforementioned religious bodies.
But what if this “shortage” also offers us a unique opportunity? In a world where most of our cultural, religious and political institutions are buckling under the weight of societal abandonment, partisan scorn and the threat of privatization, this may be an opportunity to focus on those in our communities who still find themselves drawn to the sacred work of putting the world back together by asking better questions of themselves, their politicians, their school systems and even of their God.
“I remember regular conversations about how the Church is experiencing a ‘shortage’ of its own as it hemorrhages people, trust, authenticity – and, in many cases, square footage – in its decline toward irrelevancy.”
What if we started talking about – and joining – America’s public school teachers in the miracle that is their work, rather than being immobilized by the size of the problem and the myriad conditions seemingly out of our control that continue to perpetuate the “shortage” crisis?
In my school, I know there are well over 100 underpaid adults, with more education than day-traders on Wall Street, who willingly enter classrooms populated by adolescents who bear stories of abuse, beauty, neglect, brilliance, violence, confusion, joy and anxiety. These teachers show up every day in order to remind these almost-adults (even though it won’t be on the test) that, no matter where you come from, the one thing no one can take from you is your dignity.
Which is why our teachers buy supplies and groceries and bus tickets and clothes for their students right out of their own pockets to the praise of literally no one and the gratitude of a few – and, yes, sometimes to the detriment of their own children at home.
Which is why our teachers and administrators make home visits, host Saturday school for students who have fallen behind, hold tutoring sessions every day after school, and even started a night school program for students who struggle with behavioral expectations as an alternative to traditional suspension.
Which is why our state championship football team reads to elementary school kids, opens car doors in the morning at the local middle school, rakes leaves for shut-ins and visits nursing homes monthly. And this is a team with more than 90 players on the roster in a division where most other teams dress 50.
These educators, custodians, administrators and coaches are miracles, and it is a gift to bear witness and with-ness alongside them to a world that can be but is not yet.
So, as an invitation of sorts (old habits die hard), I’d like to redirect your righteous indignation away from the internet and into your actual life.
What if you were to focus on who is still in the room with you on Sunday morning, because they’re still doing the work and they could really use your help – like today?
What if you were to focus on who is still getting up each morning before you do — even though their pensions were slashed again — to go over lesson plans for your 2nd grader, because they’re still doing the work and they need your help – like today?
What if you were to confess that God can’t be dynamited out of this country or our schools no matter who gets elected or appointed as judges – or even if Betsy Devos’s Bear-pocalypse forced most of our educational services underground?
What if you stopped defending God, arguing about God or voting for God and instead committed yourself to sacrificially being God in a world that is weary of empty and/or angry rhetoric?
Finally, if you are still part of a faith community, I strongly urge you to run (not walk) to your area public school and tell the principal that you have both a poorly allocated “missions” budget and several dozen bored retirees who would love to be helpful but just aren’t sure how.
“What if you stopped defending God, arguing about God or voting for God and instead committed yourself to sacrificially being God in a world that is weary of empty and/or angry rhetoric?”
Because when the work gets done anyway – even when grace, peace and solidarity are in short supply – we soon find that the answer to what ails us isn’t in the clouds or in the next election cycle, it’s already here in the tired eyes and stooped backs of people who do the work anyway (oftentimes for no good reason) because they have this thing inside of them that tells them the work is worth it.
It’s time for us to join them in the struggle.
Let’s go ordain them and their work – like today.
And let’s go ordain you, and your work – like today – because the world needs more priests, prophets, pastors and poets; but one thing it doesn’t need are more bored parishioners content with reading articles on the internet and stoking up their righteous indignation. What it needs desperately are more passionate Christians actively working for God’s justice in their communities.