To Tired Teachers on Looking for Small Joys in the Last Days of School

~ by Jesse Hake ~

We’re all in the last few weeks of school. Math concepts essential to fourth grade need to be mastered, now or never. Essays must be written and graded. As a student and a teacher, my exhaustion near the end of the school year has often felt like an insurmountable barrier in my hope to kindle love for what I’m studying and teaching. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. However, we can find hope in examples from the past of those who shared these frailties, and also in taking a moment to reflect on how joy, cheerfulness, and love show up in small but potent ways, even amid our own weariness.

Dr. Rodney Stark estimates in The Rise of Christianity that the new faith grew at about 40 percent per decade during the first 300 years of its existence. Coinciding with the reign of Constantine, this amazing growth had become overwhelming for Church leaders. In the 50 years leading up to Augustine’s birth, Dr. Stark estimates that more than 27 million people entered the Church. We can easily imagine the exhausting task given to the priests and deacons catechizing this line of people waiting for their baptisms.

In about the year 406, Bishop Augustine responded to a letter from an exhausted deacon in Carthage named Deogratias. This revered teacher worried that his instruction in the Christian faith was sometimes becoming “lengthened and languid” and that this was “profitless and distasteful” even to himself, “not to speak of the learner whom [he was] endeavoring to instruct.” Augustine responded with a generous letter (De catechizandis rudibus) now organized into 27 chapters. Chapters 10 to 14 carefully analyze 6 different “causes producing weariness in the catechumen.” At the heart of his response, however, Augustine claims that his “greatest concern” is “how to make it possible for those who offer instruction in faith to do so with joy.” Augustine focuses in on joy (gaudium) and cheerfulness (hilaritās):

We are listened to with much greater satisfaction, indeed, when we ourselves also have pleasure in the same work; for the thread of our address is affected by the very joy of which we ourselves are sensible, and it proceeds from us with greater ease and with more acceptance. . . . For if “God loves a cheerful giver” (hilarem datorem diligit) [2 Cor. 9:7] in matters of material wealth, how much more is this true in matters of spiritual wealth? But our security that this cheerfulness may be with us at the seasonable hour, is something dependent upon the mercy of Him who has given us such precepts.

Augustine goes on to give much practical advice regarding content and methods of teaching Christian doctrine along with his analysis of the six causes of weariness in students. However, Augustine’s core advice focuses on how Deogratias must care for his own heart and cultivate his own love for God. Only an ever-fresh love for God will communicate anything to his students: “that is received in a pleasant manner which breaks forth vigorously and cheerfully from the rich vein of charity.”

This insight—that a teacher’s love is his or her greatest asset—is shared by many other wise instructors across history. Simone Weil wrote in a letter to another Christian educator (ca. 1942 to Fr. Perrin, published in Waiting on God):

Contrary to the usual belief, [willpower] has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

It is easy to collect such platitudes on the essential qualities of joy and love in our teaching, but it is not always easy to finish a school year well in joy and love. There is a simple reflection on joy from C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy that I hope can provide some encouragement amid our shared exhaustion and self-doubt. When Lewis reaches into his own heart for the best example of joy that he knows, he comes up with “a biscuit tin filled with moss.” He recalls a memory of a memory:

As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to “enormous”) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past. . . . Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. . . . In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.

Joy . . . must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure [and] has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.

In this sense, joy is elusive, but it is some comfort to me that it is typically found in small, quiet, and unexpected corners of our work. In fact, this deep joy is most often brushed up against not in times of great strength and energy but in times of weariness and quiet. This is why Lewis says in the same book, “The greatest service we can do to education today is to teach fewer subjects. . . .  Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears. Take in what is there and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else. That can come later, if it must come at all.” Teachers face myriad pressures to be charismatic and engaging, to cover all of the required material, and to assess all of their student work with excellence and with attention to individual students. Exhaustion is inevitable, but it need not erase joy.

Teachers should do what is appropriately within their power to fight the bureaucratic waves that rise around them and their students at this time of year. Even more critical, however, is to keep hope alive through private prayer and worship, because the small instances of faithfulness on the part of teachers during this time of the year will shape their students to a greater degree than the more exciting or visible successes that may have been achievable earlier in the year. Many of these deeper joys communicated to students amid the weariness of the end will not be intentional and may not be noticed by the teacher. This is the time of year to stay present with our students (despite any of our disappointments and limitations), to open our hearts to God without ceasing (attentive always to the beauty of all His works), and to attend to the small joys that we encounter together in our classrooms (despite any temptation to see these small joys as inconsequential to us and our students).

“All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy). In our faithfulness and quiet joy (mingled as it is with a deep sense of absence or loss), we don’t know when our work in the classroom may be God’s means of recalling to one of us “a biscuit tin filled with moss” that can bring us into communion with the “enormous bliss” of Eden. As teachers and students long for the changes of pace and duty that come with summer, may we still glean the small joys that come to us even amidst weariness.

Jesse Hake has taught and led in Christian classical schools since 2006. He grew up in Taiwan as the oldest of nine children in the home of a missionary and college professor, and experienced private, public, and homeschool settings over the course of his own secondary education. He also learned Taiwanese and Mandarin as a child. Jesse has a BA from Geneva College in history (with a philosophy minor) as well as an MLitt in Reformation history from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He has taught college courses in history, philosophy, and ethics. Jesse formerly taught upper-school history, literature, and rhetoric at Covenant Christian Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Most recently, he served for seven years as academic dean and then as principal at Logos Academy in York, Pennsylvania, before joining the CAP team as the assistant publisher in spring 2019. He lives in York with his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children.

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