Called to Teach

January 12th, 2013
Image © Forty Two | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

Teaching in the Desert

In the early days of the Christian church, as recorded in the Book of Acts, an angel told Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, to go along the desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza. An Ethiopian official was traveling the same road in a carriage, reading the prophet Isaiah. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Philip ran up to the carriage and heard the official reading aloud. “Do you really understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“Without someone to guide me, how could I?” the man replied. Then he invited Philip to ride with him and to be his teacher. The encounter changed his life forever. It ended with Philip sharing the good news of Jesus and baptizing the Ethiopian in a roadside pool (Acts 8:26-40).

For the early church and for the people of Israel before, the role of teachers was transformative. Mentors, guides, and educators have acted as transmitters of God’s message and as agents of spiritual formation. Christians have also supported teachers for the larger community. The legacy of education in many Western nations is intertwined with the educational missions of Christian denominations. What led early Methodists and other Christians to invest so much energy in the development of schools? What challenges do teachers face in the contemporary educational environment?

Technology in the Classroom

If cutting-edge technology in the first century consisted of a follower of Jesus interpreting Scriptures with you in your carriage, today’s technological changes have ushered in some entirely new challenges for teachers. Computers, online research, and communications have gone from being a novelty to a necessity for a well-rounded education. As education blogger Lindsey Wright notes, teachers are trying to adjust to this new environment in which they may not be as central to the learning experience. In an article on the website Technology Bits Bytes & Nibbles, Wright says that in the traditional model, “the teacher maintained absolute authority in the classroom and served as students’ main source of information.” In a classroom that makes heavy use of technology or in distance learning environments, the teacher has a new role. Now “the teacher becomes a facilitator and a partner as the students’ learning process becomes the central focus of teaching.”

This mode of teaching has some parallels with the story of Philip and the Ethiopian official. In the Acts account, Philip teaches by literally drawing alongside his student and guiding the inquiry he had already begun. Philip does impart some knowledge based on his own experience, but he generally facilitates the process the man was already engaged in so that, when the time comes for taking the step of baptism, it is the student who initiates it.

So perhaps this new teaching environment has some ancient elements that will again become important. Modern teachers face the challenge, however, of ensuring adequate access to technology, particularly in poorer school districts. As Wright notes, they also need to be continual learners. Teachers may be reluctant to embrace this new mode because of “a lack of educational opportunities to learn about implementing in-class technology and the teaching methods that are useful in an online environment.”

Revisiting No Child Left Behind

Another challenge for public school teachers has been the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which sought to increase educational standards through an emphasis on testing. The law sets a goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading and math for all students by 2014. Schools that do not meet this goal face the possible loss of federal aid and other sanctions.

With the goal date looming, many states have been pushing for some sort of reform to the law, arguing that it sets unrealistic requirements. While members of both major political parties have noted the need for change, efforts to revise the law have not resulted in any new legislation from Congress. Meanwhile, Washington Post journalist Lyndsey Layton reports, educators are concerned about “a warped atmosphere” in schools where there is “an unhealthy focus on standardized tests, with continual drilling in the classroom and a narrowing of curriculum that excludes anything beyond math and reading.”

In August, the Obama administration announced a new policy by which it would grant waivers from the law to states that apply. States would have to agree to adopt high standards that ensure college- and career-ready graduates along with other requirements. But the waivers would provide some alternatives to the No Child Left Behind Act provisions, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan says have actually worked against real education reform. Duncan says, “The current law serves as a disincentive to [truthful reporting of student proficiency], not an incentive.”

The Funding Challenge

Compounding the challenges faced by teachers are budgets produced by state legislatures grappling with the effects of the nation’s economic downturn. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that since 2008, 34 states and the District of Columbia have made cuts in kindergarten through 12th-grade education. Massachusetts reduced its aid for education by three percent ($115.6 million) for the 2010 fiscal year. Arizona has cut funding for preschool and kindergarten programs, eliminating preschool for over 4,000 children. In 2009–10, Hawaii shortened its school year by 17 days. Washington State has suspended programs that reduce class sizes and provide professional development for teachers.

School systems are coping with the cuts, in part, by shedding jobs for teachers and other staff. Since August 2008, federal figures show that local school districts have eliminated 293,000 jobs, with the majority of those job losses (194,000) coming in the last year. The result for students, in many cases, is larger class sizes; and the result for teachers is an increased anxiety over their own job security.

Localities are also left to struggle with the impact of state education cuts. Traditionally local property taxes have been the primary source of funding for local schools. But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, “Given the precipitous decline in property values since the start of the recession and in many places the political and/or legal difficulty of raising property taxes, raising significant additional revenue through the property tax will likely be very difficult for school districts in the coming years.”

Supporting Teachers

Perhaps most of us can recall a teacher who made a significant impact on our lives. Whether we met that teacher in a Sunday school classroom or on a university campus, the interaction we had changed our lives for the better.

Churches and church members can recognize the important role of teachers by lifting up their contributions within the church and in the community, by working to improve the conditions for education in public policy decisions, and by supporting individual teachers. In spite of the challenges teachers face in the contemporary age, the calling to teach is a gift from God.

Alex Joyner is the pastor of Franktown United Methodist Church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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