Abundant Life

Apologies in advance but with all that is going in my home state of Victoria as we struggle through a second wave of COVID – 19 I am not in the mood to offer a further Covid reflection in this season of lament.

Instead, I have dusted off something I wrote a few years ago which I hope might be helpful. This piece was originally shared in my school at a staff service to commence the school year, but has been reworked for the blog. This was written for a general staff audience so I hope you forgive its wider remit than the usual chaplain focused material that normally appears on the blog.   

1: Difficult days

I wonder if you can recall when you had one of those really difficult days at school.

As part of the Year 9 RE program in my school the chaplains take students over in class groups to have a look at our local Anglican church that serves as our school chapel. As we walked over to the church I found myself doing a quick head count, and then stopped myself thinking ‘what can possibly go wrong with a group of Year 9 students in a church?’

Once we got to the church I shared a bit about its history and links with the school, and then the students had an opportunity to have a look around. After a while I found myself doing another head count and finished up one student short. I thought ‘that can’t be right’. So I counted again, and came up one student short. How had I managed to lose a student in a church of all places? I said to one of the students ‘where’s Fred?’ He said ‘Fred is hiding’.

It turns out Fred was trying to play hide and seek. I peered over one of the pews and sure enough there was Fred lying down doing a very bad job of trying to hide from me. As we walked back from the church into the school we encountered the Principal. At first he looked pleased to see us but then, as he took a closer look at us, I can see that his smile has turned into a frown. I look again at the students and realise that a few of them have their shirts untucked which is not in line with our policy about appropriate wearing of the school uniform.

Actually, as I look more closely I can see that all the students have their shirts untucked and I realise that my shirt is also untucked. The Principal says ‘Time to tidy those shirts’ and we all sheepishly do so.

I vividly recall lying in bed that night thinking to myself what was I doing pretending to be a teacher?

2: The ‘two things’ of teaching

I imagine we could all share a similar story about a day that went a bit pear shaped and had us questioning why we were working in a school. So how do we respond when we have one of those days? Go home and unload on a sympathetic partner, seek solace in a few glasses of wine, or binge on some obscure series on Netflix?

Recently I was hearing about the Two Things Game. I don’t know if you have heard of it. The story goes that two blokes were chatting some years ago in a bar in California. One of the blokes worked in the economics field and the other bloke said to him ‘So what are the two things you really need to know about economics?’ The other guy thought for a while and said ‘incentives matter and there is no such things as a free lunch’

The two blokes kept chatting and their initial conversation became a springboard into a game they developed seeing if they could work out what the ‘two things’ were for each profession. For example they worked out the two things in being an actor ‘remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture’. Some were fairly obvious; for example the two things about driving a bus ‘don’t hit anything and don’t let anything hit you’. And share market trading ‘buy low, sell high’.  

So what would you say are the two things that you really need to know about being a teacher?

At this point staff were asked to have a quick chat with the person next to them about what they though the two things about teaching were.

Well I wouldn’t be much of a teacher if I didn’t already know the correct answer and so here it is. The two things you need to know about teaching are as follows.  

Know your subject area thoroughly, know each individual student and be able to differentiate your curriculum and teaching program to play to their individual learning strengths. Provide clear guidance to ensure they avoid various pitfalls associated with drugs, alcohol, social media, and reality TV while providing advice on the importance of sleep, a good diet, regular exercise, first aid, work experience and a future career. Maintain high standards of student behaviour, of uniform, of haircuts, and of personal hygiene while maintain a professional standard of dress for yourself.  Provide a clear pathway for appropriate social development, curb the bully, encourage the shy, motivate the demotivated, and inspire the uninspired. Respond in a timely manner to issues raised by parents from the important to the trivial. Ensure every lesson you run has a clear beginning, middle and end – preferably in that order. Be familiar and exhibit best practice in the area of pedagogy, information technology, and curriculum. Be up to date with your teacher registration, first aid requirements, child safe policies, how to manage anaphylaxis and be across school policies especially in relation to electrical safety. Extend the gifted and support the less able. Know how to use the photocopier, phone, print room, coffee machine, swipe cards, keys, alarms, and how to sign in and sign out. Recycle, turn lights off, shut windows and lock doors at the end of the day. Remember when you are on duty. Keep up to date with marking, reporting, parent teacher interviews, and the paperwork associated with excursions and camps. Make allowances for the potential interruptions to your teaching from excursions, incursions, whole school events and emergency evacuations. And make sure you find time to care for yourself.

You may have noticed that this list contained a few more than two things. This list is of course by no means exhaustive and reflects the daily demands of being a teacher. Herein lies one of the really big challenges that we face with teaching. There is a tension between what inspired us to get into teaching in the first place and the daily reality of what we do every day. This isn’t meant to be a criticism it is just a reflection upon the reality of what teaching is like in this day and age. Teaching is a complex and challenging business. You have to keep a lot of balls in the air. There is no room for the disorganised – unless of course you choose to go into chaplaincy.

3: Abundant Life

What should education in an Anglican school be all about? This is the sort of question that can cause an animated discussion even amongst a group of chaplains who you might think would be all on the same page. Add into the mix staff and administrators of Anglican schools and you get that classic Anglican dilemma where no one can really agree on an answer and some are not sure it is the right question to begin with.  

One verse that does tend to come up when Anglicans discuss this question is John 10:10 where Jesus says ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ Abundant life is a concept that does seem to unify those of us working in Anglican schools. Anglican education is about enabling the young people in our care to have abundant life – life in all its richness and fullness. Education not as an end in itself, but is the key to unlocking abundant life for young people. We want our students to not just do well academically, but be equipped with the skills and values to thrive in life so they can achieve their best and be all that God created them to be.

Something wonderful happens when we see a young person catch a glimpse of this abundant life. When they catch a vision of what they want to do with their life, when they discover something that they are good at and really enjoy doing, and when they get excited about something they are learning.  

There is a program in my school where some of our Year 12 students are linked up with a teacher to be mentored through the challenges of Year 12. This program has been going for a few years and has a good track record of helping students.  

A few years ago I was matched up with a Year 12 student who was considered potentially at risk because they were very focused on athletics rather than their classwork. It was a challenging assignment, partly because the student felt that he was being punished by being paired with the chaplain.  

It was hard work getting him to think about his schoolwork. When we met, he would regularly say to me that that he didn’t need to focus on his studies as he was going to be a runner. I said to him on a number of occasions ‘but what if running doesn’t work out for you – what is your fall-back position going to be?’ A few year later when I watched that former student win the Stawell Gift, Australia’s richest foot race, and win $40,000 prizemoney, I had to concede that perhaps his dream of being a runner had worked out pretty well.

I recount that story, not to remind you of how unhelpful my advice to students often turns out to be, but to recall a moment when that student found abundant life at my school. That student got into athletics because of encouragement by a teacher. When he first arrived at my school, he was very focused on playing soccer, but one of our PE teachers could see that he had real potential to be a great runner, and so supported and encouraged him to head in that direction.

All of us who work in schools can share stories about those wonderful moments when a student we are teaching gets ‘switched on’. That is what makes our job so worthwhile. We hold the key to abundant life for our students. It is a precious gift, a sacred task. When we have those dark days I spoke of earlier where we wonder what we are doing working in a school, I hope we can remember this and hold onto those moments that we have all had where we help the young people in our care catch a glimpse of abundant life. 

Andrew Stewart Written by:

Reverend Andrew Stewart has twenty years experience as a school chaplain and works as a chaplain at Mentone Grammar in Melbourne. Andrew is also the chair of the Chaplains in Anglican Schools network in Victoria.

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