I’m Glad You’re Here

Cole McClainTeaching for Transformation, The CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Teaching is toil. Planning, grading, instructing, disciplining, assessing, reteaching, reassessing, re-reassessing–rinse and repeat. The struggle never ends. What’s worse is that you rarely see the fruit of your labor. For example, when’s the last time you felt a deep sense of completeness after planning a lesson? After teaching a lesson? After an assessment? After a school day? After a school year?

If you’re like me, you question the relevance of that analogy you used, the lesson structure you created, the questions you put on the test, the long-term plan you had or didn’t have. These questions haunt long after the students burst out the door after the bell. In the words of Emily Dickinson, “One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—One need not be a House—The Brain has Corridors—surpassing Material Place.”

For some, these haunted questions form the pillars of their perseverance. That unending lack of resolution is like a runner’s high: there’s an exhilaration in doing the good work of teaching, even if the end of the road is nowhere in sight. The lack of oxygen pushes us the extra mile—the second wind on the horizon. It’s in the journey, not the destination.

For others, these relentless questions lead to anxiety, burnout, or job resignation. Countless articles about the teacher shortage are case in point, but at the level of lived experience, on the ground, in the classroom, the existential burden of teaching lingers with us. We long for a second wind, but we can’t even breathe.

I was in this place several years ago—still am in some ways. I was in my third year of teaching while updating my resume, searching for jobs in publishing. The ex-teacher stories sounded so promising: “I was getting paid $40,000 per year to work 70+ hour weeks to be cussed out by middle schoolers, but now I make six figures selling real estate,” etc., etc.

Things started to turn around in my fifth year when I was selected to be an early Teaching for Transformation adopter at my school. Our school designer Pat Kornelis used the same opening circle at each quarterly training. We’d circle up as a group and, one-by-one, introduce ourselves by saying, “Hello, team.” But we didn’t get off that easy. After introducing ourselves, we’d hear a synchronous tidal wave of verbal acknowledgement: “Hi Cole, we’re glad you’re here.”

Early on, this practice annoyed my cool air of cynical detachment. Most of us introverts like to portray this distancing as a virtue, but it might just be our greatest vice. Too sentimental, we think. Silly school designer, we scoff.

But then this strange thing happened. This simple greeting got under my skin. Others were glad to see me, and I was glad to see them. The ritual stuck. The gift received. And eventually, it changed the way I greeted my students.

“The greatest gift you can give your students is your presence.”

This year, I’ve started my classes differently. Instead of having students work on some opening task and my taking attendance in the back or cramming in some last-minute prep, I go to each student, look them in the eye (some don’t look back), greet them by name, and tell them, “I’m glad you’re here.”

I value all our TFT principles and try to apply them faithfully in my classroom—Deep Hope, Storyline, Throughlines, and FLEx projects. But I often feel like I fall short, like I’m not making a real, kingdom difference, like I’m not doing enough.

And I’m not oblivious. I know some students scoff at the sentimentality of my Deep Hope. I see the visual “gag reflex” when students hear the word “storyline.”

But then, I come back to one simple truth: The greatest gift you can give your students is your presence.

Even when those haunting questions linger at the end of the day, I am comforted knowing that I told a student, “I’m glad you’re here.” But the truth is, I don’t do it every day. In a good week, maybe three times. There are learning objectives to accomplish, concepts to teach, totalitarian regimes to crumble, AP tests for which to prepare—all things I sometimes deem more important than the humans sitting in front of me.

But on the days I do greet them, I notice something small, but gravitational. The orbit of our shared orientation ticks toward true north, where the Bright Morning Star of the cosmos beckons us to the kingdom life of seeing and knowing one another, toward the Star of Bethlehem whose embodied gift of the incarnation beckons us to share in his fully God, fully human life. To let the game of grades and progress and college readiness fall by the wayside for a little while. To surrender the life of gain and to receive each other’s presence as a gift.

At its core, TfT isn’t about FLEx or Throughlines or Deep Hopes or Storylines. It’s about a way of being. It’s about embodying and reflecting the drama of God’s story–whatever microcosmic role we get to play.


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