Are student-teacher relationships a significant component to growth? My answer is this: the single most significantly damaging element to student growth is arguably a student-teacher relationship predicated on the need of the teacher for any kind of personal significance within that relationship. Christian schools might be better served when dialogue begins with this question: are student-teacher relationships positively or negatively significant?
My thoughts on this subject arise out of frustration when the word ‘relationship’ is undefined, and then used to defend mediocre or ineffective teaching and learning in an environment that confesses to ‘do all things as unto the Lord’ (Colossians 3:17). I am more broadly frustrated with the machine of tradition, whose dysfunction still fuels a lot of mediocrity through grace that is limited by ‘nice’, and truth that is manipulated by ‘safe’. I am saddened by how eagerly I suckled on the breasts of a tradition that had grown self-satisfied and self-righteous when at the beginning of my career in education.
Rightly defined, a positive relationship between the student and teacher reflects the relationship between the teacher (presumably a master student), and Christ (the Master Teacher). This relationship is measured first by the Grace and Truth of Christ (John 1:14) toward the teacher. Is the teacher’s being with the student reflective of being with Christ? After establishing that foundational and contextual principle, an infinite number of other things to do must be rightly and intentionally measured. One can never be certain of ‘what to do’ if one is not settled about ‘how to be’.
One way to define a Christ-following teacher is as ‘the undseserving recipient of limitless Grace and unyielding Truth, perfectly and completely balanced on the righteousness and sacrifice of Christ’. It follows then, that one way to define the student in a Christian school is as ‘the undeserving recipient of limitless grace and unyielding truth, consistently and humbly reflected by a teacher who finds all his righteousness in Christ and sacrifices all personal self-interest and self-protection in favor of student growth.’
If the relationship could be defined as I have posited above, then the student-teacher relationship would be founded on continuous and intentional efforts to provide for the students’ whole education without needing anything internal or external in return. And further, the relationship would deal with Truth in love, discerning the wise time, place, and delivery of each message, without considering the personal cost. Sadly, the default relationship is grace and truth subjected to ‘nice’ and ‘safe’. The impact of the default on student learning in an environment that professes excellence and superiority in Christian education is devastating. In essence it says to the student, “we’re all about Christ”. It shows the student that “it’s all about me”.
Many readers will retort that Christ is an unreachable standard. And so He is. The standard is so high that we can never be relationally ‘good’ in either a moral or fully functional sense. On the other hand, failing to pursue the standard of Christ as the foundation for relationship, (i.e. use other standards or no standards) produces complacency, mediocrity, empty intellectualism, or worse. There really is painful tension in the command to ‘let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus, who…’ (Philippians 2).
Peace comes when resting in Christ’s imputed right-ness on our behalf. He met the standard for us. Joy comes when fruits toward His standard are growing in us! Ever deepening love results when Christ’s strength has been made perfect in our weakness, (2 Cor. 12:9) as students are increasingly attracted to a trust that allows for exciting discovery and growth in all areas of life. I grant that measuring against an unyielding and unreachable relational standard is grueling. But should we continue to sin so that grace will abound? God forbid. How is it possible that those of us who have been saved would live any day in satisfaction with the sin that remains in us? (Romans 6:1-2)
Reach for a classroom that is learning and growing on the active principle of love; unafraid of daily re-formation (truth), and secure in Christ’s completed work (grace). Reach for Christ alone as the standard for student-teacher relationships: resolving all the tension between grace and truth, reflected consistently in all relational aspects of teaching and learning; and lived congruently in content and process. Imagine what might happen in a classroom where students are attracted to Christ by the relationship the teacher has, as a master student, with Christ.
All standards other than Christ’s relational way of being will also be significant. Significantly negative, creating barriers to meaningful growth such as fear, anger, distrust, and apathy. Student-teacher relationships conditioned on feeding adult emotional needs could result in some acquisition of content. Sometimes lots of content. I would dispute that a godly teacher is justified in being satisfied with ‘learning content’ as a standard for the high calling of Christian education. If the student-teacher relationship does not attract a student to trusting in Christ, it is not a Christian education.
I will not provide a checklist to measure external behaviors related to student-teacher relationships. One cannot box-check their way to (real as opposed to perceived) positive student-teacher relationships. It’s not a problem to ‘fix’, it is a glorious opportunity to wrestle toward a transparent, accountable, and humble way of being in Christ that points students to the teachers’ dependence on His fullness and thereby engenders trust. The teachers love (balanced in grace and truth) casts out student fear (1 John 4:18), and thereby removes relational roadblocks to any kind of growth.
My strategy, if I had one, would be to examine the heart against the relational standard of Christ every day. Why? Because out of the heart are all the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23) Every student arrives at school having been cursed in Adam, and often wounded by virtue of their dependence on fallen adults. A well-defined and carefully applied living relationship with Christ is the only foundation on which to build student-teacher relationships in the Christian school.
Do we really want to know where to grow in student-teacher relationships?
- Ask a school administrator and stress your desire for meaningful inner growth through a knowledge of what personal blinders can obscure or hide.
- Ask your students and their parents for anonymous feedback on all aspects of your classroom and receive the feedback in a form that does not allow identification.
- Open an honest and transparent dialogue with colleagues. List and contribute.
None are beyond the need of reaching for the standard of Christ. If a teacher should find that he or she doesn’t really want to know where to grow in student-teacher relationships, I would urge that teacher to consider the impact it will have if student growth and learning is hostage to his ‘nice’ grace and ‘safe’ truth. And further, I would suggest vocations that do not require that the King’s children receive a royal education.
A word to school leaders……
It follows that the single most damaging element to teacher growth is a teacher-leader relationship that is predicated on the need of the leader for any kind of significance within that relationship. No leader is beyond the need of reaching beyond ‘nice’ grace and ‘safe’ truth. The proverbial buck does not stop with the teacher, it stops with the leader.