Modeling God's Mercy in the Classroom

Posted by Eric Buell on Jan 30, 2020 7:01:00 AM
Eric Buell

Buell Mercy in Classroom title

My students often find Christ in unexpected ways. One was invited to wash the feet of a homeless woman. During this interaction, she was asked to cut the woman’s toenails. In the process of doing so, the toenail flung away from the foot and ricocheted off of my student’s head. They both laughed in a moment of communal humility and joy. In relating this incident, she wrote, “I bet this never happened to Jesus.”

Such #neverhappenedtoJesus moments help us think creatively about Pope Francis’ challenge to create homes in our institutions. “A home, as we all know, demands that everyone work together. No one can be indifferent or stand apart, since each is a stone needed to build the home. This also involves asking the Lord to grant us the grace to learn how to be patient, to forgive one another, to start over each day” (Christus Vivit, §217).

One of the greater temptations for teachers is having low expectations and low standards. But if we believe students cannot understand or complete their work to our satisfaction, we put up unnecessary walls in our home to save ourselves from professional disappointment. In his 1989 text In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen writes, “Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to live life” (77).  The vocation of teaching offers us the chance over and over again to let go of our power, control, and ownership, in favor of relationship, learning, and charity. The teacher who is too strict risks alienating young people in the building where they are increasingly spending more waking hours than their own home; but the teacher who uses mercy as an excuse to avoid confrontation or care lets students down through indifference.

This is not a call to engage in some Aristotelian moderation of classroom discipline. This is a call to really see the classroom as a home and the teacher as a stabilizing lighthouse for Jesus. Giving students academic mercy when needed, but also walking with them and giving them continual opportunities with encounter to expand their definition of home. Where are the moments in our classroom for students to wash feet and be unexpectedly ‘hit’ with God’s grace?

I’m reminded of a student who could not complete a semester project: considering a “Flannery O’Connor” moment in her life and turning it into a short film on the movement of God’s grace. If I am too strict with the student, then I undermine my own motives and vocation; I send her the message that work in my class is not worth doing if it cannot be done on time. If I am too lenient and told her not to worry about it, the work is probably half done and without much effort—a meaningless reflection thrown together in the car on the way to school.

While I don’t think this third way is revelatory, I chose to walk with my overwhelmed student on this journey of lateness to see what we could discover. I spent time talking with her about the progress, reminded her of the importance of the discovery of God in the midst of the tumult. This Emmaus-adjacent method created the home; it demonstrated authentic care and concern, not just about the grade, but about (the oft-loved Catholic school phrase) “the whole person.”

The student was able to turn her work in on the last day of class and she stood up to present her story. Her first words stay with me to this day: “Before I was even born, I was unloved and unwanted…” A topsy-turvy take on Psalm 139, her tale related her father’s abandonment of her pregnant mother and the resentment her sisters felt toward her before she was even born, blaming her for the loss of their father. The reflection became a discovery of how to forgive a man she had never met, but who had left an indelible mark.

Pope Francis asks us to create homes because there are so many who wander and struggle with family life. Catholic schools can begin to address this not only with better catechetics, but by allowing the Incarnation into our classroom: seeing our classrooms as tabernacles where the real presence of Christ is held and made visible. Catholic schools must be places where the Body of Christ is alive! Where we can take the unexpected moments and use them to create bigger homes in our hearts for Christ and each other. Every interaction we have with our students, parents, and colleagues must leave a mark as surprising and joyful as being hit in the head with a toenail.

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Topics: Catholic education, formation, mercy, Catholic Schools Week

Living and Handing on the Faith

The McGrath Institute Blog helps Catholics live and hand on their faith in Jesus Christ, especially in the family, home and parish, and cultivates and inspires everyday leaders to live out the fullness and richness of their faith in the simple, little ways that make up Church life.

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