I was twenty-three and teaching a room full of seniors. I was scarcely their elder and struggling to maintain control. I’m a bossy and stern woman, so I had it under control (as far as I remember). But on this particular day, a belligerent young man wasn’t feeling it. He had his textbook open on his desk (Good Lord, how long ago was this?! You used textbooks?) but refused to the do the work.
I meandered over to his desk, front row of the room, warmly coaxed him to get started, and then I moved on. Fast-forward a few moments; I followed up. Still not working. My warm coaxing shifted to an encouraging smile and a little verbal push. He said he wasn’t interested in working. Cue confrontation. Now listen, I was a baby myself, so I felt like I was doing the right thing, pushing this visibly indifferent and unwilling young eighteen year-old to do the assignment, so I pressed onward toward the goal.
Jacob, I know you’re not in the mood, but this assignment will be a grade, and I really don’t want your average to suffer because you’re not in the mood.
I’m not doing it.
Well, see, that’s not an option.
It’s my option.
I hear what you’re saying, but at this point you’re either going to do the work or you’re going to go out in the hallway.
I’m not going out in the hallway and I’m not doing the work.
At this point, all thirty sets of eighteen year-old eyes are on me. What’s she going to do? Who’s going to win? So I ramped up.
Here’s the deal, Jacob. You’re going to pick up the pen and get to work now, or I’m going to ask you to leave. (I don’t, for the record, recommend this approach. I was young.)
Man, *%#$! this #%$*! (sort of rhymes with “Duck this mitt!” Or “Shuck this pit!” You get me, right?)
So here’s my inner dialogue, which happened in approximately .006 seconds… If I don’t reprimand him right this moment, I’m going to lose him and the other thirty kids in the room. I have to prove that I’m the boss and that he can’t talk like that and I have to also send the clear message that this will be a one time deal because in my class this is unacceptable behavior and I will win. Okay, fine, it was more like .008 seconds. Whatever. And in that inner dialogue, I made the brave and wise decision to respond like this:
You’re going to think “&$%* this $@%$! Get out! NOW!”
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Why isn’t she writing classroom management blogs? Shocking, I know.
So here’s the aftermath. I had, across the hall from me, the godliest, kindest, tallest, strongest man teaching Biology. He was a seasoned teacher, so he took me under his wing as I ventured into the unknown. So as good timing would have it, at the very moment that I yelled, and I do mean yelled, “You’re going to think $@%# this $%&*!” he opened his door to witness my failure. Awesome.
The kid stormed out. I’m sure he went straight to the office, turned himself in, repented, and returned to apologize. That part of my memory is a little hazy, but I think that’s how it happened. Kind, tall, strong Biology teacher enters the room and sees thirty gaping mouths and one panting, red-faced teacher with a look of “Yeah! I just won that war!” on her face. He was not impressed. In fact, he was so stunned and I was so mortified that it was never spoken of again. (If you're out there, my dear Biology friend, I've matured. I promise.)
Let’s start by saying this: Teaching is a mission - a way to promote Christ’s eternal plan through the act of love and compassion. The word mission has become quite a fluid term. It’s technically defined as a group or committee of persons sent to a foreign country to conduct negotiations, establish relations; an important goal or purpose that is accompanied by a strong conviction. And those are indeed accurate definitions (I know Webster was longing for my approval), but the definition that I use in my calling is a bit more specific. Teaching is a mission.
Mission - (noun) a group of persons specifically chosen for a high calling to carry on the evangelization in foreign lands
And of course, our classrooms are those very foreign lands. So to accomplish our mission we must understand it and then embrace it. The painful part will be understanding.
James, one of several brothers of Christ, composes the letter to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” Scholars explain that the book is reflective of a simple church order - offices of the church are called “elders” and “teachers.” And while the role of elder and teacher is vital to the growth and education of the church, I will be so bold as to proclaim that the “church” as a term cannot be pigeon-holed. We are the church. And we carry the church with us into the classroom; therefore let’s claim these words. Probably time to put your steel-toed boots on, by the way.
James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
Well that’s a rough start. So on top of poor pay and never-ending criticisms from parents and kids and the general public, we are now also to receive a more strict judgment? How can that possibly be?
James, as previously mentioned, was not talking to teachers of math and art and science, but if we are to adopt our mission - that we can teach math and art and science while sharing the gospel of Christ - then he is absolutely speaking to us.
I agree with him on the first independent clause; I have thought often in my career about those who should not be teachers. Admit it. You have too. I knew the bottom of my seventh grade history teacher’s shoes like I know the back of my hand. That man could plop in his chair, throw his feet up on the desk, and pop open a newspaper like a champ. We colored every map he could find to photocopy. We were graded on the coloring. (It’s where I learned shading.) To this day, I have to Google map entire countries, and the only reason I know the continents is because I helped our children learn them when they were in school. That man did NOT need to teach.
But I digress. When James explains that not many of us should become teachers, it’s because it’s a heart job. Not a head job. And then to expound by saying that this job is tough because we will be judged more strictly. Speaking truth. Can I get an amen?
2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
The study of this scripture in light of our struggles as educators draws me to two uses, or rather misuses, of “what they say.” The first being our content, and the second our intent. Both equally provide the opportunity to stumble. James explains that part of the reason that most people shouldn’t be teachers is because they can’t/won’t tame their tongues. My “Pluck this kit!” story is one of many times that I used language to drive home a point with my students. I found myself justifying words like “crap,” “pissed,” and “sucks” in my high school classroom because I was “relating to the kids.” I told myself that I was creating a relationship and making myself more approachable. Truth be told, I was also lazy. Those words were incredibly common in my daily life, therefore culling them out in the classroom required too much effort.
“What they say” is referring to the tongue. According to the NIV commentary, “since the tongue is so difficult to control, anyone who controls it perfectly gains control of himself in all other areas of life as well.” While perfection is an unattainable goal, the act of striving for perfection requires a constant monitoring of what we say.
I had the privilege of teaching alongside Coach Jill Schneider. Google her. She’s awesome. Better yet, let me just save you the Google search... Co-captain of the 1980 Olympic team, starter on the Lady Tennessee Vols with two visits to the Final Four, Women’s basketball Hall of Famer, 1984 US Olympic Women’s Basketball Team Trials, 2012 Women’s U17 World Championship Team Head Coach. Yeah, I know her. She currently teaches and coaches young ladies at the high school level, and I have had the privilege of learning a little about this woman of faith. As the girls’ coach and mentor, she models this James 3 behavior every day. Her athletes are not only forbidden from cursing - a rule that Coach ascribes to as well. They are not allowed to say “pee” or “butt.” Coach calls out to “get on their hineys” for stretches, or instructs them to “run to the ladies room” at a stop. While this seems quite frankly unbelievable, it screams James 3. Imagine how hard it is for these young ladies to tame their tongues in Coach’s presence. These are the same girls that are inundated with lyrics and language that would make our hair curl, but on Coach’s court and in her presence, the tongue will be tamed. She models it. She expects it. And she gets it. Her athletes have a love and respect for her that is unparalleled. They see Christ in her. What a ministry she is.
I heard great stories about an assistant under her helm who struggled with the expectation. The assistant came from collegiate sports, where cursing was the norm. What many believe is that it can motivate and inspire and create fear in athletes in a way that hollow inspirational exclamations cannot, and that’s where she came from. It was a part of her. But after months of training under the tutelage of a coach who adopts the literal translation of James 3, she realized how dirty her tongue actually was. And what a message that was sending to younger, more malleable children. Filthy language is everywhere. Our kids are more desensitized than we, and it promises to snowball. So to teach and coach while keeping the tongue in check is going to grab attention, shake some paradigms, and change some lives.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
So Coach Schneider and educators and coaches like her all around the world are making a conscience effort to steer the ship in the right direction. These people who tame their tongues intentionally are glorifying God with the absence of words, not the addition of words.
6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
Man, do we know this to be true. Elementary teachers could speak for days on the fire of hell that’s been set on the playground. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a lie, and every teacher of every age will have my back on that. Unfortunately, however, we cannot control the students’ tongues. We are only in control of ours, prayerfully hoping that we are modeling behavior that kids see and digest.
One of the most powerful forms of “fire by hell” that we use our tongues to spark would be that of sarcasm. (Here’s where the “Dear Angela Carter” part comes. I am preaching to myself only here and you’re welcome to come along. If you don’t employ sarcasm in any form in the classroom A) you’re my hero, and B) skip the next six paragraphs.
Many a staff development have I endured on the dangers of sarcasm in the classroom, all to which I have mumbled, “Yeah. I’m so in. Totally hear you. Look forward to stripping my room of all humor and wit. Thank you for your wisdom.” So because I’m not really the expert on the subject, I defer to Thomas Umstattd Jr., author of “The Sin of Sarcasm?”
Umstattd argues that sarcasm fosters insecurity. He explains that it either “comes out of a place of insecurity or into a place of insecurity.” I may be so bold here as to assume that, as the teacher in the room, we are quite confident and secure in what we are doing, therefore we must conclude that the sarcasm is entering a place of insecurity, which can only be into the heart and head of the child. If I have to get really honest, I would say that half of my sarcasm in the classroom comes from profound incense. On the 167th day of class, after having said at least twice a day for those 167 days to put phones away, a child has his phone out in class. My response: “Oh gosh! I’m sorry that I haven’t ever mentioned this rule in our classroom before, but I’m going to have to inform you that we don’t allow phones during instruction.” (Yes, I have said that. Yes, you can hate me. I hate myself upon that remembrance.) According to Umstattd, I am speaking into a heart and head of insecurity. I assume that it must be even easier to employ sarcasm in an elementary classroom, where the intent is lost on the receiver but brings such satisfaction to the sender.
A more difficult thought to ponder is the possibility that sarcasm does indeed come from a place of insecurity. We are, at the core, people who long to be accepted. So when we feel the sting of dislike, our default is to counter. Can we be honest about something? We are tough and wise; we can endure the eye rolls and the scoffs and the indifference because we can justify students' disinterest or disrespect in a multitude of ways. But at the core, we are people. We have insecurities and fears. We long for approval (in varying degrees). So when we have a student who outright doesn't like us, we know it. And so we establish defense mechanisms to push through each day. Can we talk about how vulnerable we are each and every day? We are placing ourselves, our whole selves, on display. It's vulnerable. So when we need a defense mechanism, do we turn to sarcasm?
Additionally, Umstattd argues that, sarcasm interferes with authentic community. He goes on to say that “it can often be a challenge to sort out the truth from lies when a sarcastic person speaks.” Friend, I wish you knew me personally. If you did, you would know that those words cut me to the core. I have someone say to me almost every single day, “Wait, is that serious? Or are you joking?” And those words are usually following a compliment or a word of encouragement. Ouch.
If there is any place where authentic community is necessary, it would be the classroom. Kids cannot learn in a place where they feel that inauthenticity lives. Heck, no one can. We don’t learn from people we don’t trust, and we don’t want to learn in places where we don’t feel safe. I can’t bear to think of the body count that my sarcasm - well-intended, presented as a form of humor, free from the motive of hate - has left behind. God and former students, please forgive me.
And then comes the stinger of all stingers from Umstattd: Sarcasm discourages inquisitiveness.
Okay, I’m going to need a moment on that one. This guy is killing me. Hear his words:
In my experience sarcasm is often used to deride people from asking simple questions. It causes some people to be cautious to talk at all, particularly to strangers. I ask simple questions. When I reveal my ignorance on a topic, I must often brace for the sarcastic blow that may or may not fall. My confidence is in Christ and not myself, so these comments do not destroy me but are nevertheless unappreciated. I think we would all learn a lot more if we were less sarcastic.
I can’t even. Umstattd admits that his confidence is in Christ, so the comments don’t crush him. Can we say that about the children upon which we sling the words of sarcasm? Do they have the confidence of Christ. And even if they do, they’re still babies, ill-equipped with the strength to sustain such mortal blows to self-assurance.
Don’t get me wrong; I love a good dose of sarcasm. I should probably just save it for my friends. They can take it.
So James, let’s keep going:
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
What a depressing follow-up. So basically James says tame the tongue; oh, and it’s impossible to tame the tongue. For James to call it “a restless evil” (adjective/noun) is to call it the devil. And to acknowledge it the “world of evil” is to acknowledge that the world is a fallen place. We know both to be true. But to tell us that we should tame our tongues but it’s impossible to tame our tongues. So what do you want us to do?!
Recognize and then strive.
Recognizing the power of words, for better or for worse, is the origin of the transformation. Unless we buy into the belief that our words - “Shut up!” "You are the worst class I have ever had." “Your attitude sucks.” “Please do not ask me another stupid question.” “I have never had a class that acted this way!” - are giving the devil fertile soil to work, we are planting a sense of hypocrisy and judgment in our classrooms.
And then striving. Cursing is a habit. Sarcasm is a habit. And I’m the first one to tell you that they are still my daily struggle. But the words of James 3 stung me, for I was giving kids the message that I love Jesus with the same mouth that I was spouting expletives. And what a confusing, conflicting message that was. Is. Can be.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
And one last sin of the tongue. This one's tough. If we had to list the top five sins of teachers, I feel confident that speaking ill of a student would be near the top if not the zenith. Our human nature is to complain about kids and their behaviors. It’s also an acceptable if not adored practice in the breakroom, office, staff meeting, happy hour. And while much of what we spew is truth - Mark really did lie to your face about who wrote his paper and it really did infuriate you - it is still cursing a young man’s name. And we do it because we live in a fallen world where we are constantly tempted by the devil. That feeling that we get when we vent for half an hour about the audacious parent or stinky boy or disrespectful eye-roller feels good. Honestly, it feels really good. And there’s a reason for that. Sin does feel good. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be tempted by it. So when we feel a sense of release by spewing criticisms and we feel a sense of empowerment by saying to our colleagues what we wish we could say to that parent, Satan is cheering us on. He longs for us to feel that in our chests, because it’s the antithesis of James 3.
Unfortunately, I think we give the devil plenty to work with. And get plenty too. Kids will lie to us and kids will make out in the bathroom and kids will steal our wallets and kids will disrespect us to our faces. But according to James, to curse those who harm us with the same mouth that we praise our risen Savior should not be.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.
Here's the good news.... we are wise. We are wise enough to know the power of words. And more importantly, we serve a God who wants to help us on our journey toward being better, wiser, kinder. And so we repent. We confess that we have used our words to tear down and fight back, we ask for the strength to be better, and we praise Him in advance for transforming us.
Thank you, Father, for choosing me to teach. Thank you for the joys that it brings. I praise You for the opportunities that I have to show love every day. Thank you for the opportunity to build kids up. Please, Father, forgive me for the ways that I have used my tongue for evil and not for good. My intentions are good but I confess that I am easily tempted. Please give me the strength to hold my tongue. Alert me when I'm tempted to slip. Help me to create new and better habits, so that my tongue is used only for good. God, I want to show my students love and encouragement and I need you to fill me with more of You. AMEN