Ramblings: What does it mean to finish well?

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith... (I Timothy 4:7)

Every year in June, the feelings of inadequacy resurface. Right now I'm tired, and quite frankly, lazy. I have given everything I have to give. And I'm never satisfied with what I've done throughout the year.

I didn't get to know my students' personalities well enough. I prioritized mutual respect, but not bonding and making personal connections. Those are not the same things. I was too serious and wasn't silly and fun enough. I was too snappy, too quick to pass judgment and get angry. I didn't finish the world history unit. I didn't do that money project. We didn't do reading logs, for the love of Pete, how did I neglect to have my kids write down the books they read in class?!

I think it's the end of the world. I am a failure! I should have my teaching license revoked.

I think it's not the end of the world. The year was a success! I will return in August refreshed and ready to make up for my shortcomings this year.

I think I might have schizophrenia. And I'm not the only one.

John Spencer (from the blog Musings of a Not-So-Master Teacher) has a few recent posts on this topic, including the beautifully introspective Self-Induced Teacher Guilt. But it's his post called End Well that really made me think about how I feel as the year comes to a close:
Yet, as I pack up the boxes in my classroom and prepare myself for another three weeks, I have a lingering sense of satisfaction mixed with guilt. I'm torn between enjoyment and feeling that I haven't done enough and that I don't know students well enough and that I took too many short cuts and that no one should ever engage in such a long run-on sentence when an English teacher might be reading this long-winded blog post. What does it mean to end well?
Feelings of guilt and apprehension abound. So what to do with them? My first impression was that we should examine them the way we should examine all our other emotions: are they from the Lord, or from the enemy? Is the sadness stemming from conviction or condemnation?

But for me, I think the answer is BOTH.

I ignored the Holy Spirit's promptings many, many times, and took the easy way out, putting my own needs first. That's conviction. I will always have to fight the flesh and consciously work toward becoming others-centered: it's the process of sanctification. The good news is, I'm aware of how God's trying to change me. The even better news is, He's patient.

But there's also some condemnation. Really, Angela, you feel like a failure because you didn't teach the kids EVERY skill and concept you wanted to? Do you truly believe that's the measure of your success?

Hmm. I suppose not. But what IS the measure? Maybe, Did I do my best every day?

I hope not, because then I still failed. I DIDN'T give 100% every single day.

That CAN'T be the measure of finishing well, because in my heart, I know I didn't fail. I know that my life is a work in progress, and there is no failure as long as I'm still striving to become more Christ-like and perform my job in a way that brings God glory.

So maybe the real meaning of finishing well is, Did I ask God to help me do my best everyday? Did I look to Him for strength and wisdom? Did I grow closer to Him this year? Did I actively seek out ways to become less self-centered and more giving to my colleagues and students and families?

Yes, yes I did. Sooo...why doesn't that make me feel successful? Why don't I have that feeling of satisfaction from a job well done?

Probably because I could have done a better job. Quite frankly, we ALL could have.

Perhaps you can see how exhausting it's been to live with my brain recently.

After fruitlessly mulling over the question for awhile, I finally gave it over to the Lord and let Him show me the answer. And He did, Sunday morning in church. We were singing about the depth of God's love toward us, and I realized that from God's perspective, our success as teachers is all about our love walk. It is not about our test scores, and it's not even about what our students learn academically. From an eternal perspective, teaching my kids to identify a numerator and denominator is frankly irrelevant.

For me, finishing the year well is about this:

Did I disciple my students?
Did I show them love, and teach them how to be loving?
Did my passion for life shine through, and did I encourage students to follow their God-given passions?
Did I set my students on the paths they should go and instill in them the desire to grow and become more than who they currently are?
Did I model AND teach them perseverance, patience, kindness, and self-control?
Was my focus on teaching with intention--not perfectly at every moment, but as a whole, from the first day to the very last--did I keep sight of the ultimate prize, which is eternal?

I've noticed that when my focus is on the eternal purpose, the academic goals fall naturally into place. This is really radical stuff, I know. But...what if we weren't put in the classroom to teach the phases of the moon? What if we were put there to instill in students a wonder for creation, a curiosity to learn more about the world around them, a desire to be the most intelligent persons they can be and make positive contributions to society? Think about that. When the teacher focuses on instilling those qualities during a lesson, how can children NOT learn the phases of the moon?

The standards created by the department of education are laughable in comparison. And because the board of ed doesn't set the real goals, it doesn't measure the real goals, and it doesn't determine our real value as teachers.

The student achievement levels we see on paper can never be the true measure of finishing well, not when an on-grade-level student assaults a classmate in the hallway while a struggling reader develops and recognizes the importance of self-discipline. And how do any of those behaviors, attitudes, and skill levels tie into God's ultimate plan of salvation? How little does any of this matter when both souls are lost?

Clearly the race set before us is difficult to run, and we run it imperfectly. But it's not up to us as teachers to determine our measure of success. We plant some seeds, we water others, and the increase comes from the Lord.

Who, after all, is Apollos? And who is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. (I Corinthians 3:5-9)

So it's not about ME at all, it's not about how well I did MY job. God has a greater plan, of which I am only a small part. My performance is not quantifiable by anyone in this physical plane. How easily I lose sight of that when I'm made to feel that my job, my salary, and my worth is based on test scores.

Finishing well. Did I? I realize now it's far too complex for me to judge, and I shouldn't trouble myself with principles so far beyond my realm of understanding. I'm going to try not to judge myself, and instead let God, whose ways are higher than my ways, determine how well I've accomplished His tasks. The burden is lifted off of me and carried by Jesus, who tells us,
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). What freedom we have in Christ. I don't have to measure my own success or worth, or figure out where I stand with Him. He is my identity and my source. I can...

Be confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in [me], will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phillipians 1:6)

Wow, you're still here with me, reading to the end.
Thanks. I hope my rambling thoughts make sense. And I hope they give you a bit of peace as your school year comes to a finish.


Mr. Bibo said...

Amazing post Angela. Our success and failure is not realized immediately, but much further down the road, or perhaps even ultimately. The goals I set for my students are rarely the ones they achieve, and yet they achieve in my classroom in ways that I cannot see, and rarely understand. However, that does not mean that my efforts, or any teacher's efforts, are in vain. We MUST follow God's lead and do our best; He will determine the results.

Melissa said...

I stumbled across your blog several months ago and have enjoyed reading your postings. I'm a first-year Kindergarten teacher and have found myself feeling the very things you mentioned in your post. It was such an eye-opener to read your words and such an encouragement too! Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

This was really good. I think we all feel this way at the end of the day to some degree. I mean, I feel full of regrets about what I did or didn’t eat, or exercise, or said or didn’t say to someone, or missed an opportunity to do something for someone else. I think, “Lord, did I accomplish what I was supposed to for you today?”

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across your blog several months ago and have enjoyed reading your postings. I'm a first-year Kindergarten teacher and have found myself feeling the very things you mentioned in your post. It was such an eye-opener to read your words and such an encouragement too! Thanks for posting!

Kelly Tenkely said...

Thank you, just...thank you. That was a God inspired post and I needed every word of it. I'm not alone.

John Spencer said...

Thanks for quoting me. I love the point you made, "I realized that from God's perspective, our success as teachers is all about our love walk." It seems that the best I can be to the student is God's love with skin on it. On my best days, I can be authentic and transparent and show what grace means to them. I also really like the questions you posed for defining what's important. Very thought-provoking!

organized chaos said...

I needed this!! Thank you!

WideEyedWonder said...

Hey, just a little note to let you know that the name and blog title have changed, but I'm back to writing and following blogs!
-formerly TeachEnEsp

maggie said...

Great post! It's so uplifting and encouraging. I will be sharing it to my co teachers in our morning devotion in school .☺

Mr C said...

Your rambling thoughts didn't just make sense - they make perfect sense. Eye opening if you like.

Anonymous said...

Twenty years ago, on the last day of school, I was feeling sad and lonely, wondering if I had made a difference in any of my children's lives, and began praying. Unexpectedly, I felt the Holy Spirit say, "You LOVED them." That is the greatest commandment, and the one rule for my teaching from then on. If you love with Jesus's love, everything is a success, because He inspired it.

Tammy said...

Wow! I had never thought of whether a year was successful or whether I was successful as a teacher in this way before. Thank you SO much for giving me this perspective because I know the Lord was speaking to me through your words! Angela, I had the most challenging year in my teaching career so far. I didn't understand why, at first, that I had been given such a crew of little ones, but now I see. That's what's so amazing about the grace of God... even when we are blinded by the blizzard/white out (which sometimes feels like a WIPE out!) around us, God is there to be our life-line and to see us through until the end of the blizzard. He is there all the way until the sky clears and the sun shines brightly in our sky again. How wonderful is that. I've always heard that hindsight is 20/20, and that is so true of the trials and difficult times I've had in my life. It's very tempting to feel frustrated and to give up because we can't see what God's doing at the time. As I look back on this year, I can see through new eyes now (thanks in part to this devotion) that it was a successful year, and God used it to draw me closer to Him and to renew and strengthen our relationship. It's so overwhelming at times when I think about how much God loves us, that I can hardly conceive how long, and wide and high the love of God truly is.
I just wanted to say thank you for this perspective. I didn't see it until today 8/8/09, but it helped me tremendously, and it will help me as I prepare to begin a new year of school to look at things through God's perspective. I will pray each day for God to use me for his purpose, and I can rest peacefully at the end of the day knowing that I have been obedient, I can pray for forgiveness for the things that weren't my best, and I can ask God to help me do better through HIS strength tomorrow. What a truly AWESOME God we have!
Thanks again for the devotion. I plan to share it with quite a few of my colleagues.

T. Royster

Angela said...

Thank you, Tammy, for sharing such beautiful words. That was a tremendous encouragement for me today. I needed that reminder that God's love for us is unfathomable, and everything that happens to us is filtered through Him in His omniscience. :-)

Anonymous said...

I've had years where I just taught, and I've had years where I've loved my class. I've also had those years where I struggled to do either. (Sometimes I've wondered if little Johnny was possessed!) When I look back, it's the latter school years that I think I grew the most as a Christian. Loving your students (sometimes it's "tough love") when you don't really like them is taking that leap of faith to depend on the Holy Spirit's guidance and letting Jesus truly be Lord of all. Those kids truly needed someone who would pray for them and maybe I'm the only one who would! But it's not all about me. I'm not the center of the universe. It's about what God's perfect plan is.
Terrific post, Angela.

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