Student Mirrors: Grace in the NICS Classroom

June 27, 2013 | Featured
By Natalie Bullock

Student Mirrors: Grace in the NICS Classroom

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. I Corinthians 13:12

For a missionary teacher navigating the grind of lesson planning, teaching, and grading (not to mention assimilation to a foreign culture, administration of extracurricular activities, and accommodation of roommates), life is messy. Sometimes I lose sight of Jesus in the grammar mistakes I have to correct, the endless school meetings I dutifully attend, and the apathy of students who I desperately love and want to see come to salvation.
But Paul reminds me that I will one day “know fully” because perfection will have arrived to replace all the imperfection in my life.

I recently took my students to the computer lab to work on their “A Doll’s House” essays. After reading through the first paragraph of an essay from one of my 9th grade girls, I noticed that there were nearly no grammatical errors and the writing was not in her voice.  I picked out one of the particularly oddly worded phrases and googled it. Sure enough, her first paragraph had come from an online source. I stopped reading right there.

Confronting students on cheating and plagiarism is uncomfortable and embarrassing for them; it’s also uncomfortable and embarrassing for me.  Confronting sin is always uncomfortable and embarrassing. I groaned inwardly and thought about just not saying anything until she turned in her final draft and silently giving her a zero. I justified this by thinking, “They KNOW not to plagiarize.” But I knew that approach would not benefit her.

So I walked up to where she was sitting and asked her about her first paragraph. I asked if they were her own words, and she said yes. After 5 more minutes of googling, I realized her lie because literally the entire essay was a compilation of 3 websites’ analyses of the play.

I pulled her into the hallway, me toting my evidence, her toting a sour expression, and showed her the webpages from which she had lifted her essay. I noticed her getting more defensive in her stance, but I also saw tears starting to form in the corners of her eyes. She said nothing but looked at me irritably.

I carefully showed her where each part of her paper had come from, the tears started sliding down her face, and she was angry at herself for showing emotion. My heart broke as she broke because I know that shame of not wanting to cry because there’s somehow virtue in not showing emotion. I know the embarrassment of getting caught trying to cover up something else that I didn’t want to get caught doing.

All of a sudden the plagiarism took on an entirely new significance. The issue was no longer about stealing, lying, or cheating. Suddenly I saw someone confronted with sin and crushed by the knowledge of her own ugliness. I saw myself. And as my student turned away to wash her face and regain her composure, the teacher in me no longer cared about the plagiarism except that I was thankful that the offense had led to this understanding inside of her.

I followed her to the bathroom and as she stood there absolutely shuddering with the force of her sobs, I just held her. She cried and cried and I held her and held her. Tears came to my own eyes as I recognized Jesus teaching me how He loves me even when I am a disaster. Even when I have chosen to knowingly sin against Him. My heart longed to take away my student’s shame and her pain. I told her I loved her and that my love toward her was not changed by what she had done.

I realized for the first time how Jesus must feel. I understand the idea of grace and God not holding our sin against us, but I have never understood how that could be. In those moments of purposeful defiance and premeditated sin (and accidental defiance and unintentional sin for that matter) how could He not be mad at us? Holding my student, I was filled with sorrow for her hurt, love for her heart and joy at the growth that discipline and repentance bring.

If this is how He feels, why do we wait so long before allowing Him to pick us up and hold us in our times of utter brokenness because of sin we chose? His grace is sufficient and His love unchanging.

Isaiah preaches:
This is what the LORD says—
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the LORD your God,
    who teaches you what is best for you,
    who directs you in the way you should go.”

How sweet that He takes the time to guide us in the way we should go even while as missionary teachers in our classrooms we are the ones guiding others to Him! And He does this in ways that destroy our preconceived misconceptions about His nature. In this world we repeatedly get sucked into earthly systems of relationships, even though we know that in Jesus’ economy the first are last, those who wish to keep their lives must lose them, and we are to love those who hate us.

In her first grade classroom, Julie Hogan experienced the “heart of Christ in her students' faithfulness to God and to each other” as she witnessed one girl choosing to ostracize herself in order to include another girl who was new to the school. A beautiful, joy-filled friendship ensued. Though only a first grader, this child understood Christ’s heart for the unwanted, teaching Julie about the desire Christ has for us to love one another even when it will cost us. He left the comfort of the known to be rejected and despised in order to love us. How incredible that such lessons can be reflected in an elementary classroom 2013 years later!

Bekah Youtzy, middle school English teacher at Highlands International School in La Paz, has experienced this same enlightenment through interaction with her students. She writes:

My middle school reading students and I dove into a Social Issues Unit. One particular line in the curriculum suggested that reading books with social issues “can make each child feel less alone.”  I was discouraged by this line, knowing that when students face issues, they often turn to things that enhance their loneliness and provide no hope. What if instead of relating to a book or finding encouragement in something from this world they find hope and companionship in Christ?

The product of this question brought a weeklong study about identity in Christ. My heart burned for them to believe His words and own His truths.   I prayed that they would encounter the heart of Christ, and that it would free them from who others tell them they are and who they believe themselves to be.

On day 2, I had a “freedom bucket” with John 8:36 written on the outside, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  The students had previously created posters on computer paper depicting who they believed themselves to be.  After talking about who Christ says we are and who Satan says we are, I gave them a chance to rip up their “identity” if it wasn’t showing who Christ said they were.  It was a powerful afternoon as I watched students write down newly learned truth and tear up their lies. 

With the week coming to a close, I realized my burden for my students was really Christ’s burden for them.  He desperately wants us to know Him so that we can freely be who He created us to be.

Christ’s burden for Bekah’s middle school students is Christ’s burden for us as teachers. Through teaching, we are taught.

Amy Shuflin, Bible teacher at International School Caracas, explains:
“God was so patient with the Israelites through all their years of wandering, idol worship, ignorance, and fear and he never left them. He was committed to being patient with them and knowing the right timing to speak to them and to send leaders, judges, and prophets. Working with students can be very tiring and at times disappointing and disillusioning, but God is faithful and will be faithful to work in the students even when I can't see His work.

Jesus is the irrepressible, uncontainable God, the wonderfully impromptu Lord of surprises, the gracious gift-giver. He is the type who refuses to be restrained by my boundaries, and instead continually chooses to reveal Himself to me through interactions I have with my students.

So while I keep peering into my foggy mirror, trying to make sense of this broken world and my broken students, Jesus chooses instead to give me rare glimpses into Paul’s “fully known” perfection that is to come. Experience tells me that when I mess up, reinstatement has to be earned. Jesus says reinstatement was granted at the cross. And if the son has set us free, we are free indeed. May we continue to encounter Jesus’ grace in our classroom as we share his heart with the precious students he entrusts us with for such a time as this.

Natalie Bullock just completed her 4th year of teaching English literature at the International Christian School -- Caracas where she fell in love with her wonderful students and wild South America.  Her passion is seeing high school students realize their value in Christ’s eyes and come to know Him personally. She loves all things adventurous and surprising.


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