Gratitude and Infinity

Disclosure: I speak at length about my faith and how it relates to my teaching in this post.

Summer invariably prompts reflection on the past school year both as a teacher and as a person.  Even with school being done for about a week and a half now, I’m still at that point in the summer where I unwittingly slip into thought about what I do and (more importantly) why I do it.

There’s a phrase that I have heard from teachers and administrators over the past few months that keeps popping into my mind when I think about the school year and why I bother to teach at all.  The phrase goes something along the lines of, “Teaching is hard because you rarely see the fruits of your labor.  Unless students come back to visit or contact you long after the fact, you might never know the impact you had on their lives.”

There’s some truth to this eduism like all the others that I’ve heard from people, read in books, or seen on my Twitter feed.  There are a lot of kids I’ll never see after a school year ends, let alone kids who will express appreciation in some way later in their lives; however, I think there’s a lot of veiled cynicism, hurt, self-aggrandizing, and self-pity woven into that phrase.  It’s a phrase that can get in the way of celebrating the small moments where I see the impact of my efforts.  By focusing on the product or big expressions of gratitude, it can be easy for me to discredit the moments of love, joy, sadness, excitement, success, failure, discovery, forgiveness, and gratitude that are woven into the teaching experience.  It’s one of the reasons why I resumed keeping a journal last school year.  I documented the small moments so I would remember to express my gratitude and revisit the moments where even if I didn’t see the fruit of my efforts, I at least saw the blooming of proverbial flowers that will lead to fruit.

Besides the distraction this phrase can cause to the current impact I am making in the lives of my students, another problem I have with this phrase is the temporal nature it places on gratitude.  The very wording of the sentences make saying, “Thank you,” only something that can be done during this life.  It’s a now or never mentality.  As a person of faith, I cannot help but think of how shortsighted this understanding of gratitude is in comparison to the perspective of infinity.

I recently read a sermon from the book No Little People by Francis Schaeffer that prompted this comparison.  In speaking about the fruit of our labor, Schaeffer writes, “If you are a Christian, you are really going to be in Heaven, and some of the people you know now will be there, and they will speak with you about what you did in this life.  Somebody will say to you, ‘Thank you so much for the money you gave me when my children were starving.  I didn’t have a chance to thank you then, but I do now.’  ‘I remember the night you opened your home to me, when you moved over and shared your table with me.’  This is what Jesus was saying… There is a horizontal continuity from this life to the life to come.”

While I know the quote was about all actions in my life, I cannot help but think about how it applies to my teaching.  It’s true I might not see or hear about the impact I had on some students as long as I walk this earth.  It’s true that some of my students might never even think about the role one of their 8th grade teachers had in helping them grow intellectually, emotionally, and in character.  It’s true that teaching can be hard because of this reality; however, I am convinced that just because gratitude might not be voiced in this life does not mean it will never be voiced.  I am convinced that besides communion with Christ and reunion with the ones I love, Heaven is a place where gratitude is continually voiced.  I will have the opportunity to say, “Thank you,” to people who already heard it in this life and to people whom I failed to express it to on earth.  I know this expression will undoubtedly be true of my students as well, which lets me know that I will eventually see the fruit of my labor.

Some students might never visit me in this life to express gratitude, but I know they’ll visit eventually in the life to come.  In the meantime, I’m thankful for the students who have visited, expressed appreciation, and my growing awareness of the many ways that gratitude is woven into people’s actions and words.  Thank you for reading.

 

 

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