"Since you are ambassadors and ministers of Jesus Christ in the work that you do, you must act as representing Jesus Christ himself. He wants your disciples to see him in you and receive your instructions as if he were giving them to them. They must be convinced that your instructions are the truth of Jesus Christ who speaks with your mouth, that it is only in his name that you teach, and that it is he who has given you authority over them.”—St. John Baptist de la Salle
The entirety of the baptized are, as St. Paul says, “ambassadors for Christ,” but St. John Baptist de la Salle—the patron saint of teachers—expands on this idea for educators of the youth. La Salle sees teachers as becoming the image of Christ for students in the classroom. This idea necessitates that teachers teach their disciplines well, but they must also be models of love and virtue for their students.
As a Secondary Education and History student observing at a Washington D.C. Catholic middle school, I have recently reflected on my role as a classroom teacher. Teachers, in many ways, become an extension of the domestic church. As children reach kindergarten age, they begin to spend the vast majority of their weeks—close to seven hours a day Monday to Friday—in the care of their teachers. The sheer amount of time students spend with their teachers necessitates that teachers become another guardian for their students. I have seen this first-hand in an eighth-grade class I have been observing.
Students look to their teacher for guidance and reassurance, and their teacher provides structure, help, and correction for each student as needed. Particularly, in middle and high school, teachers begin to form students’ adolescent and adult mannerisms, and a teacher’s embodiment of Christ’s charity is essential for students to see how the Christian life is lived. Students crave a person to model, and while Jesus is the perfect example, it is hard for many to conceptualize how Jesus lived as a human being. La Salle explains, “Example makes a much greater impression on the mind and the heart than words, especially for children, for they do not yet have a mind sufficiently able to reflect, and they ordinarily model themselves on the example of their teachers” (la Salle, Meditations for Time of Retreat). A teacher must then step in as a witness to Christ’s mission lived out in the modern world. Teachers cannot be aloof people who look perfect to students. Instead, instructors must show that they are human with the capacity to make mistakes in classroom instruction and in working with their students.
Over this semester of observations, I have noticed that students will eventually place their trust in you as they get to know you. As I assisted students with their classwork, asked them questions about their class and school, and talked about life, they slowly began asking me questions and fostering conversations with me. This culminated when I taught a complete lesson on the Roaring 20s and the Harlem Renaissance. My students engaged with me throughout the class period, and they even offered me feedback like a need to slow down a little and explain my slide images more. Students were also appreciative that I did not have all the answers to their questions, but I followed them up by saying, “let me check on that and get back to you.” Teachers must show students that they are an authority on their content and should be a trusted source of knowledge, but they also have limitations and do not know every single fact on a subject. Teachers—like pastoral ministers—must recognize the gravity of their role and hold themselves to a high moral and professional standard, but they must also be down-to-earth and relatable. This relatability in the classroom for middle and high school students allows for a form of collaboration where teachers and students work together to pursue the truth and the Christian life.
St. John Baptist de la Salle was constantly trying to teach his order of teaching brothers that they were ministers of the Church and Christ and that the salvation of students lay within their hands as teachers. La Salle asked teachers to give of themselves to inspire their students in their academics and faith lives because he realized that students craved authentic witnesses to the theological and human truths of life. St. la Salle explained himself best when he wrote, “for the love of God ought to impel you, because Jesus Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who died for them. This is what your zeal must inspire in your disciples, as if God were appealing through you, because you are ambassadors for Jesus Christ” (la Salle, Meditations for Time of Retreat). In many ways, St. la Salle preempted modern evangelization practices with his emphasis on authentic witness as a means to bring people closer to God.
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