An essay by Dave Van Domelen, copyright 2015.
    Among the many things I've come to realize after about 20 years of teaching at various levels is this: being a teacher is a lot like being a preacher. We have an audience of varying levels of motivation and ability, and we hope to reach all of them during our brief time together, but know we won't.

    The best group, from our point of view, is honestly grappling with the material and is ready to learn it. They want to improve themselves, and if they struggle with some of the demands, at least they're putting in the effort and clearly seem to be getting it. Maybe they're not getting it as quickly as they'd like, but we can see the progress happening, and can help encourage them when they feel like they're stuck.

    In the middle of the pack, where most of our class (or flock) exists, are the people who want to improve themselves, but they're just not ready to. Maybe there's a lack of something necessary in their background. Maybe it's a mindset they can't let go. Maybe they just don't have the time or attention available, due to conflicting demands. They try, but trying isn't enough in their case, and we can tell.

    At the bottom, the group we hope to not have at all, but who we inevitably do have, are the ones who don't see the point in anything we're saying. At best, they think that showing up is enough to do the job, and as long as they can fulfill the minimum requirements and get their label set, they're cool with it. They have that passing grade in the course, or they can say they're a good church-going Christian. They believe that's enough, and if there's no substance behind it, the lucky ones are never tested enough by life for that lack to matter.

    At worst, they think we're full of crap, they already know what they need to know about life, and our words don't fit into that. These are the students only taking the course because it's a requirement for their plan, and only taking their plan because a certificate or diploma will help them get a job. These are the parishoners who only show up at Christmas and Easter, or who do come to services for an hour every week but live the other 167 hours as if that hour never happened. When tested by life, they will fail...and may never even realize that the test happened.

    It's really easy to give up on that last group. As long as they fill the seats and pay for the privilege, we can just tune them out. Don't let them get to us, don't think of them as our failures...they failed before they set foot into our room. Focus on the first group, maybe spare a little time for the more promising members of the second group, but accept that the third group is lost. Some will tell us that we have to take this approach or we'll burn out, use up all our caring on those who are beyond help. And yeah, burnout can get to the best of us.

    But...a good teacher, just like a good preacher, never gives up on any of them. Knowing we'll probably fail is not taken as an excuse to not try. Sure, triage happens. There's only so many hours, only so much energy. Our hearts break a little with every one that we fail to reach. But we look for the openings, those flickers of caring from the third group, those hints at barriers we can remove for the second, and also those times when we can harness the enthusiams of the first group to infect the others. The successes heal the hurt of the failures. We try to do the most we can with what we have, but even in the darkest moments when it doesn't seem like it can be enough, we keep going.

    We can't help them all. But if we try to help them all, we'll help more of them than if we give up on some of them.

Back to Dave's Philosophical Natterings.