The Power of Presence
My mom is a teacher. My aunts and uncles are teachers. I married a teacher, and then I became one myself. I also have two children in public schools, and as they enter their high school years, I am even more thankful for the contribution teachers make daily to the lives of children.
Almost without exception, every teacher I know believes his or her job is a higher calling. They take seriously their mission to prepare their students for whatever comes next, whether it’s first grade or the first year of college.
The teacher’s job is not an easy one, but it is a very important one. It is not, however, the most important influence in a child’s life.
Without a doubt, teachers play a critical role in the education and development of young people. However, parents are their children’s first and most influential teachers—for better or for worse. The lessons learned in the first few years of life can determine a child’s success in school, whether that school is public, private, or conducted at home. The lessons learned in childhood and adolescence can determine whether that child matures into an adult who contributes positively to the world or one who asks that the world contribute to him or her instead.
Study after study has found that home factors, including parental literacy, a dependable and trustworthy support system, physical health, and appropriate relationships and role models, have as much to do with student success as anything that happens in the classroom.
Parents are their child’s first teacher, and the lessons imparted by parents stick with their kids for many, many years, says Meredith McClendon, a certified parent educator with the Parents as Teachers affiliate in Talladega, Ala. McClendon says that because parents have tremendous influence even before a child is born, parental engagement is critical from the very beginning.
Though engagement certainly includes activities like reading and talking to a child, it encompasses so much more. Every experience, whether kicking a soccer ball or folding washcloths, teaches a child. Every task a child accomplishes gives him or her a little more confidence for the next task.
That’s the key problem with so-called helicopter parents, those who protect and help so much that their children don’t learn for themselves. But what about those young people who have to learn so much independently? Those whose families struggle to put food on the table and gas in the car? Most of their parents desire a better future for them, but it’s hard to be engaged at school when you work 8-5 at a manufacturing plant. Teachers seldom have free time in the morning, and few want to hang around hours after the school bell rings. The parents may be trying their best, as are the teachers, but there’s another piece of the puzzle that can perhaps mean the difference between success and failure—the family of faith.
Just as studies have shown that home factors play a tremendous role in student success, community resources like caring neighbors, creative opportunities, and religious participation have also proven influential.
Church programs like after-school tutoring or literacy missions are one way to reach students and their families. But even Sunday School teachers, pastors, and other caring adults in a congregation can provide an additional avenue of encouragement and support that struggling students need.
Think back to when you were young. Who was that encourager whose kind words motivated you to do better? Will you ever forget their kind words, their belief in your ability to achieve your goals? We all have within us the power to be that person in a young life.
As believers in Jesus, we have the ultimate encourager on our side. Time and time again, God sends a word to His people: Do not fear. That’s the message young people in our church, whether their parents come with them or not, need to hear from us.
Fear is a powerful motivator, and most of us, if we’re honest, struggle to fight our fears. Our children may have different fears, but they too struggle to see the brighter outcome. For students who come from difficult family circumstances, fear may not be confessed, but it is certainly present.
The PBS NewsHour featured a special weeklong series last week Monday called “Rethinking College.” In the first installment, NewsHour reporter Hari Sreenivasan interviewed two students from low-income homes. Both expressed their fears of college. (Hint: They weren’t about passing tests.)
Here’s what one said: “Being able to confidently walk around campus knowing what I want to do, being able to just talk to a professor and ask them for something. I think that is super scary.” Another student said this: “You just sometimes feel like you are not adequate. And I think it’s really important to tell you that you are adequate. You do have all the skills that everyone else does. You just have to believe in yourself.”
We need to teach our children and our “church children” that they are more than adequate, not because of anything they have done or will ever do, but because God created them in His image and because Jesus died for their sins. We must teach them to trust Jesus first and regularly reinforce to them that their identity is in Him—regardless of academic, social, athletic, or professional success.
As Paul writes “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10). This goes for everyone in our family of faith—adults, teens, and children alike.
Teachers can tell their students they are adequate and prepare them with the skills they need. But those words carry more weight when they come from a parent. They carry lasting weight when they know the one who speaks them is speaking in love.
The good news is that it’s never too early or late to begin. If you are the parent of a child in school, get involved now. Before you drop your children off at school every day, pray for them. Pray with them. If you can, volunteer at their school or have lunch with them a couple of times during the year. Join the PTO. Pin up what your child brings home from school. Let your child know that you believe education is important, but more importantly, let your child know you believe he or she is important.
More importantly, teach your child that God has placed a “holy calling” on their lives. They may be carpenters, doctors, palaeontologists, or architects, but God has placed that desire in their hearts, and He will use their work for His glory. That’s my prayer for my children…. Won’t you join me in praying that for your children as well?
Year ago, I stopped by my aunt's house on my way home from the University of Alabama. My aunt's elderly mother-in-law was with her and told her I had just driven in from Tuscaloosa. Miss Mac's eyebrows raised, and Aunt Pat started to laugh, knowing that the older lady has misinterpreted the reason for my time in Tuscaloosa.
When I was young, it was common for kids to tease others by throwing up the locations of Alabama's state mental hospital, Bryce in Tuscaloosa, and Georgia's state mental hospital at Milledgeville. As an adult, I wonder how those kids knew of these facilities. Perhaps because someone they knew had spent time in one of them?
Society's awareness of mental health issues and our ability to treat them have advanced tremendously since the mid-1800s when states established state hospitals for those afflicted with mental illness. However, in our churches, the issue of mental illness still carries a powerfully negative stigma.
Zelia Baugh, executive director of psychiatric services for Baptist Health System in Birmingham, said, “There is still a societal stigma when you have a mental illness diagnosis. People don’t want to have mental illness or the stigma associated with it so they want to deny it or treat it on their own.” (emphasis added)
What a true statement. No one asks for mental illness to be part of their life experience. And it can be very hard to be honest about the struggle, especially among families of faith. Baugh noted that the stigma of mental illness can be especially strong in churches, where pastors are reluctant to talk about it and families fear the judgment of others if they are open about their struggle.
“If you’ve got diabetes, cancer or heart disease everybody’s all about making sure that people are praying for you so you have an instant support system,” Baugh said. “It’s very different when you are talking about mental health issues.”
As disciples of Christ, our first call is to love--Love God and love our neighbors. Loving those affected by mental illness is hard, but as believers, we aren't called to the easy life. How can we love those afflicted by mental illness? Here are some tips from Steve Trader of Pathways Christian Counseling:
Tips for Those Who Have Family, Friends with Mental Illness
May we all be more compassionate to those who suffer and love them as Christ loves us.
Don't touch the worship service
Several years ago, my husband became the librarian at an elementary school. The previous librarian had just retired after 30 years of teaching, many of those in the library. Over the years, the librarian had gotten quite possessive of the books in the library. She liked the neatness of the shelves. She liked all the books in perfect order. She didn't really want anyone to touch the books.
The students saw the library very differently. They also saw the library as belonging to them. But the students were not usually neat. They did not prioritize the Dewey Decimal System. In fact, they wanted to take books off the shelves. Sometimes they decided the first book they chose was not the one they wanted, so they pulled another off the shelf.
You get the picture. The librarian's vision of the library and the students' vision of the library were very different.
I wonder if church leadership can sometimes be a little like the old librarian. We like the neatness of our worship. We like the order, the predictability. We don't want anyone to touch our worship service.
And in trying to protect the service, to maintain the order and the neatness, we exclude the young. We are inconvenienced by their enthusiasm. We refuse their eager service because it will take too much time and effort to include them in worship. We keep them away from the instruments--too expensive. We turn them away when they want to help with the offering--too risky. We don't ask them to read a Scripture or say a prayer--too unpredictable.
And in turning the young people away, we are risking the very future of our churches. We assume they will be willing to wait until we are ready to hand over control. But what if they aren't? What if someone or something offers them a chance to use their gifts?
God chose Samuel, David, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Mary. He chose them all in their youth for important tasks that lasted their entire lifetimes. He didn't choose them for a special Sunday once a year and then ask them to take a seat until the next designated youth day rolled around.
It's our job, as parents and as church leaders to lead our children and to prepare them to lead. The effort may be expensive, risky, and unpredictable, but so is the future of our churches if we fail to "train up" our children when they are young.
Does your church have a "hands-off" approach when it comes to involving children and youth in worship? What ways does your church intentionally involve young people in worship? I would love to hear from you!
I am a regular contributor to The Alabama Baptist newspaper, and I also write and edit for several religious, business and educational outlets through my business, McWhorter Media and Marketing.
One of the greatest privileges of being a writer is the opportunity to share the stories of others with a larger audience. I love to do that!
Sharing my own stories is much more challenging, though no less important to making sense of the challenges of Faith and Family in everyday life.
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