“What are you looking for in a candidate?”
I hear this question a lot while coordinating off-campus recruiting for ACE Teaching Fellows. My answer reliably centers around the three pillars of our program — formation as a professional educator, community building, and spiritual growth — since these are the three non-negotiable priorities of a Catholic school teacher, especially one choosing to live in intentional Christian community with other recent college grads as ours do. Get experience with real-life students, I say, and ideally in a classroom setting, because it’s different than how you remember it. I often enumerate the character traits that we ask recommenders to comment on: grit, zeal, self-awareness, organization, gratitude, leadership, integrity, and openness to spiritual growth.
Recently, though, I heard an answer to this question that hit much closer to the truth in far fewer words. Our Advent Retreat in Austin, Texas, with all the ACE teachers includes a session on discernment during which we ask four second-years to reflect on Matthew 6:21, specifically the question, “Where does your treasure lie?” This year’s were, as always, beautiful and wise, especially coming from the mouths of 23-year-olds.
One in particular articulated what I believe is the disposition that our most successful teachers integrate into the above-stated pillars and traits: the ability to persevere through discomfort. As she told us:
I have come to discover that what I treasure is discomfort, and, let me tell you, never did I ever expect I would treasure such a thing. In fact, I think most of my life prior to ACE I made decisions to avoid discomfort. . . . Everything on my initial list of things that I treasure — faith, family, friendships, my students, deep conversations, open and honest communication, etc. — are all things deepened and enriched by persisting through discomfort.
This ability to stay with something (or 25 little someones) in the face of discomfort makes all the difference. Organization is great, but can you allow students’ questions about tough current event deter your day’s lesson plan to have a potentially awkward-but-necessary conversation? While teachers must possess integrity, can they empathize with a student whose life and daily experience complicates concepts like “right” and “wrong”? A commitment to community is key, but will that commitment remain when a community is filled with people with whom you would never otherwise interact? Is one’s openness to spiritual growth tempered with an openness to differences with or challenges from others who are on other parts of the walk of faith?
I’ve found, then, that the more salient question is not, “What is ACE looking for in a candidate?” but rather, “What are YOU, the candidate, looking for in your work and life?” Are you prepared to feel incompetent sometimes, knowing that you won’t know what to do in every circumstance and that you will never be done getting better? Can you keep going without frequent verbal or quantifiable affirmations from those with whom you serve? Can you accept that your work is set within and subject to the joyful yet often tragic mire of the human experience? Then this might be the life for you.
I love interacting with first- and second-year teachers because I get to watch many go through the difficult yet beautiful transition from trying to avoid discomfort to valuing and even choosing it. The above speaker explained the discomfort of learning to live with her community members and confronting tough issues, of feeling like an outsider in the community, of sitting with her students through lockdowns, familial conflict, and mental illness. She also described the grace she found in the often-uncomfortable growth of those relationships with community members, parents, students, and staff:
I don’t think it is coincidence that just six verses later in Matthew 6: 27, Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life span?” I claim discomfort as my treasure, with faith that the Lord will be by my side to use that discomfort for some glorious end as He has done over and over again in this past year and a half. So in my next step, whatever it may be, I will boldly and confidently seek discomfort so that I may continue to grow. And with this, I say, “For all things in the past thank you, and for all things to come, yes.”
The beauty of her words is that they apply to all of us, especially in this season of resolutions. How can we make ourselves uncomfortable for the sake of others? How can we grow in our desire for that discomfort, trusting that it will be used “for some glorious end”? This year I resolve to be in solidarity with new teachers, welcoming discomfort so that others may be comforted and I may grow.