This is the second post in a series from ACE teachers that center around the pillars of teaching, community, and spirituality. It is authored by Andy Miles, a member of ACE 24 in Philadelphia and focuses on his gratitude toward the vocation of teaching.
The pretzel salt was everywhere.
No matter how many times I swept my classroom after school, a new layer of salt dust seemed to coat the checkered tile floor each morning. It was beneath the corners of the rug in the back and within the pages of textbooks kept inside the desks. My housemates may claim I exaggerate, but I think I even once found pretzel salt in my shoes when I returned to our row house at the end of a long day.
The cause of this pesky problem required little investigation. In the city of Philadelphia, Catholic school students have the opportunity to buy soft pretzels for a snack each day. They arrived by the dozens to the back door of Our Lady of Hope School each morning and made their way to classrooms through a carefully designed distribution system. And every morning, an eighth-grade student plucked a pretzel out of the bag on my desk and wiped all the salt off the top of the pretzel with their hand onto the floor as they walked away.
I like a neat classroom and so messes, such as the pretzel salt coating my floor, have been a source of frustration for me throughout my two-and-a-half years of teaching. I keep my copies for the week in color-coded folders at my desk and labeled every cupboard in the room that I can find. I detest when the leftover bits of a notebook page torn from its binding find their way to the floor. I much prefer when days follow my lesson plans and often grow impatient when they do not.
But when I think about all the pretzel salt on my classroom floor in Philadelphia, I am reminded that teaching is inherently a bit messy.
By the end of the school day, a mound of to-be-graded papers appear on my desk and little scraps clutter the classroom floor. I scribble out lines in my plan book as I prepare a new lesson on percentages for my seventh-grade students because my first lesson missed the mark. Though I focus my attention on identifying the needs of each one of my students, I often struggle in translating these efforts into truly assisting and supporting them so they can achieve their goals. “What a mess,” I think at the end of a long day.
As middle school students grow into the responsibilities they are given and learn to use their big hearts for the good of our classroom community, there are bumps and little messes along the way. Growing up can be difficult, and many of my students must navigate the intersection of complicated emotions and experiences that they bring into school each day. But my own heart may be the messiest of all. Teaching makes clear to me my need to grow in patience and puts on display the times I fall short of loving God and others with a sincere heart. “What a mess,” I think at the end of a long day.
But amid all the messes, little miracles break through with a startling persistence.
Last Wednesday, I grew frustrated with myself when I could not seem to explain an important math concept to a student struggling to make sense of everything that I had written on the board. Later in the day, I watched a classmate patiently sit next to her and share the notes she prepared for the quiz at the end of the week. The miracle of her patience grew a bit more when the struggling student arrived the next morning ready and eager to learn again even when the learning had not come easy.
Last Friday, my eighth-grade students arrived for school Mass with half-tied ties, uneven collars popping out from their blazers, and a sluggish walk at such an early hour. And as they walked toward the altar to receive the Eucharist, I witnessed the miracle of Christ binding our class together. As they sang our closing song and began to collect the song sheets from the other students in the pews, I saw the miracle of a growing Church.
Teaching is helping me to become less frustrated with the messes and more focused on the miracles. I am learning, albeit quite slowly, that God draws near to my classroom and to these students in every possible moment. When I place my trust in Christ, I am asking Him to reveal where He has been present in the messes all along. I am grateful for teaching because it is showing me that grace comes to our aid amid any mess.
It turns out that little miracles are as numerous as the specks of pretzel salt on the floor.
Learn more about ACE's three pillars, and start your application at ace.nd.edu/teach!