Sunday, July 15, 2012

Going Nowhere Fast

Have you ever watched that show "Undercover Boss" ? It is one that I catch on occasion and I really like it. I will never forget the episode where the CEO of Waste Management, while undercover, was part of a team that cleaned port-a-potties. The gentleman that he rode with, Fred, was amazing to me. He whistled and sang and was probably the happiest outdoor toilet scrubber I have ever seen! He made sure that port-a-potty was spotless! Fred used a strange vacuum to clean out the nastiness and then had an array of cleaners and scrubbers to clean the little outhouse from top to bottom.  It was probably cleaner (I hate to admit this) than my own commode at home! On top of his incredible work ethic, he was joyful; not just happy, but sincerely joyful. The entire time he was vacuuming or scrubbing, Fred was smiling, cracking jokes, making the CEO laugh, and singing. He made the job seem so fun and when the cameras filmed the CEO's thoughts, he was amazed at how Fred took the most menial, nasty job possible and made it something that was so enjoyable and fun! If you would like to watch the trailer for this episode, I posted the link below.

That episode aired as a re-run sometime around the first part of the year. While I watched this man take cleaning a toilet so seriously and have so much fun with it, I immediately felt humbled. You see this last year as a ninth grade Algebra I teacher was one of the most difficult years in my career that I have ever had. I am ashamed to say I did not handle the difficulty with as much grace as I should have.

I worked incredibly hard in my life to become a teacher and truly love the ability to watch a student start to understand something that they have lost hope in. Algebra is hardly ever a class that students are excited to be placed in, and many feel that math is something they will never be able to master. My goal is to teach in such a way that my students see that they not only can do the math, but sometimes, if they aren't careful, they might actually have fun doing it!

This last school year, my school went through a crazy amount of change. Of course change is always difficult. What made the year most difficult for me was that people who had been in place that encouraged creativity in teaching and who fostered a family atmosphere in our school were replaced by those who wanted more "cookie cutter" teaching and frowned upon camaraderie between fellow teachers and employees. My teaching style was directly attacked often by my department leader and I spent much of my time defending methods that I knew from experience would get through to my students. Then to top it off, our team, people who had become my good friends, was specifically targeted and split up and moved to different campuses primarily because we are too loyal to one another and too supportive. The best way I can describe what happened this last year is that it was much like a hostile takeover in business. As a business move, it is smart to separate those who are fiercely loyal to one another and to a former employer because once removed from the group they are easier to control individually for newly placed management. It may be smart for business, but for me and my colleagues, it was devastating.

I was miserable and frustrated and spent much of my time working to hide that frustration from my students. I worried that my dissatisfaction with events and people I had no control over would transfer into my teaching. I worked incredibly hard to continue to give my students my all despite how I felt about things outside of my classroom. Unfortunately most of the people around me that I leaned on for support felt the same way I did. Dissatisfaction breeds dissatisfaction; anger breeds more anger. It became a vicious cycle of frustration, irritation and disappointment.

I debated leaving the district or at least looking for other teaching positions and I was so torn as to what to do. My daughter Amanda, who will be entering the 8th grade, has always said that she couldn't wait until she was at the same school where I taught and I was thinking of leaving a year before she had the chance. It was heart-wrenching.  I really did not want to leave. I graduated from the school where I teach and we live in the town where I teach so I feel really connected to this district. I love the students, many of whom are children of former classmates of mine. My fellow teachers and I had become incredibly close over the last few years; it was a lot like a second family. I even grew to appreciate some of the new administrators and began to form new relationships. Despite the good, there were certain people who seemed determined to control things in a very restrictive way and it was suffocating. I prayed and debated and struggled with direction. I went to my assistant principal at the time and even asked for a letter of recommendation. To my surprise she teared up and almost had me in tears! I told her I wasn't sure what I was going to do; that I was praying for God to lead me.
Amanda at her first cheer camp

As I was trying to figure out what to do for the coming year, I was participating in a weekly ladies' Bible study over Esther by Beth Moore. One week I was just in a state of turmoil and I really wanted out of the whole situation, but at the same time, I felt like I would be letting my daughter down and cause a whole new set of problems with working in a different district. We will only have one vehicle this next school year and the logistics of getting everyone where they need to be everyday will be tough enough even with Trey and I both working in the same city. I cannot imagine how we would manage if I worked in another district. Amanda had also just made cheerleader so I knew that would also factor into our schedule pretty heavily.  All this was weighing heavy on my mind and heart as I went to Bible study that Wednesday night and BAM!  God hit me with His word. Here was the focus verse :

Esther 4: 14b
  " And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Immediately I was hit with the realization that this was being spoken directly to me. Isn't it amazing how alive God's word is so long after the original text was written? It was as if the verse said, " Stephanie, who knows but that you became a teacher here for such a time as this one?" I remember thinking, "What God? You really want me to stay? In this mess? All my friends are leaving and the people are mean and...and...and..." My head and my heart were in quite an argument with God. I sat there after the study and just felt deflated and yet at the same time resigned to obedience. I was being called to stay in a very difficult situation. The interesting thing about it though is that after I decided I would stay, I was much less emotional about losing my team and much less worried about facing people who wanted me to fit my teaching style into their preset mold. I even emailed my administrator, the same one who wrote me the sparkling recommendation letter, and told her that in studying Esther, God told me to stay put. Her response was priceless. "Well thank God for Esther!" was all her email said. (Ironically, since that time, this administrator has found work in another district.)

The following week, God solidified His call for me through a student. Every year, there are certain students that I seem to connect with usually while they are going through something outside of school. I tend to "mother" a little bit at school and really look at my students as similar to nieces and nephews" not quite as close to my heart as my own children, but pretty darn close. When I see students who have to face adult problems and often face them very alone, my heart breaks for them. This last year I had a student whose father was dying. This young man was not the easiest student for other teachers, but for me, he was really well behaved. I honestly had no idea his father was ill until late in the year. This young man was one of those students that you heard things he had done in other classes or you saw him in the hall acting out, but for me he was always polite, hard-working , and usually on task. The worst problem I ever had from him was he fell asleep once. I found out later that he lived alone with his father who was dying. His mother had several other children but this was the only one who lived with the dad. One day, out of the blue, he came up to my desk and asked, "Mrs. Rieper, do you know James 1:1?" I was so taken aback and at first probably just looked puzzled. So he repeated his question. Now, most students know I am active in my church, (many of them attend or have visited my local church) but I don't preach to my students or quote scripture in class or anything like that. However, since the student asked, I was able to legally answer him so I looked it up. Here is what I read to him:

James 1:1 
 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:

The student shrugged his shoulders and walked off. Nothing that remarkable, right? But just wait...God had a bigger agenda. I glanced down at the following three verses:

James 1:2-4
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance  4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Let me tell you, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that those verses were meant for me, an Algebra teacher will do just fine. The student didn't even seem to want the verse he asked for and never asked me for another verse or anything Biblical. In fact I found out much later that he was not raised in church and only after his father passed he moved in with his mother and siblings began going to church and really searching out a better path for his life. He most likely had never read that scripture or even knew what it was about. Why would he ask me about it?  He ministered to me at a time when I needed to be reminded that God can use anyone to complete His plans; I need not worry because He was in control! I was just to be joyful and persevere! What a challenge in difficult situations! Yet at the same time, how liberating to know that God is so in control that a young, hurting man who did not even know Him as savior was the vessel for guidance for a child of God! Isn't that amazing?

So I had two unquestionable moments that I knew God was speaking directly to me; telling me the direction I needed to go.What direction was that? Nowhere. Stay put. God was telling me that He has a plan and for some reason I am needed to fulfill that plan right where I am. I know so often we want these kinds of answers; the kind that are undeniable. Ironically, God usually does tell us in an undeniable way. I think we just tend to brush past things and forget to really see and hear what He is trying to get through our thick heads! I had no choice but to either ignore my Lord and probably find myself in a more miserable situation or stay the course and obey the one who sees the whole picture! This time, I clung to Him and set myself to be obedient despite the emotions that tend to be overwhelming at times. I say "this time" because I cannot say that I have always followed Him so easily. Hopefully that means I am growing and becoming more mature in Christ; that is the goal anyway. I also found another verse that became my mantra at work on those days when other words kept wanting to escape my lips. I wrote it out and taped it to my computer monitor along with a sticky note that said "WHO KNOWS?". That verse is Colossians 3:23 and it gives me incredible focus.

Colossians 3:23
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters

This is the verse that makes me think of Fred from Undercover Boss. The verse says "whatever you do..." meaning even if you are cleaning toilets! Lucky for me, that is not my called profession right now, but what I am called to do is to teach and more importantly touch young people's lives. What a charge! I am so humbled that I have been selected to such an amazing opportunity! What I am doing when I teach these young students really has nothing to do with the people I work for. I am there to impact students, represent Christ, and hopefully teach them Algebra along the way. They don't know it, but I pray for them. Well some of them know it because I tell them, but most probably don't. When we take those dreaded state tests, I pray through my rosters, something a friend of mine used to do when we worked together. (I had never really thought about it until I saw her doing it and thought it was a wonderful idea.) When I am trying something new, I often pray that I will be clear and they will understand what I am trying to get across. I am not saying that I am this amazing Christian teacher, because I have such a long way to go, but I am learning how to become more and more Christlike even in my job.

 Being an educator, I am held to the laws that prohibit me from freely sharing the gospel to my classroom overtly, but my study of Esther taught me something pretty amazing about that also. Did you know that the entire book of Esther never, not once, mentions God? It doesn't refer to Him in any way, or to prayer even! It is a story of the deliverance of the Jews from annihilation but it never mentions that they are God's chosen people or that He rescued them. Yet, it is treated as though everyone who reads the story would just know that the hand of God is all over the story; it is a given. The closest Esther ever gets to mentioning God is when she calls for a fast, which traditionally was a period of intense prayer and abstinence from food or drink. Esther was in a position where her true identity as a Jew was not even known for a while and yet she managed to become a representative for them as well as for God. There is no doubt that she is following God as you read through the book, but His name never comes up! What a great way to describe my position as a teacher. I may not be able to mention His name, but I can sure do things that are unquestionably pointing His direction. My true boss is not a student, a parent, a department leader, a principal a superintendent or even the State Board of Education. My true master or boss is the Lord. When I take my eyes off of that truth, I usually start feeling irritated about situations at work that are out of my control. I have to work harder to remember the bigger picture as I do my job with all my heart. Since Jesus is a resident in my heart, then doing something with "all my heart" must include Him.

Undercover Boss never really told us that Fred is a Christian, but I like to think that the kind of joy he exhibited is impossible without Christ. This man lived out Colossians 3:23 in a way that inspires me to do the same. Who knows, maybe he was placed in that position to impact that CEO in a way that no one else could have?  I can hope that somehow I will have the enthusiasm, drive and unashamed joy in my job as Fred displayed while scrubbing the porta-potty! The main thing I must remember is that nothing I do is for a human master; absolutely nothing. So much more has changed even since I decided to follow the Lord's prompting and stay at my school. Much of it is not what I would classify as good, but I have a different perspective now and I realize that as long as I work with all my heart and keep Christ as the center of my focus, I can have a joy in my work despite the circumstances. My goal for the upcoming year is to look for the reason or reasons that God wanted me to stay. I need to do the best job I can as an Algebra teacher and as a Christian. I am also relieved, and Amanda is excited that it appears that I will be there when she comes through my school. It will take a lot of work on my part to not hold to the emotional reactions that I tend to have about situations and instead hang tight to the joy and direction God has given me. Who knows why I am supposed to stay, but I am so anxious to find out! I hope that I can stay focused and that when I do mess up and succumb to the emotions that I will see the verses on my computer screen or that someone or something will be sent my way to remind me that I am following the plan. I pray that you will be able to rest in his plan also. Who knows what is in store for you! Just that alone should spur us to excitement and joy!

Blessed more than I deserve,