By Anna McShane — 

They huddled behind their desks, tears welling up, spilling down their cheeks.

“Are they leaving right now?” one girl asked.

“Who will teach us?” another said, wiping her eyes.

“But we love them,” they all cried. “We are a family.”

Teaching English

Teaching conversational English offers rich opportunities to engage students in spiritual conversations.

Teaching English to university students in East Asia is hard work; loving them is not. Today we saw what love can do in one short week. Seven days ago, Alec* and Sara* were given a class of 10, mostly girls. For one week, the couple gently worked with their “kids” to help them overcome their fear of speaking. Through a wide variety of interactive activities, by the fifth day, they were talking, laughing, and singing together. Friday they celebrated “Christmas” by telling the nativity story with little figures on paper cups, making ornaments, and decorating a stick into a Christmas tree.

Then Sara got word that her mom was dying. By Monday morning, flights were booked, and we went into class with Alec and Sara to talk to their students. Tears came quickly to the students’ eyes.

Sara told how her birth mom had died when she was a little child, but the woman who lay dying – a relative – had taken her home and raised her. “I had no one to love me, but she adopted me and has loved me all my life. I have to go be with her.”

With more tears and hugs, we took the class down the hall to join another couple’s class. These teachers had prepped their students. Every other seat was left open so that the new learners were immediately enveloped in the fold of the class.

“Remember how Sara said she was adopted and loved when she was left an orphan?” I asked the weeping students. “We don’t want you to be orphans. These teachers want to adopt you and make you their own.” By lunch the orphans were settling into their new class; by the end of the day, they had stopped weeping. “Give them another two days,” said their experienced adoptive teachers. “We’ll love them into a class.”

As we drove Sara and Alec to the airport, we talked about the effect of love in the classroom. How can it be that after only five days a class is moved to weep when their teachers suddenly have to leave? Has no one ever genuinely loved them for who they are, not what they can produce?

Each year we hear stories of family dysfunction, pressure to succeed, odious comparisons that the students face at home, parents who say, “You aren’t as good as your cousin/my co-worker’s son/etc.” Teachers in this country are not encouraged themselves or taught to praise or encourage their students. They teach subjects, not students. Rarely is there any relationship between the student and the teacher that includes warmth.

Teachers are equally pressured to succeed and required to publish or perish, all while teaching huge classes. They are monitored with video cameras, never allowed to sit down, pulled and prodded to produce higher test scores among their students. Little wonder that students feel no love in the classroom.

Enter the teacher who loves without measure, who loves with the genuine, unselfish, overwhelming love of Jesus. English is the entrance card, but love is the recipe to influence lives. English is taught well – this is not a lovefest with no content or rigor – but life-changing values are communicated in the process.

The older teachers, the ones who are the age of parents and grandparents, often leave the deepest mark on their students.

Alec and Sara are gone, but they have left fingerprints of love all over 10 young adults who felt, if only for one week, like they were totally accepted and loved.

What better way to introduce them to the Lord who loved us while we were yet sinners?

*not their real names