As I get ready to return to school, I was thinking about the things I want my students to learn. The most important lesson for me to teach in the first few days is “You’re an expert in your own experience.”
The first few nervous days of school when students are trying to find their way are taxing and some students retreat into their comfortable space of shutting out the rest of the world. They don’t feel as their points of view matter or they are hesitant in making any points at all for fear that they may be criticized unfairly for making an obvious statement and labeled for the rest of the year.
There’s always that tight rope that teachers are walking to bring people into a healthy environment where students can feel safe in sharing. Teachers look for ways to get classes to open up and bond. I’m thinking of a few classes where I thought to myself, “this is going to be the longest year of my life. These kids will never open up”. I would ask a question and watch the room fall silent.
I remember when I was being evaluated in the first few days and my boss sat in the back of the room and had a bemused look on her face as the room fell silent and no one wanted to participate. I continued and looked to the back of the room, and the Dean was cringing in embarrassment. It could’ve been for me, the new teacher, but it may have been that she was embarrassed that no one would challenge himself to answer an easy question.
It was early. The class needed to find its voice. I had a few tricks up my sleeve, but it was going to take some time. It took some effort and a few creative exercises to help find the voice of the group. Interestingly enough, by the end of the year, this class became one of my favorites, and I couldn’t get them to shut up.
The group voice comes from individuals who are willing to open their hearts and speak what they believe to be true. Finding our voice in this world is important. How we manage to find it is critical to shaping our experience in the world.
Teenage students especially are self-conscious and just trying to manage to find their way through life in school. They think others are looking at them, judging them, and critically analyzing their every move when in fact the others are just thinking the same about themselves. They forget to realize that they are not alone in their insecurity, but every other person at their school is just as insecure.
My goal in class is to remind them that their voice needs to be heard. In social justice class, I remind them, “You are the voice for the voiceless.” Your voice needs to be heard. “If not you, then who?” Most importantly, I try to remind them, “You are an expert in your own experiences.” If you don’t share what you know it may be lost to the world and that’s a tragedy. Yes, a tragedy.
No two fingerprints are the same and no two people are the same, but we’re all made in the image of God. Our experiences are unique expressions of God. Though our experiences may be similar, they are made unique by our perception of the experience. You may be the greatest mind in the world, but you’re still a qualification of your own experience and still hold blind spots to what another may be experiencing.
The emotions you experience, the feelings that stay with you as a result of the experience, the imprinting that comes from conditioned responses to certain experiences, all add up to the sum total of who you are in facing and dealing with life’s challenges.
In the end, we need each other to help us understand perspectives. That’s why it’s important for teachers to create a space where experiences can be shared. It is in the formation of the new self in Christ that we create church. “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple of the Lord; in whom you are also being built together spiritually into a dwelling place of God.” Ephesians 2: 21-22.
Creating a sanctuary is helping students recognize that the church is made of people coming together to share in a common experience of what it means to be human. St. Paul’s letters reveal that we are to be a community of believers sharing that premise of our humanity.
“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Romans 8: 15-17.
So our expertise comes from the foundation of who we are and sharing in the experience of God’s life through us with others. Through the experience of our sinfulness and the redemption of Christ we become living teachers of the word.
Owning our trials and triumphs, giving witness to the power to overcome such adversity makes us living, breathing expressions of God’s lessons for humanity. Our ability to rise above our shortcomings with the full knowledge of God’s love for us can set an example for others. We can all become experts in expressing God’s love through our being.