I recently enjoyed one of the perks of being a teacher, as I sat outside at a café and read the newspaper. Summer is winding down, evidenced by the children in bright orange shirts walking toward the charter school around the corner. One of my friends and colleagues from the South already has been back in the classroom for two weeks, and my own students report back after Labor Day.

I have one week left to steal a few hours in the sun with coffee and a crossword—a few hours in which I can reflect on my hopes and prayers for the new school year.

Cultivating Our Students

I pray for teachers to have the strength of heart required to allow our students to flourish.

In more than a decade of teaching, I have learned that academic success will come to fruition only when students feel rooted in an environment of love and respect. However, we cannot offer our students these things if we ourselves are not at peace on a personal level with who we are and what we are worth.

At some point in every year of my career, I have spoken out of impatience in a manner that frustrated, disappointed, or even frightened a student. When I made the jump from high school to elementary school two years ago, I figured this trend would cease—fourth graders aren’t deliberately antagonistic like teenagers, I thought.  But after catching myself speaking too sternly to my students on several occasions, I had to ask myself, What is going on in my own heart that a 9-year-old can rattle me so much? I had to see that my own insecurities were needling their way to the surface—not because of my students’ seeming lack of respect (in every instance, after all, the kids were acting just like kids), but because of my own unsettled heart.

If I fail to root my identity in Christ, then even good things—like respect from colleagues or a well-managed classroom—will disappoint, for these inevitably falter from time to time.

Anchoring Our Communities

I pray that our schools would be bedrocks for our neighborhoods.

Each Saturday morning, my wife and I pour our coffee into travel mugs and walk to a bench behind the Natural History Museum to watch our neighborhood come to life. Invariably, a student of mine will pass by with his or her parents on the way to synagogue and will stop to say hello. In these brief interactions with my students and their families, we bond beyond the walls of the school as we discover that we share the streets that connect the school and the stores where we shop and the restaurants where we eat and the places where we worship.

In what, to me, is a special symbolism, the synagogue that my students attend is on the same street as my church. When I see my students turn up West 83rd Street, I think of the threads that tie their Judaism to my own faith. More than church, though, education is something that everyone has experienced at some time, a commonality that offers schools a chance to become important parts of local communities. In neighborhoods of high need, schools can become safe havens.

Renewing Our World

I pray for unity with our profession and equity for those who do not have equal access to educational resources.

The question I’m most often asked about inequity in education is, “Do you think it’s possible to fix education?” My experience—which has crossed grade levels, school structures, and geographic regions—has led me to the answer: “I don’t think education is broken.” When competent teachers, motivated and healthy students, and community resources merge, I’ve seen some amazing things happen in classrooms.

Jesus told us that the poor would always be with us (Matt. 26:11; cf. Deut. 15:11) and, likewise, I think failing schools will always be with us. But we must work to make education more equitable—both for individuals and systemically. If we are to reduce inequity in education, one of the many ways we can start is by disabling the barriers that prevent competent and passionate educators from collaborating on the small solutions that make a difference.

For the church, this means we must pray for the hearts of educators. Pray that we will find the grace to drop our defenses and the humility to learn from others in the field who may not share our politics. Pray that public, private, and charter schools can exist in a cooperative system where each feeds off of the others’ best practices. And pray that we will refrain from making education an idol, that we will see education as one element among many through which God works to put his character and glory on display so that we might know him (Acts 17:27).