I begin each class session by telling students that I am glad to see them. I end every session by thanking them for coming. A student asked me why. I replied, “Because every time you come to class I am honored and blessed.” “Wow,” he said, “I never thought of it that way.” Neither had I until I gained a deeper understanding of my calling as a “servant teacher.”
After 40 years in Christian higher education, I have concluded that the most important virtue for faith-based teaching is gratitude. When our hearts are bathed in gratitude, we see our students and our work as wonderful gifts. We build immunity to the cynical, critical attitudes that can infect academe, including Christian universities.
In fact, I believe that gratitude is the missing first chapter in books on Christian pedagogy. Consequentially, that’s how I open my new book, Servant Teaching: Practices for Renewing Christian Higher Education. Before we practice our instructional skills, we need to prepare our hearts. We tend to take our work for granted. Instead of seeing it as a gift from God, we might view it as a burden imposed upon us. Our work becomes more of a duty than a gift and more of a routine than an adventure.
Let’s give thanks to God for opening the door for us to serve. Let’s also thank our Lord for our students, the institution that employs us, our time and energy, our abilities, the staffs that serve us, the teachers and authors and mentors who helped us earn our academic degrees, the colleagues who support and encourage us, and even the freedom to make mistakes.
Let’s add the bigger picture—the grace that saves and sustains us. We inherit the very love of God. We are God’s children, called to instruct those who are grafted into the same covenantal love. The more deeply we know that we are unconditionally loved, the more deeply we can love our students.1 “We love,” John says, “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
When we lose the joy of salvation, we can become joyless teachers. And our students sense this; the ways we present ourselves to them verbally and nonverbally can suggest that we are simply going through the motions of teaching, just like they might be going through the motions of learning. We need practices to help us continually renew our hearts in the light of every good gift from God.
I thank God for another day of life as soon as I wake up. I ask God to make me a blessing to others that day. Otherwise, my thoughts turn to the chores and stresses of the coming hours; my prayers become petitions without doxologies.
I associate the campus entrance sign with God’s goodness. As I enter campus, I remind myself that all the buildings, instruction, and learning are gifts from God. I am there as God’s guest, called and equipped. When I see the campus sign, it lifts my heart in preparation for service.
I created a gratitude board in my home office. On a corkboard I post encouraging notes from others, Scripture, photographs, thoughts, hymns, ticket stubs, and other mementos that remind me of God’s abundant blessings. One photo shows me at the grave of my alcoholic father, forgiving him for abuse; overcoming my resentment toward him is an amazing gift from God. I take naps on the sofa below the gratitude board, savoring items on the board as I drift off to sleep.
I placed my gratitude board on the wall where I see it each time I leave my home office. No matter what I am doing in the office on a given day, I want to be reminded when I depart that God is in charge and has blessed my life. Finally, the gratitude board serves as a kind of benediction, reminding me when I leave the room to go forth to love and serve the Lord.
You and I are beloved recipients of many gifts. The more we recognize this, the more inclined we will be to offer our lives gratefully in the service of our students. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) wrote, “The more surely you know yourself loved, the easier you will find it to love in return.”2 Gratitude is our way of saying “yes” to God, to ward off what Søren Kierkegaard called the “sickness” of ingratitude.3
Gratitude nurtures servant teaching. There is no secret formula. Our thankfulness just needs to be wholehearted. The apostle Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). If our attitude toward our Redeemer lacks thankfulness, then our attitude toward our students will as well. The psalmist asks, “How shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?” (Ps. 116:12) We respond by praising God for every good gift, including the opportunity to be servant teachers.
This blog post is adapted from Quentin Schultze’s new book: Servant Teaching: Practices for Renewing Christian Higher Education.
- Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 65.
- Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, ed. and trans. G. R. Evans (New York: Paulist, 1987), 179.
- Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, ed. Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA: Plough, 1999), 378. He added, “Christ has desired only one kind of gratitude: the praise that comes from the transformed individual.” Provocations, 410.