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Re-forming the Formers: Self-Examination for Teachers

Written on November 7th, 2014

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The invitation to “attend to your own formation” is perhaps the most obvious take-away for teachers in Jamie Smith’s Re-forming the Formers lecture (the last lecture summary in our series).

As a teacher, care about your own formation, says Smith, so that you can invest in formation of the students in your classrooms.

“If we, as educators are going to be part of a project of education that seeks to form the whole student—a holistic project where we are apprenticing students to love the good, the true and the beautiful revealed to us in Christ—then, we need to be reformed,” he says. “We need to be transformed.”

In other words, care for your own self so that you can care for the child next to you.

If teachers want to lead their students into a life of virtue, they’ll need to attend to their own lives first, reflects Smith. They’ll need to live as children of Jesus, who are constantly being formed by the Holy Spirit.

After all, he points out, if you want to model virtue for your own students, you’ll need to be on your way to becoming virtuous, too.

The “great liberating truth” about this ‘virtue project’, says Smith, is that we are never done. It takes time—and it can’t be neatly checked off any teacher’s to-do list. The project of virtue formation is an ongoing sanctification process—a continuous (at times difficult) journey towards holiness that isn’t ever finished.

An important question emerges here: What sort of practices will sustain Christian educators along this challenging road?

For Smith, sustenance begins with good worship practices. But what characterizes “good” worship?

In Smith’s view, good worship should involve practices that allow for an intentional “rehearsal of the biblical story.” It should be both tactile, physical and loaded with symbolic resonance. Ideally, it will be experienced through the learned rhythms that a community lives into everyday.

It’s in this kind of worship that the imaginations of teachers can be shaped by the overarching story of the gospel, says Smith—and where they can attend to their own virtue formation, so that they can attend to the virtue formation of their students.

Towards the end of his lecture, Smith shares some ‘micro-practices’ that will help teachers sustain the vocation of teaching virtue. His suggestions come directly from the Daily Examen, a mode of prayerful reflection developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Typically prayed at lunchtime and the end of day, the Examen includes five simple aspects designed to help us detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. They are as follows:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.

Smith also urges teachers to take part in practices that specifically serve the students they teach. These small, hospitable acts can also be a gift for the teacher. That’s something he learned through the routine practice of preparing coffee for students in his morning philosophy class.

“By having to commit to them to make coffee before class everyday, it also meant I was thinking about them before they came. And then it turned into praying for them. It actually turned out to be better for me,” says Smith. “I was in a space now, of really listening to the Lord and trying to be attentive to my own inner life and my expectations … there was a beautiful dynamic that I wasn’t even looking for, where by trying to be attentive to my students it ended up being a way for the spirit speaking into my own life. I was gifted by that process.”

With this lecture series wrapping up, educators are reminded that teachers of virtue are made, slowly and over time. They are not born or simply produced through a diploma.

The final thought for Smith’s lecture is one found throughout all of his lectures—that we, as habit forming human beings, are shaped through practices—some of which have the great potential to bend our loves and longings towards Christ and his Kingdom.

Click here to listen to the full audio version of Smith’s lecture.