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How do you serve students in need? Drop the “savior complex”

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I can’t save my students. I can’t save myself. And I can only make a real difference after I have embraced that.

As a teacher of minority students in an urban setting, I’m often praised for my “humanitarian” efforts, and the more I hear it, the more uncomfortable I become – not only because I am a privileged, educated white man, but because my ultimate motivation is neither sentimental benevolence or altruism, or even a simple impulse to do good. Rather, it is a relationship with the One who – through that work – reveals more to me about myself every day.

I’ve known many well-meaning teachers who got involved in urban education with strongly-felt humanitarian aspirations. Most have burned out by their third year. They begin hoping to effect dramatic changes in their students’ lives only to realize, with disappointment, that it is much harder than they anticipated, and that so much is out of their control.

Fortunately, I haven’t grappled with that kind of disillusionment and exhaustion, largely because I’ve found that my students’ needs far surpass what I could ever offer them. In fact, I’m just as impoverished and in need of help as they are. All it takes is a curious student with a question that stumps me, and then I realize, once again, I am not these students’ savior.

My favorite example might be that of my student Andrew, who hated me from day-one because I am “the religion teacher.” A determined atheist, he made it his business to prove that Christianity is as irrational as believing in unicorns, by asking every question that he could possibly think of.

I discovered that Andrew’s mother belonged to a fundamentalist Christian sect and used her faith to manipulate Andrew, and that information made me move away from trying to convince him, with the help of my “profound” wisdom and piety, that Christianity is reasonable and that “Jesus is the answer” to everything.

This led me to begin praying for Andrew daily, and to ask Christ to reveal his will to me through this relationship. As Andrew continued to challenge me, his skepticism became an opportunity for me to examine my own beliefs and need for God. This relationship – which I started out seeing as a “project” – eventually became a personal experience of spiritual growth and awareness. On the day before Andrew graduated, I thanked him for teaching me. And – for a total turn of tables – he, the cold heartless atheist, gave me a big hug.

German philosopher Max Scheler would say that this “turning of tables” is the characterization of the difference between secular humanitarianism and Christian love:

The pathos of modern humanitarianism, its clamor for greater sensuous happiness … its whole revolutionary spirit—all this is in characteristic contrast to the luminous, almost cool spiritual enthusiasm of Christian love.

For those teachers are determined to “make a difference” in the lives of materially impoverished youth, and who are frustrated with the “not enough-ness” of their efforts, ask yourself first what you have in common with your students. What, as humans, do we all need more than anything?

When we begin to recognize that we have the same fundamental need for fulfillment as everyone else, and that we are not capable of saving anyone from this need, the sooner our savior complex will fall away, and we will begin to actually serve people in a helpful way. We will be on the path to pointing them to the Savior, the One who can fulfill this need.

What keeps me from burning out is the recognition that, though I may be more materially wealthy than my students, I am just as needy as they are. I have the same thirst to love and be loved – so much so that no other human being can quench it. Rather, I rely on other people to point me toward the eternal fountain where this infinite need will be met.

So whether I’m working with rich, preppy students in the suburbs, or students whose families are on welfare, what unites us is our need for someone greater than us all to answer to our desire to be infinitely loved. I am more free when I look at my students, not as people I need to save, but as fellow companions on the journey toward the true Savior – whose very being is infinite love. My work as a teacher becomes more realistic and fulfilling when I view it as a matter of guiding my students toward that “something greater”– God Himself.

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