This is turning out to be an emotional day for me. I have accepted a job offer that will take me out of the classroom, working at an assessment body. It was not an easy decision to make, but I have come to realise that in order to influence education more meaningfully, I have to have a voice that carries weight outside of any individual school. In order to serve my country’s children better, I need to lose direct contact with them. It was a bittersweet revelation.
In the almost two decades that I have been in the classroom, I have been continually humbled by the responsibility entrusted to me. I have been shaped profoundly by those in my care. They have taught me about courage in adversity, about being humble, about how to accept my own strengths and forgive my own failings, about challenging my preconceptions and questioning the validity of my worldviews. The young people who have passed through my classes over the years have all made me a better man than I was when I first arrogantly stepped into a classroom in 1998, assuming that I had all the answers.
Nowadays I have more questions than answers, coupled with the wisdom one only gains from experience, to guide inquiring hearts and minds. Perhaps one day I will be called back to the classroom. I pray for it. If not, there are some things that every young person should hear at least once in their school careers. So to all the young people I have ever taught, and to those whom I regret I will never have the honour of teaching, I want to share some of what I have gained over the years.
First, I want to apologise. I need to say sorry that I have not always been a good example. Teachers should, above all, aim at being role models. It should never be merely about grades and academic achievements. Imparting knowledge and skills without developing the sound character required to wield them is a dangerous failing. And one only learns sound moral character by example. Young people, as much as they will claim autonomy, are impressionable. And I am painfully aware that I have not always made the right impression.
Too often I have spoken carelessly, scattering words as early farmers scattered seed, heedless of where they land and how they grow, forgetting that vessels of such power need to be planted carefully and frugally. I have deeply wounded many with words that can never be unspoken, though now I wish they could be. There are no apologies that will suffice. I pray that you found other voices that would help define you, apart from my narrow categorisations, and that you plucked the weeds of my indiscretions from the ground of your sense of self.
I apologise for the broken promises and lies. I own that there were many times when the message implicit in my life was not one that would draw one to the beauty of Jesus. I just pray that somehow you will come into contact with somebody whose lives will show you what mine could not: that Christianity is about neither doctrine nor morality. It is about God’s yearning to restore life to the abundance it lost with our sinfulness. I am sorry for the times I have made it about something else.
I was touched today by how many young people were crying at my going. I realise what a tremendous responsibility the position of a teacher holds. How I wish we could learn to use it for more than mere academics.
Young people, the education system is deeply flawed. It cares more about its political and economic agendas than it does about you. But there are very many in the system who do not think that way. They care more than you know about you. I have had the privilege of serving with many of them. They see what the system often does not: that you are precious. You are powerful. You matter. I am not talking about your achievements, your skills, your knowledge. I am talking about you. You – as a human being – matter. The fact that the system does not see it does not make it less true.
One of the reasons I will be so sad to leave the classroom is this: I have seen so much brokenness over the years. It is heartbreaking to watch young people suffer inside simply because those adults who should have known better could not shoulder the responsibilities they ought to have. I have seen in the writings of so many – too many – young people the tragic consequences of irresponsible adults who forgot what it means to simply love. And I have been allowed, in my own imperfect and limited way, to bring something of Christ’s healing and unconditional love to those situations. It is hard to give that up.
So this is my message to every child I ever taught, and to those I wish I could have. It is the message I give every year to our graduating pupils. Now I am the one leaving. But the message is no less appropriate:
Let me start by saying thank you. I love my job, because every day I get to catch a glimpse of the future of the country I love. It is a country blighted by a hateful past, and many don’t see any hope. But I do. Daily I get to see the beauty of our future. And the beauty is you. You have such wisdom, such a clear sense of your values and your missions, you have beautiful dreams that will transform lives and bring hope. How can I not rejoice? I see what few others are privileged enough to see: the hand of my God at work in the lives of the leaders of tomorrow. Thank you for the blessing you have given me: the chance to be a part of His restorative work.
Never forget who you are: as children of God, through Christ, you have inherited a beauty and goodness that cannot be erased. There will be times when you doubt that, when the darkness and corruption of the world seem insurmountable, and when you feel inadequate to face the challenges of life. In those times, remember who you are: trust that God can see your value even when you do not: trust in His wisdom and not your own. Despair will seek you out and try to claim you for its own. Remember that you are a child of the King.
But remember, too, that you are not the only child. Every other living soul is loved by God. You are precious to Him, but every person you meet is too. Treat everybody with the grace and respect owed to a child of God. You are too important to live only for yourself. You will find your deepest fulfilment when you are courageous enough to accept your God-given gifts and beauty, and humble enough to use that to serve a people who are often undeserving of your service. But God loves them. You are no better than them, but nor are you any less valuable.
May you always remember that you make your own second chances. No matter what you have been through, or what you have done, all that matters is what you choose from here on. God’s sacrifice was once for all. The power of guilt and despair is broken. Stand up, see with clarity the vision he has placed in your heart; cling faithfully to godly principles; strive with everything you have to fulfil the mission, and you cannot but succeed.
I am proud of every one of you. I will love you, and cherish the richness you have brought to my life long after you have forgotten me. Where I have fallen short in working out my mission in your lives, I hope you may find the grace to pardon me. I pray that despite all I have done poorly, that you will be able to use what I got right to serve and to lead.
May God bless and guide you always