by Annie Mertaugh
This article was originally published in PCJH’s Fall 2022 Pinnacle, “Living Our Faith”
When I got my first teaching job over a decade ago, I had a very clear vision of the kind of teacher I would be: strict and snappy with a sarcastic sense of humor that students may or may not pick up on. My drill sergeant nature and nothing-but-the-best work acceptance policy would ensure my students met the mark. Needless to say, this vision never came to fruition. In fact, some might say I have the opposite demeanor in the classroom.
This is my 13th year teaching Spanish at Jackson Hole Middle School. I feel blessed to be surrounded by dynamic, creative and energetic young people every day, and participate in an exchange in which I learn as much from them as they do from me. At school, I see my preteen students experience the highest of highs, living a care-free life of fun, learning, and endless outdoor recreational opportunities. I also see them at their lowest of lows, battling poverty, depression, anxiety, family unrest, fear, and a stress to fit in like perhaps no other age group feels to this degree. Kids want to be accepted by their peers, to feel safe with those who surround them, and to be loved by the adults they spend their days with at school. Kids want love in all of its various middle school forms.
Love is such a complex word. Teachers sprinkle the phrase, “I love my students” all over the place–from newsletters to Instagram posts to conversations at the grocery store. How is it possible for a teacher to love all of their students, each and every year?! Can I honestly say that I have loved each of the 2,000+ students that have passed through the doors of my classroom? Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes in a middle school classroom can understand that this is a long shot considering the “special energy” that this age group is prone to display.
The thing that made me realize my faith as a young person has to do with love. As a teen, I remember feeling overwhelmed with emotion every time a YoungLife leader spoke about God’s unconditional love for me. I’d get choked up and teary singing songs about this love. This involuntary response my body produced shined a spotlight on the power of God’s love, and sparked my faith as a teen going through the highs and lows of growing up.
To this day, I have the same involuntary response when I think about God’s love for us–goosebumps, tears, allll the emotions. It seems like a huge thing in my life. So I suppose I try to emulate this love in my vocation, as I feel there’s nothing my eleven and twelve-year-old students could use more.
I show my students love whether they have perfect manners or are just getting the hang of saying “thank you.” I show my students love during a hallway conversation about wandering eyes during a test. I try to use loving body language when redirecting behaviors or delivering a consequence. I strive to let empathy, kindness and respect drive my practices. I teach forgiveness and acceptance. My hope is that students feel safe and cared for, and that perhaps my modeling of these traits might rub off a little, too.
I pray for students–the hard cases that keep me up at night as well as the child who seems happy-go-lucky on the outside but skillfully hides a crippling struggle. I pray for all young people, seeing on a daily basis the atrocities they are up against in this social media-fueled world. I pray that I can help young people learn the skills they need to lead happy and healthy lives and contribute to bettering our world. It’s not uncommon for teachers to doubt whether they are having any impact at all, and I am no stranger to these thoughts, so I pray this prayer a lot.
While I didn’t end up being the firecracker of a teacher I envisioned as a 21 year old, I am grateful for all that I have learned about the profession and myself. I hope that as my faith continues to grow, my skills as a teacher and an advocate for young people also expand and transform my classroom practices. How wonderful it is that each of us, in our unique vocations, has the ability to share our faith in varied and authentic ways! Through our 9 to 5s or remote gigs, whether we are strict or softies, we can all be messengers of God’s hope and love.