Show Up. Listen. Tell the Truth.

From February 4-6, over fifty chaplains and teachers of religion gathered at Virginia Theological Seminary for the 2010 ChapToR conference. Amidst the ever-falling snow, we reflected together on the notions of chaplain as teacher and teacher as chaplain.

On Friday morning, Dr. Elisabeth Kimball, Director of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Seminary, talked about the “accidental teacher.” Many in the room readily admitted to being “accidental” teachers in the literal sense: those who found themselves in a school classroom serendipitously, less an intentional act than an unfolding journey to an unexpected place.
But Lisa also talked about the accidental moments that all teachers encounter, indeed that any adult in relationship with young people encounter: the unplanned interaction, the unexpected question, the reaching out for a comforting hand or wise counsel. The moments when we each become a different kind of “accidental teacher.” What young people need and want during such accidental moments cannot be scheduled or taught in a course, she noted, but requires an intentional and well-grounded presence on our part.

Lisa shared three things that young people say they most want from the adults in their lives: to listen, to show up, and to tell the truth. These mandates require us to make and take time, to be open, and to be authentic. Unfortunately, school life and life itself work against us. Over-scheduled days, multiple obligations, and the imperative to cover a subject area or prepare the next lesson make it difficult to be fully present and truly listen. As teachers and chaplains, we can find ourselves defined by external notions of what we “ought” to be or say, or by students’ own tendency to equate our role with our person. All of this means that we miss opportunities to be the kind of authentic presence and to engage in the not-always-comfortable truth-telling that young people crave.

It is hard to “show up, listen, and tell the truth.” But Lisa reminded me that our schools, families, and churches can and really should be places where young people can have caring adults who do just that; where they can be in relationship with adults who “see” them, “hear” them, and courageously engage with them on the difficult and profound questions of life and the spirit. These are perhaps the greatest gifts that we as “accidental teachers” can give to our students.