LISTENING AND LEARNING TOGETHER

A fifth-grade teacher looks forward to returning to the classroom.

Erich Marthaler teaches girls and boys between nine and eleven years of age in the fifth grade of an elementary school in San Luis Obispo. California. Kim Shippey invited him to talk about some of the challenges—and joys—of starting a new school year.

Let's talk first about your situation as a teacher. What's going through your mind as you get ready to return to the classroom?

I think the first word that comes to mind is excitement. At the beginning of my career, there may have been some trepidation or nervousness before school started, but having taught for going on 15 years now, I'm excited and looking forward to that first day.

Obviously, there are also times during the first few days, during the school year, and in a variety of other circumstances, when I'm challenged, and I have to deal with apprehension on my part or the students' part. But when I'm spiritually prepared, most of that falls away pretty quickly.

You have an eight-year-old son and daughter of your own, so it should be relatively easy for you to empathize with the kids you teach. I imagine you have a pretty good idea of how they're feeling as they come to "Mr. Marthaler's" classroom for the first time.

Oh, yes. I also appreciate the fact that, because I'm one of only a few male teachers on our particular campus, it's a new experience for most of the students. They're not sure what to expect, which makes them a bit apprehensive. For one thing, my physical appearance is different. I wear a ponytail, and I'm pretty tall. So the children form their own ideas about that, too. But I just laugh, and they soon get used to me.

Once the children are in my room that first day, they sense that there's real love and mutual respect in the air. This, I know, comes directly from God, and the children are open to receive it, as well. Right away, I feel their respect, and within a few hours they're responding to my sense of humor. And I think that comforts them.

Tell us about your spiritual preparation.

Well, I keep a sort of spiritual journal at home, in which I write down helpful ideas from my study of the Christian Science Bible Lessons that might help me in my teaching. For example, here's one: "We must look deep into realism instead of accepting only the outward sense of things. Can we gather peaches from a pinetree, or learn from discord the concord of being?" (Science and Health, p. 129).

And here's another one that I love: "As mortals gain more correct views of God and man, multitudinous objects of creation, which before were invisible, will become visible. When we realize that Life is Spirit, never in nor of matter, this understanding will expand into self-completeness, finding all in God, good, and needing no other consciousness" (p. 264).

Many of us have a tendency as human beings to look at the material picture, whereas the ideas in those quotes say we need to turn away from that view. That's really helpful when I'm facing what seems to be a difficult situation in the classroom. It's all about seeing spiritually—looking for the God-based qualities in people and in life, and embracing them truly, deeply, in my own heart and consciousness. Then I find that those qualities manifest themselves in my own experience, too.

And those spiritual insights help lift off the labels, don't they?—avoid the stereotyping, the profiling. They might even stop you from initially looking back at school records to see what you might expect of a certain child who's been promoted to your class.

Absolutely. And I can speak to this from two different perspectives—as a teacher, and as a parent. Let me give you an example of something that happened several years ago when our daughter was entering first grade at a brand new elementary school. She was placed in a K-1 combination classroom, which is relatively unusual. Teachers have two different age groups in the same classroom, and two completely different sets of standards to teach.

Unfortunately, my concern about my daughter being in this type of situation clouded my thinking to the point where my wife and I actually tried to speak to the principal, and I wrote a letter saying I preferred that she not be in a K-1 class. At the same time, my eye caught those Science and Health quotes in my journal, and I began to pray about the situation.

At once it struck me that this was not the right way to approach it at all. I had to let go of my own human opinions and assumptions, and turn wholeheartedly to God, who was completely in control of the situation. I had to turn away from the "outward sense of things" and focus trustingly on the spiritual picture. So I abandoned my own preconceived ideas of the way things should be.

The end result was an amazing experience. In fact, the entire academic year was fantastic. The teacher turned out to be one of the best teachers we've ever had for our children. And it was a wonderful opportunity for our daughter to grow, and share, and help others, too—even though she was the first grader and there were kindergartners in there, too. I even had the opportunity to volunteer on one of my days off and help the kindergartners with their reading skills. That was a really amazing experience for us all, and a great healing for me as a parent.

And how did your daughter come through it?

She had no problem at all. She just needed to see the change in our thinking and in our way of looking at the situation. At the beginning she seemed to agree that "maybe this isn't the best place for me." But she went along quite happily with the situation, and her thought is so pure and good that it didn't affect her experience one way or the other.

In California schools, in particular, you seem to be dealing every day with cultural, ethnic, and language issues. And sheer numbers. Are there ways for you to contribute spiritual ideas to the blending of this diverse population?

Yes, yes, and yes! My particular school is a dual-immersion school. Fifty percent of our student population speak Spanish as their primary language. The other 50 percent speak English. But this wonderful situation offers an opportunity for children to help one another when they're being taught in their respective language groups.

I love the idea that we're all sons and daughters of one infinite, good, God—including every child I teach. It simplifies everything when I think through the synonyms for God given in Science and Health before I go into the classroom—Principle, Mind, Soul, Spirit, Life, Truth, Love (see p. 587). Those are the qualities I'd like to see expressed by everyone there, at all times. And I find that if I take that approach with each lesson, most difficulties just melt away.

When I realize I'm becoming too caught up in test scores and the disappointing results I sometimes get—especially among those who are new to the United States or to our school or whatever—I try to divorce myself from this picture of children as a bunch of numbers. They're not. Each one has a name. They come into my classroom as individuals. They reflect the same divine Mind that I reflect. And there's an amazing array of qualities they express. It's my job to let them bloom. I can't force the petals open. But I must take the time to water the ideas they represent and make sure they get enough sunlight.

Mary Baker Eddy spoke about talents and their improvement. She wrote: "God is not separate from the wisdom He bestows. The talents He gives we must improve" (Science and Health, p. 6). And for me, as a teacher, that means I need to recognize that every child has individual talents, and it's my job to nurture them so that those talents improve. That's a pretty big job. But the way I look at it, it's an honor.

Do you have an example of nurturing that brought healing results?

Well, I recall a time when I was teaching a class of about 30 third-graders, and things weren't going well. It was the second year of my teaching career, and I had a lot to learn. Within a few months I was ready to give up. Several of the students had come in labeled ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), which didn't make it any easier for me.

One day, one of these boys got upset for no definable reason. He dumped his whole desk, and walked out of the room. Immediately I prayed to know that I wasn't really the one in charge. God ruled in that classroom.

When the boy came back at the end of the day when most of the students had left, I asked him to pick everything up, but he refused. I said quietly but firmly, "You need to pick it up." And he continued to argue. Then he picked up a chair and held it above me, threatening to hurl it at me. I said, "I'm not moving." At that moment, there was probably a little bit of fear in my thinking, but I stood my ground. It was rather like David and Goliath in a sense, even though he was the smaller one.

For a few moments he glared at me, then threw the chair across the room, where it landed harmlessly against a desk. Then he went out of the door. I remained calm and quiet, trying to see the child of God in him, loving the boy as best I could, and forgiving him in my heart.

The boy was suspended for three days, and then called into the superintendent's office, to which I was also invited. During the boy's absence, I had refused to think of him as some sort of villain with an unflattering label attached to him, but instead as a child of God, reflecting God's undeviating, stable, totally predictable goodness.

At that meeting in the office, we talked about the need for calmness and cooperation on everyone's part, and the boy listened attentively. After a pause, a sense of mutual respect filled the room. Without a moment's hesitation, he gave me a hug, and I hugged him back. From that point on, there was more peace in my classroom, and a feeling of mutual respect, especially from that boy.

Several years later, I ran into him on the street, not far from the school where I'd taught, and he told me excitedly about the career he was starting. It was great to see him so happy and hear about what he'd been up to.

So what's your agenda for prayer as you get ready to go back to school?

That I become a better listener—for God's guidance, and to hear what the children are saying. You have to listen. A good teacher is a student, too. If I'm not open to learning myself, then how can I possibly teach them? My students never fail to teach me something new every day. It's amazing the opportunities I have to learn from them—if I'm listening, and if I'm in tune with what they're doing, and what they're trying to teach themselves and one another.

I believe gratitude is at the heart of teaching. It sparks growth in everyone involved in the situations you're facing together. I'm grateful that I have an opportunity to teach such amazing children—that I have so many opportunities to grow as a teacher, and that I have the spiritual tools to do that. css

FOR MORE ON THIS TOPIC

To hear Erich Marthaler speak on this topic, tune in to Sentinel Radio during the week of August 29–September 4, 2009. For a listing of broadcast locations and times, go to www.sentinelradio.com. To purchase a download of this radio program, #935, on or after August 29, go to www.sentinelradio.com and click on Audio Download Store.

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