Some of the deepest lessons I’ve learned about teaching came from spending my Wednesday nights in front of a group of adults who spoke almost none of my native language. I learned to show warmth as a vehicle for problem-solving, to laugh at myself when I needed to physically act out an idea (I can act out “salsa dancing,” “droopy flower,” and “going to Mass” pretty well). I learned to connect with people without the aid of a common tongue. I learned to be a neighbor first and a teacher second.
But now, two and a half years since I first stumbled into a community ESL classroom, I’m leaving.
I could give so many reasons for why the work was too much for me at this stage of my life. I could justify that “I don’t have enough hours in the day as it is and oh yes don’t forget I’m getting a PhD and therefore have no time for work outside my tower.” But sometimes I think it’s okay not to have a good reason, to instead just have a sense that it’s time for a thing to end (and end peacefully).
What’s odd is that leaving this community ESL program revealed something new about my approach to “service” as a spiritual discipline. I am embarrassed to admit that I actually dreaded Wednesday nights because of the massive amount of energy I had to exert to keep a crowd of adult, non-native English learners engaged for 90 minutes. When I taught, I had to be on. If not, my numbers would dwindle. So I dreaded the energy I expected to drain each moment leading up to the Wednesday class.
I always felt better afterward, though. On the drive home, I would even feel triumphant. Ladies who knew me only as “Teacher” would hug me and thank me and (without my request) pray that I would have babies soon. When I finally sat down to dinner with B. J., I would rave about how meaningful the work was and how proud I was to serve outside of academia, outside of my comfort zone.
But I still dreaded it. Every week. Now that the new school year has begun and I won’t be going back to teach on Wednesday nights, I’m beginning to recognize how this understanding of “service” was a little destructive. The cycle of dread, extreme energy depletion, and brief triumph never felt right. I didn’t much feel like I was serving. Instead, I felt like I was seeking the little high from the class’s afterglow. That wasn’t enough to sustain me.
It reminded me of high school days, when “the need to serve” characterized my experience as a young adult in a mainstream evangelical church. Where are you using your gifts for the church? leaders asked. Service to the church—in any capacity—is the greatest way you can outwardly express your commitment to faith.
I remember the narrative very clearly. I also remember a lot of dread. I wonder if I took on so many service responsibilities (vocal team, drama team, nursery, group leader…) so church leaders and friends would get off my back.
So for the first time since ninth grade, I’m in a position where I have no volunteer commitments outside of my work (and I wonder if that would make my old youth leaders shudder). No one is pressuring me to sign up for any service teams. No one asks if I’m “using my gifts for the Kingdom,” because (maybe—just maybe) they see that I already am when I’m in the classroom, sharing the joys and sorrows of the semester with my students. There are so many little moments of service in the teaching life—no sign-up sheet necessary.
Teaching ESL as a volunteer was meaningful work. I am a better teacher and human being because of it. But the impetus I felt for serving was mostly wrong, mostly self-righteous. I know this because the push to return each week was bound up too much in the afterglow and not enough in the people (although I grew to love the people deeply). The energy I exerted was ultimately frenetic and draining. I think I kept at it so long in part because real servants don’t quit when the service gets tough. But what about when the act of service makes me a grumpy, irritated spouse? What about when I can barely get my own work done, let alone prepare for an additional class? What about when it no longer brings peace?
These words about service from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline put it best:
“Self-righteous service comes through human effort. It expends immense amounts of energy calculating and scheming how to render the service…True service comes from a relationship with the divine Other deep inside. We serve out of whispered promptings, divine urgings. Energy is expended but it is not the frantic energy of the flesh” (128).
Do you have a litmus test for “true service”?