You’re an Anointed Teacher: Part 3: Our Words Have Power
The Spirit of God is at work in the lives of our students, and we cannot always see that work. If we did, we would probably give ourselves the credit. We can only be grateful that we had a small role to play in their life stories. We’re just a speck in God’s kaleidoscopic vision for that child, but maybe so much more!
I don’t know about y’all, but when I was a kid, my siblings and I used to raid mom and dad’s closet and wear their clothes. In a tiny apartment in Washington Heights, we put on a fashion show for the ages! My sister stepped out of that closet, dressed in one of mom’s long, elegant dresses. I wore one of dad’s “members only” jackets, slacks, and fancy dress shoes. It was hard trying to walk around in dad’s shoes. Someday, I was going to eventually grow into those shoes and walk just as tall and with the same confident stride my dad had.
I was always impressed with the way dad moved in the world—even when he was unhoused, sleeping on trains, and struggling with a drug addiction. He still walked with dignity. I wanted to walk like him, tall and proud and confident. And even though he was not okay back then, even though he was on the brink of death in the streets of New York City, he still moved in a way that demonstrated to the world that he loved himself.
God was going to dramatically redirect his life story. Dad would eventually go on to become the head lifeguard in the city of Yonkers. He would go on to become a licensed minister, providing food and free contact lenses, and access to resources for so many souls in the city of Yonkers. It was standing room only at dad’s funeral last year. Dad said life in the streets of New York City was a nightmare, but he said he felt grateful that so many lives were touched by his acts of service and the beautiful words of affirmation he spoke over people. We got our dad back. His life story was a story of triumph.
Our students are very much like my siblings and I back in the day, trying on something that we didn’t quite fit into yet. Our students are not who they’re going to be yet, but we can give them a loving nudge in the right direction. We can be impeccable with our word, we can speak life in such a way that puts folks in touch with our universal poetic essence. we can give them second chances, and we can be a lighthouse in the turbulent waters of their adolescent meandering.
In my mind’s eye, as I write this, I can see my colleague, Ms. Jackson, rolling her eyes at me. “Here comes Mr. Robles,” she said, “always seeing the best in the kids.” Other teachers think I’m being disingenuous when I wax poetic about my students. But they know, in their heart of hearts, that children benefit immensely from life-affirming positive reinforcement from a caring adult.
I wasn’t born yesterday. I know that children can be difficult. I have had my share of students that I have mentally and spiritually brought home with me on the train rides back home to Brooklyn. I have stressed and fretted over children. I have taken children with me spiritually on very long runs across the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge. I have gray hairs with their names written on them. I have sifted through my practice to figure out ways to get through to them. Sometimes nothing works. Period. Your fabled teacher toolbox is all out of tricks. What worked for one student is not going to work for another.
Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.
I see how easy it can be for us, as teachers, to subscribe to narratives about our children that can lead to an unsympathetic understanding of who they are. They may seem like a mischievous lot of dastardly devils, but if we can train our spiritual eye, and if we can chip away at the concrete in our hearts, we can zoom in and we can see them not for who they are, but for who they can be.
It’s not my favorite Bible story, but I needed to revisit this one several times in order to remind myself that God brought these children into my classroom for a reason, and that reason was to remind me of how annoying and obstinate and disagreeable I am in my own personal relationship with God:
The story of Gideon is epic. Big battles, big battle speeches. Swords broken and spears shattered against splintered shields. Arrows darkening the sky. In the Book of Judges, Israel was invaded by the war-mongering Midianites, a fearsome band of warriors. As they were raiding, pillaging, and setting fires to houses, Gideon hid in a barn, shaking, too afraid to move. Suddenly, the Spirit of God opened the heavens, and sent an angel to meet him. During one of Israel’s darkest hours, the angel came with a message from God:
“Why are you hiding, O mighty man of God?”
This is probably the coolest moment in the bible. In this one moment, we understand an important truth that was infinitely helpful to me as a rookie teacher who pretended to be anointed: God saw Gideon not for who he was, cowering in a barn, but God saw Gideon for who he was going to be, a warrior who would eventually liberate Israel from oppression.
Teacher friends, my challenge for you is to look at your students through heaven’s eyes. Look at them for who they’re going to be, not for who they are or what they are doing in the present moment. They’re walking around in shoes they don’t fit into yet. They’re meandering in a fog. They don’t know who they are. This is not an easy chapter in their lives, and what a joy to know that we made it through that chapter, and by the grace of God, we made it out alive. Now it’s our divine task to provide comfort to them.
The word comfort comes from the latin Cum forte, which means with strength. We need to show them that how we name ourselves is important, and how we name others is important. Sometimes we do it without even realizing it. We peel and stick a label on ourselves. For example, someone might say: “I’m a worrier,” but when we do that, we make it harder to change because “worrier” becomes part of our identity.
On the flip side, Self-Adhesive labels are a great idea for things we want to keep. I was not the best at running when I started out, but once I identified myself as a runner, I went on to run nine marathons and almost fifty half marathons. Nobody can take away the fact that I am a nine time marathoner. Similarly, I identify as an educator. This is part of who I am. Nobody can take that away from me, even if my school closes down. Everyone who knows me knows that I am an educator and I take this seriously because it is something that cannot be divorced from my identity.
My favorite rapper, Nas, said, “we need more warriors soon, sent from the stars, sun, and the moon.” In Gideon, God saw a warrior when the world saw a coward. In my father’s case, the world saw a homeless drug addict, but God saw something much much more.
One day, my favorite Principal called me into her office and said she was worried about one of my students. She said she was worried that we were going to lose him to the streets. There was a time when he loved coming to school, but somewhere along the way, he lost his smile. It took time, it took patience, it took a lot of love, and a lot of journal entries on the train ride home, but I started applying self-adhesive labels. I challenged some of the labels this student already made for himself. Instead of wounded, outcast, lonely, or afraid…I called him overcoming one, son of the living God, loving brother. By the spring of that year, he started reading children’s books to the pre-k classes. Teachers kept asking for him to come back downstairs and read to the children. He had a knack for reading stories, and the kids loved him. I wish you all could have seen the light in his eyes, the radiance, the effulgence in his spirit, when I gave him permission to rush downstairs with a stack of books in his hands.
I had a student who had just immigrated from Eritrea. He was a deep processor who didn’t speak out much. I kept calling him Hero. You’re a hero, my young brother. And slowly, and gradually, he began to grow into the role of the hero in our class. Something stirred within him. He came to class with fire in his eyes. He wrote profusely in a composition notebook. He memorized vocabulary, stored words in his heart. He found joy in learning. Learner became his identity. He stood taller. He began to walk with dignity, like my father. There were days when he felt like he didn’t measure up to the self-adhesive label, and then there were days when he blew the class away with some of his thoughts about what we were reading.
God created the universe with the power of His voice, and since we were made in His image, we have the same power. Our words have power, and that is why we need to take good care of ourselves, so that our bodies and our minds and our hearts are prepared to breathe life into folks with our words.
We need to speak life to our children. We need to challenge the labels they have created for themselves, and replace them with labels that God, in his infinite wisdom, created for them. The children in our care need anointed teachers who are ready to challenge the derogatory labels spoken over their lives. But you have to do the same for yourself. And if you can’t, I’ll do it for you:
You are a spirit-filled, purpose-driven, hero educator who believes in the spirit-filled, purpose-driven future of the hero children in your care. You are so good at what you do, there is nobody like you in the building, and even at your very worst, you are making an indelible mark on their lives. Our words have power, but you cannot wield this power if you’re not friendly to yourself.
A few days before my dad passed away, I gave him a call. I told him I was afraid. I was experiencing a crossroad moment in my life, and I didn’t know which direction I was supposed to take. He simply said, “You’re Dave Robles.” With the breath dad had left, he spoke life to me. How did dad know that that was exactly what I needed to hear? Dad was a broken vessel that poured out holy anointing oil all over his friends, his family, his neighbors, his community, his ministry, his students, and even his dog!
I invite you all to look at yourselves in the mirror, and remember who you are. You are children of God, you are too big to fail, you are overcomers, you are sons and daughters of the most high, you are mission-driven, you are banner bearers of joy—and most importantly—you are student advocates. Advocate for those kids. They need you to stand up for them and fight for them because too many adults are giving up on them. Dad called this standing in the gap. Speak life to them, brothers and sisters. Once you speak life, you won’t be able to stop doing it. Make it a contagious event in your school community, and let everyone know that you were patient zero. Be the one who started it all.
I dedicate this article to my father, Jorge Robles. Thank you, dad. I miss you so much. Look at me go, pop!