I am the third grade teacher at a Christian international school.
My students are either very wealthy or they are missionary kids. In my mind, they’re two of the most privileged groups around. One has all the material necessities they could want, while the other usually has an amazing, Godly family.
Because this school is so small, I’ve observed that by third grade, the students know who their friends are, and who their friends are not. They know who lies, who punches, who is too aggressive at soccer, and whose parents don’t like each other.
In late August, I walked into a class of students who were full of memories of last year’s fights, disruptions, disagreements, fear, angst, bad language, and even some bullying; all within a class of only 12 students. And within all this nastiness – or perhaps because of it – more than half the parents told me on a beginning of the year survey that their child is upset by “injustice” or “when someone is punished unfairly.”
I quickly wanted to make sure that these students did not think that they were the ones able to define justice in each situation. So, we began our year by defining justice every morning. “Justice is ‘right’ being rewarded, ‘wrong’ being punished.” We discussed how perfect justice doesn’t often happen, only God knows all things, but it is something to strive for. I challenged myself to strive for justice in my classroom.
In teaching justice, though, I soon began to realize how accountable that made me to my own system of behavior management, which gives stars as a reward and takes them as a punishment. Consistency is necessary. If one student decided to blurt out inappropriately and got in trouble, another student exhibiting similar behavior would also need to be “punished.” Another student who forgot a certain procedure must also face the same punishment, no matter what happened at home that day to cause the stress of forgetfulness. All the students saw their classmates’ actions, and each one of them expected to see justice.
I couldn’t do it, though.
I couldn’t bear to see the same four or five kids who struggled so much, always remain at the lowest point of the behavior system. I couldn’t bear to see them believe themselves incapable of earning a star. I couldn’t bear to see the girls “setting the standard,” while the “crazier boys” struggled to reach it, or found it completely unattainable.
However, I could not change our definition of justice. God has set the definition of justice and it cannot be changed. He has set the standard for my life, though, and I constantly fall short of it.
However, there is one marvelous word that changes everything.
Yes, God is just. But He is also full of mercy. And in His mercy, He has forgiven me: “Because of the Lord ’s faithful love we do not perish, for His mercies never end” (Lamentations 3:22).
In light of this idea, I began asking my students some thought-provoking questions:
- “So, do you want me to show you mercy today? Or will you just continue forgetting if I do?”
- “Do you need the punishment? Do you need to lose a star?”
- “What is going to help you do better next time? Can I show you mercy?”
I explained that sometimes people do need the punishment to help them choose the right thing. But sometimes they also need some mercy. I also explained that I would never want to live in a world in which there was only justice and no mercy.
I saw a big change in the classroom.
I began to receive honest answers. I saw students who fought tooth and nail to never lose a star begin to tell me what they did and say, “I think I need to move down.” The stars became a tool, an aid, a way to lead them to growth. They could see their weak points and, instead of being angry whenever they “messed up,” they began to work out more strategies for choosing differently the next time. The punishments became more of a conversation, and less of a fight. I also noticed them forgiving each other genuinely. They even started complimenting one another on the progress of things like being more honest. I was recently told by one boy, “Miss Lawler, no one thinks of [insert name] as a bully anymore at all.”
My students, as rowdy as they are in third grade, will be the leaders of the world in 20 years. I believe they will be leading the fight for social justice. They will be the lawmakers and the people who enforce those laws. I want them to remember those moments of their own weaknesses: when they failed to choose what was right, when they made mistakes, when they messed up and were shown undeserved mercy. I want them to show mercy to the oppressed; and also to help those who have done wrong.
As they grow, I pray they’ll remember God’s mercy for them. I pray they’ll remember their third grade teacher, and even their former classmates, when they see a homeless guy passed out on the corner, or a thief on trial, a child from an orphanage, or a crime-committing teenager – I want them to be critical of the world around them, yet merciful to it as well.
And regardless of whether they come from a privileged or missionary background, I pray they’ll remember how much mercy it took for them to pass third grade.
Faith Lawler is a teacher at the International Christian School of Budapest. She graduated from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL in 2011. Having an adopted younger sister, she planned to work at an orphanage after graduating from college, but has instead worked with upper or middle class children who have their own set of needs and challenges. She finds it difficult to leave her home in Atlanta, but cannot bear the thought of moving away from Europe.