Education

A teacher affects eternity

Ian Burns

You never know the extent of your influence until you get feedback

When Burns was faced with a discussion on death with his grade two class, he followed his heart and in the end it paid off.

I don’t remember the exact question, but I remember feeling strongly that I needed to discuss it with my pupils — and we discussed it more than once that year. At that time I was a young grade two teacher. I needed to find my feet.
Difficult subject
We were discussing death — a difficult subject to handle, just like the subject of sex — particularly with little ones. We were on the mat and some children wanted to know more about death. What does one do, as a young teacher, with a group of seven- to-nine-year-olds who want to discuss death? I decided to go with my heart, be truthful, open and totally honest. So, we discussed death. I felt that this was something that was important and that even the content of maths and language could be put aside.
Sharing deep personal feelings with pupils
I used the educational principle of starting with what the children already know. I asked them about their experiences, feelings and beliefs. I don’t remember their exact words, but the children shared deep feelings and a lot of uncertainties. Some had had someone they know die, but few seemed to have discussed death with anyone, at least not in an in-depth or a practical way. I chose to break the teaching “rule” and shared my personal experiences with them and we discussed the relevance to their lives.
Christian background
The children were from a Christian background and so I shared what my Christian faith had meant to me regarding death. I shared how wonderful heaven is and how I knew that my brother, who had passed away slightly more than a year before, was there. I shared how I was human and felt sad at times and I showed them a photo of him. I shared how life might be for him now. We discussed things that are not in heaven, like sadness, pain, sickness, divorce and so on. We discussed mixed feelings and hope, the certainty of that hope as a Christian and how wonderful it must be to be with Jesus forever. I guess more than anything else, I was just human with them.
A phone call from a parent
Out of the blue, I received a phone call from the mother of a little girl who had been in my class; a little girl who had been noticeable by her silent attentiveness. Her mother told me that there had recently been a death in the family and she had not known what to say to her daughter. However, her daughter had told her that it was fine because Mr Burns had already discussed and explained death in the class. Her mother was calling to say thank you,  because this experience had helped her daughter so much. The lesson for me is that the most significant effect of a teacher’s influence cannot be measured by assessments or marks. We will never really know where that effect ends. In the words of Henry Brooks Adams, “A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.”
Burns is a grade R to grade three remedial teacher at Boschof Combined School in Boschof, in the Free State. He was a finalist in the category of excellence in inclusive education and special needs teaching in the 2010 national teaching awards

Originally published in: The Teacher

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