In their own words: New teachers in the classroom (part 2)

Rachel Riffel shares the power of reflecting Christ’s character in the classroom


Rachel (Blake) Riffel graduated in 2015 with a bachelor of arts degree in Spanish and a minor in English. She spent her first year of teaching at Central Valley Christian Academy in Modesto, California, during the 2015­–16 school year.

“Wow, you are brave.”

That’s the response I receive so often when people ask what I do, and I tell them I’m a high school teacher. My response is almost always, “Well, teaching is not for the faint of heart.”

Last year I thought I had the world at my fingertips: I was a college graduate with a job, newly married, and moving to a new state. I was excited to inspire young minds and wow the crowds with my college brain. Knowledge and wisdom would seep from my pores, and I would be loved and praised by all.

Wrong. All new teachers have some perception similar to this when going into their first year, but beware, because it is a lie we tell ourselves to quiet our insecurities.

Yes, it was a good year, and yes, I did educate my students to the best of my abilities. But I soon discovered that I was not the great and powerful Oz, but rather the small, balding man behind the curtain. Like most fresh graduates, I had to fake it to make it. And I would know. I’m from Kansas.

I started the year teaching English I and II, home economics, and middle school Spanish, in addition to functioning as the school librarian. Since then, I’ve picked up English as a Second Language as well. Like many new teachers, I learned on the fly—from how to teach kids to make marmalade to reacquainting myself with the Dewey Decimal System.

To my surprise, I was not well received by everyone at CVCA. Because of my highly structured classroom management plans and my inability to tolerate nonsense, several students soon discovered that I would be their least favorite teacher. I considered this a necessary evil and decided that they would learn to love me and my strict ways.

Wrong, again. I was surprised when students did not jump at the opportunity to ride with me during field trips or when they kept their opinions to themselves during class discussions.

What was I doing wrong? I was providing structure. I was maintaining an authoritative role in my classroom. I was teaching them all they needed to know about writing and literature. So, what was I missing? Did I need to tell more jokes? Talk about pop culture? I’m hilarious and hip, I thought, I can do that.

“... on fire for Jesus”
These patterns continued for the first semester—me floundering to find a sweet spot and my students struggling to relate to me. One student in particular—I’ll call her Jane—let it be known that I was not her favorite through a consistently bad attitude in class, lack of making an effort with homework, and blatant insubordination. She soon became my least favorite student—with one unexpected caveat—her writing was excellent, near perfect. And she wasn’t even making an effort.

Each student in my English II class had been instructed to write a fictional short story that was at least 1,000 words before Christmas break. At the first draft due date, Jane had nothing. The second due date, nothing. Finally, I asked Jane to stay after school and write her paper in my office. She agreed.

I stayed until 7 p.m. with her, watching her write. At the end of our session, I said, “Listen. You can’t keep doing this. Your teachers all care about you. You are a good writer, and you cannot let that go. We will support you until you succeed, whether you like it or not.”

It might have been in the moment, but I thought I saw her eyes become soggy. She said a gruff OK and left. I went home that night feeling like a fish out of water: just flopping all over, gasping for air. The next day, she turned in her story, and it was beautiful. She not only received an A, but she wrote the best story in the class.

I tell this story not because it makes me look like a dedicated teacher, but because that is not the end. It was a rough year for Jane. Her grades suffered, and there were more attitude issues than smiles and laughter. I ended many days with my head in my hands asking God for patience and understanding.

But this year is different. This year, Jane came to school on the first day and gave me a hug. This year her grades have improved. This summer she completed a colporteur program and came back to school on fire for Jesus. The factors that went into Jane’s transformation far exceeded what I had been able to do.

The most important thing I learned at WWU
The most important thing that my professors taught me at Walla Walla University was to care and pray for my students. Each student is treasured and loved by Jesus, but many do not understand God’s character. Many students cannot see His tender love and desire for us to live life abundantly. It is, then, our job as teachers to die to our own egos and to reflect His character so that they may come to know how it is to be cared for and loved.

Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

Dying to self is vital to teaching. We must reflect the character of Jesus instead of our own in order for our students to truly see Him.

I soon discovered that the main reason so many students disliked my teaching method was hilariously simple. I had a basic classroom rule that I’d picked up during my student-teaching days, which didn’t allow students to go to the bathroom during class time. While this rule was key in managing my previous classroom, it simply wasn’t necessary—and certainly provoked complaint—in my new environment. When I finally realized the gravity of this rule for my students, I changed it. It was a simple solution to a problem that had plagued me for months, but it made my students realize that I did care about them and their needs.

A parent stopped me at a school event last weekend and extended to me a compliment they had heard from another parent. They then asked me about my second year and if things were going smoother now that I had a year of experience.

“You know,” I said, “this year is much smoother. Because last year I thought I was a really good teacher, but this year I realize that He’s actually the good one, and not me.”

Posted September 22, 2016