Loving the Unlovable

Hi, my name is Victoria and this is my first post on The GWBlog. I will briefly introduce myself and my interests, then talk about something God has been teaching me recently.

I recently graduated from Princeton University (2015) with a major in Comparative Literature and a love for languages, culture, and teaching. I am currently working for a year as a full-time English teacher at a middle school in South Korea, and am planning to return to the US next year to continue teaching. On this blog, I will probably mostly be writing about teaching, education in general, living in Korea (or wherever the Lord leads in the future), traveling, and learning about new cultures and languages.

Today I want to share about one of the main struggles I have faced since coming to Korea and beginning my first real year of teaching. This struggle is, perhaps unsurprisingly, uncooperative students. There is a variety of reasons for students being uncooperative, though in my classes I have gathered that the main reason is usually a dislike of English or of school in general, and occasionally a lack of respect for me as the “foreign teacher.” It is very hard to deal with students who refuse to learn, especially when their negative attitudes affect the students around them. I have also found it very difficult not to take things personally. This is not my first time encountering uncooperative students; I have met the odd one or two in summer camps in the past as well. However, uncooperative behavior definitely occurs more regularly during the full-time school year. Furthermore, I have to see–and attempt to teach–them every week for a year, and not just for ten days.

My struggle has been not only how to teach them, but how to love them. I dreamed of becoming a middle school teacher because I wanted to share God’s love with those who are the least loved. In the past year, nine out of ten times when I have told someone (no matter how old they were or what career they had chosen) that I wanted to teach in a middle school, I have gotten a mixture of surprise, disgust, and/or awe in response. “Why on earth would you want to do that?” and “You’re a saint!” have been some of the most common reactions, because nobody wants to teach middle schoolers. They’re too old to be cute and not mature enough to act like adults. They’re confused, emotional, irresponsible, and likely to be rebellious and disrespectful. I have a longer rationale for why I want to teach MS, but for now let’s just remember that Jesus came to love and care for the least, the trampled, the rejected. I believe that we are called to do the same, at whatever cost to our comfort and pride.

Of course, as I began to actually teach at my middle school, I struggled with my natural gut reactions against those students who were exactly what most people fear, and whom I needed to love the most. I knew deep down that those disruptive, sleeping, whining, or simply rude students were probably in need of more love than those I was tempted to favor (the best students, the kind, sweet, hardworking and helpful ones), but I didn’t know how to do it. I couldn’t do it on my own strength. I am not, in fact, a saint.

Recently I have been reading Pastor Timothy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage. Of course, this book is primarily about marriage, but it is applicable to most, if not all, of our relationships; human relationships are all meant to reflect our relationship with God, with marriage simply being one of the strongest examples. One of the chapters talks about love as an action and not a feeling. In order to truly love someone, we often have to perform loving actions even if we don’t feel affectionate. More often than not, the feelings follow the actions, though our culture tends to tell us that it has to be the other way around.

I think this is true in our everyday relationships, not just romantic ones, and especially good to think about as a teacher faced with unlovable students. How do I love these unlovable students even when I don’t feel like it? The answer seemed to be: act like you love them. Say hello in the hallway when you see them. Wave and intentionally smile more, especially at the ones you are tempted to ignore because they ignore you. Learn their names and use them often. Praise them for the littlest things.

On the other hand, sometimes loving also means doing what’s best for them, not always just smiling and being nice. I still stand by the in-class discipline measures I have stated, and call out their behavior and take away their stickers when necessary. At the same time I make an effort to continue to greet them with a smile and by name when I see them in the halls, regardless of how they were in class earlier.

A few weeks ago, I started to practice loving my students in this way, and I have really begun to notice change in their attitudes, albeit slowly. There have been minor breakthroughs, like going from being purposely ignored to getting a little wave in the hallways, or an occasional willingness to raise their hands in class. I find myself even liking them sometimes and thinking of them as (kind of) cute, though I’m still exasperated by their in-class behavior most of the time.

Keeping up this attitude of love without expecting anything back is really difficult, so I constantly have to remind myself that we love because God loved us first. As Timothy Keller said, it was not because we were so lovable or sweet or kind that God loved us and died for us. The image Keller used to make this point was very poignant; it was that of Christ dying on the cross, rejected, betrayed, belittled and suffering unimaginable physical and emotional pain–yet choosing to stay for the very people who were hurting him. He chose to love, acted in love even when it must have been impossible to feel loving. He did this so that we might one day recognize His love and thereby become loved, lovable, and in turn loving as well.

I hope this post encourages you to think about the unlovable people in your life (sometimes colleagues, classmates, or even close friends and family members) and how you might love them in action even when the feelings of affection are lacking–because that is the true love that Christ showed us and has given us the privilege to emulate.

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