Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
inSignificant
Why You Matter in the Surprising Way God Is Changing the World

By Chris Travis

A Q&A With Chris Travis

What was it like teaching at the most dangerous school in New York City?

It was like living in a made-for-TV movie. I wanted to teach in a rough school, but I had no idea my school would have the highest rate of student-injuries-per-capita in NYC that year. It seemed like every day brought something unexpected. I might wade into a surging crowd of students to help break up a nasty fight on one day, and the next see a huge smile on a little girl's face because something clicked and she understood how to add fractions for the first time. Teaching there was sometimes horrible, or thrilling, or comical, or tragic. But it always mattered.

You haven't always been a teacher. Why did you decide to teach there?

I'm not sure I can explain it. I think it's kind of like how some people are just drawn to the ocean. You know it can be dangerous, but you just have to go. I was a pastor at a great church, and my wife and I felt drawn to New York City for a variety of reasons, among them a desire to plant a new church. But we knew we had to live there first, before we decided what kind of ministry would be appropriate. I really wanted to do something significant. When I heard about the opportunity to teach in academically at-risk schools, something in my heart leapt.

Can you describe a typical day teaching at a school like that?

Not really, because there weren't many typical days! Of course, a lot of days it was just hard work. Teaching and re-teaching, scrubbing graffiti off desks, tracking down whoever took care of my students--parents, grandparents, aunts, older sisters, foster parents, you name it--to enlist their help. Teaching is a very difficult job, and teaching in the inner city is a whole different thing. Sometimes you just had to laugh. I had too many strange experiences to fit into one book. Here's one I didn't include in inSignificant: One day as I was teaching, a milk carton suddenly exploded against the chalkboard and sprayed the first couple of rows of desks. There were several moments of chaos, but for whatever reason, I didn't even flinch. I calmly said, "Whoever threw that, please clean it up. We won't go to lunch until you do." Then I went and stood by the door. I overheard a student say, "Man, he so calm! He must be doin' some mad yoga!" I laughed out loud.

What does teaching at an inner city school have to do with "significance"?

For me, everything. Those two years were the two most difficult years of my life. I found out that I wasn't as good a person as I liked to think. And honestly, I wasn't doing very well at first. My students didn't like me and they weren't learning much. God stripped away all the things I had been relying on to feel significant. What could be more insignificant than a math teacher who was failing to teach students at a tiny, failing middle-school? Feeling insignificant can be very painful, and it was for me. But therein lies the paradox: those two years teaching in Harlem turned out to be the two most significant years of my life.

Explain what you mean by that. How were those years the most significant of your life?