What To Do When It Isn’t Working

What To Do When It Isn’t Working June 19, 2022

What do you do when it just isn’t working? In the life of a teacher, this question is certain to arise far more often than one might hope. Every summer, teachers across the country are putting the final touches on lesson plans and syllabi, getting ready for the onslaught of the next round of students in just a few weeks. I will be sending the students enrolled in two of my fall courses the syllabus and a couple of paragraphs of greeting by the middle of July; in my wildest dreams I hope that the students greet the syllabus with an expectant excitement that matches the enthusiasm with which I constructed it.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of teaching is the planning, because at that stage things are still pregnant with great possibilities. Every fall and spring teachers are convinced that this semester the seats in their classes will be filled with the most motivated and brilliant students ever and this semester each class will be a serious contender for the gold medal in pedagogical fabulousness.

But then, of course, the students show up and reality kicks in. Some days are truly exhilarating and the medal possibilities are still in play. Some days are a study in mediocrity. Some days feel like slogging through quicksand. And some days, no more than five minutes into a 50 or 75 minute class, a little voice in your head says “IT ISN’T WORKING.” You try to ignore it, pretend you didn’t hear it, but there it is again–“IT ISN’T WORKING.” The students know it; you know it—now what?


Of course, this situation is not unique to teachers. Every one of us has “It isn’t working” moments far more frequently than we would wish. A classic case is provided by Elijah, one of my favorite Biblica characters. In a story that is today’s first lectionary reading, Elijah is fresh off one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God has ever experienced or ever will experience. In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it. All of this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their God after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed. I’m sure that Elijah was thinking, “I’m the man! I’m really good at this! This propheting stuff is fun!”

But then. King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” Elijah runs for his life into the wilderness. One day into his flight, he gives up. “Yesterday I was on my way to the propheting gold medal,” he complains, “but today it isn’t working.” He collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and goes into a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

We’ve all been there. I’ve had new teachers come to me after a bad class and say, in essence, that “if this is what teaching is really like, I’m going to quit.” Fill in the blanks from your own experience. If I had known that married life was going to be like this, I never would have gotten married. If I had known that children would be such a pain in the ass, I would have remained childless. And for me, perhaps the biggest one—if I had known that following Jesus and living the life of faith was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have bothered. Saint Teresa of Avila was having one of those moments when she wrote “Lord, it’s not surprising that you have so few friends when you treat the ones that you have so poorly.” So we all know what we are tempted to say and do—and often do say and do—when it isn’t working. Are there any better strategies?

One option is to recognize that there is an alternative model to my “me-centered” framework. Maybe reality and the cosmic scheme of things are not perfectly patterned and adjusted to my preferences and what I think I need. Maybe there’s more going on than I think. Maybe, just maybe, I’m not the center of the universe and maybe, just maybe, God has not fallen off of the divine throne just because things aren’t working out the way I want them to.

Back to Elijah–An angel shows up, and the angelic response to Elijah’s drama queen moment is very interesting. Elijah says “now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” and the angel says “Get up and eat.” Elijah wants to die and the angel makes him lunch. Sometimes it’s as simple as that—eat properly, rest, get some exercise, take your medication, and get over yourself. And it works—the meal energizes Elijah for forty days and forty nights, until the next crisis. I may not be any better than my ancestors, but I am still loved by God. And that’s sufficient—even on those days when it isn’t working.

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