Your mask first

Regardless of the airline, flight attendants share similar safety instructions before the plane departs. One very familiar directive goes something like this: “If you are flying with young children, secure your mask first and then assist those flying with you.” The reason for the protocol is obvious, as adults without adequate oxygen will be of no help to anyone else.

Those called to teach are generally people who give, give, give. For the teacher, the needs of others come first. Effective teachers are selfless; they give of their time, their talents, their energy, often to the point of real sacrifice. Serving others without counting the cost is noble and praiseworthy. In a society that encourages others to take care of themselves to the point of hyper-focus on healthy eating, rest, exercise, entertainment and more, the virtue of self-giving is not necessarily valued. Pressure from culture distracts teachers from the fervor of this self-sacrifice for the good of the students.

The discipline of preparing lessons, studying content, developing assessments, and procuring resources is all necessary for teaching and, in fact, is the teacher’s sacrifice for the good of the students. Ultimately, all of this preparation also makes everything easier for the teacher. Teachers know that when students are engaged and motivated to learn, there are far fewer disruptions. In some respects, being prepared is a means of self-preservation and therefore not propelled purely by altruistic motives.

However, there is one area where teachers must be jealously selfish and zealously focused if they are to be authentic witnesses for their students. Guarding the time, place, and habit of nurturing their own spiritual life is one practice where it is imperative that teachers put their masks on first.

Educators must be committed to dedicating time for private and communal prayer, fostering a personal relationship with Jesus, faithfully participating in the sacraments, developing friendships with the saints, and seeking to live each present moment in light of eternity. As Vancouver’s Archbishop J. Michael Miller noted, “Catholic educators are expected to be models for their students by bearing transparent witness to Christ and to the beauty of the gospel.”

It is immediately evident to the students when teachers do not fully embrace what they are teaching. It comes through in word selection, non-verbal expressions, and priority of choices with regard to what is taught, when it is taught, and other such distinguishing characteristics. If educators are distracted from fostering their own life in Christ, even by very good things, it will be difficult for them to be true witnesses.

Violin virtuoso Jascha Heifitz reportedly said: “The discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.” If this is true for playing a musical instrument, how much more true must it be regarding our relationship with the Lord. If I don’t pray for one day, I know it (as does the Father). If I don’t pray for two days, those I live with notice. If I don’t pray for three days, everyone knows, especially the students who are counting on me to share my life in the Spirit with them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “the rightness of our life in him [Jesus] will depend on the rightness of our prayer” (#2764).

At the same time, we must avoid the risk of thinking that everything depends on our own efforts. The reality is that prayer and our life in God is a gift. We read in the Catechism that “in prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first, our own first step is always a response” (#2567) and “prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort” (#2725). So the oxygen apparatus will fall from the compartment, but we must see to it that we secure the mask.

We do our part by securing our oxygen masks, and trust that the Lord will do His part because, as we know well, even though the bag may not inflate, oxygen will be flowing and only then is it possible to assist those whom we teach.

SISTER MARY ANNE ZUBERBUELER, O.P., is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, Nashville, Tenn., a community dedicated to serving the needs of Catholic education from pre-kindergarten to adult learners in over 50 schools in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe.

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