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One key to helping students this fall: patient urgency

“Patient urgency.”

This week, a Partnership academic dean used this phrase to characterize how she and her colleagues are helping students acclimate to the classroom environment this fall—particularly those children who learned alone and remotely for eighteen months, or those who are new to her school’s norms.

Enjoy a moment of trying to picture patient urgency: the walk-run of children racing to a treat or a privilege, straining against breaking into a sprint or elbowing each other in the ribs or doing anything else that might cause an adult to rescind the offer.

It is the tone of voice you need to talk a plumber into coming to fix a burst pipe when you’re slipping on the wet floor. It is remembering the alarm code while that alarm is blaring. It is Indiana Jones navigating every booby trap in every movie (all in one 20-minute video that I hope you have the patience to wait and watch when you’ve finished reading this).

In two words—patient urgency—that dean may have just summed up not just a useful quality for an educator these days, but a key to the spirituality of teaching. Educators who master the art of patient urgency may well find glimpses of God in themselves and their students.

Our students will never have this particular day of learning again. And in Partnership Schools, some students (because of systemic injustices) have farther to go than some of their peers in order to acquire the knowledge and skills that will unlock opportunities they deserve. So we need productive classroom norms and great lessons, and to expect students to embrace them, because we have no time to waste.

But our urgency isn’t just about efficiency, or even about students’ futures. Our students are made in the image and likeness of God already—in this moment. They have God’s gifts within them now. And our urgency for them to meet age-appropriate high expectations is a way of showing them we believe in them enough to know they can do hard things now, not next week or when they are older.

If we tell children that they are made for greatness, and we don’t expect them to be great or even good today, then they will suspect we are lying.

Yet they are still children—in the first weeks of school and returning in some cases to habits they haven’t had to use in eighteen months.

I forget my usernames and passwords after eighteen minutes. I lose where I parked my car about that fast. For months, I could not seem to manage to remember both a mask and my keys when leaving the house. Last spring, I attended social gatherings that were as awkward as junior high dances, we were all so rusty at conversing off Zoom. Small wonder that some children are wrestling with the routines of school life.

Patience too isn’t just a tactical move, a way to play the long game in order to get the behaviors out of kids that we seek. Real patience—not letting go of expectations but calmly persisting in moments when they are not met—connects us deeply to our students. When we are patient, we do for others what Jesus has done for us. He comes lovingly among us, without our earning him. And he sticks with us as he invites us to change.

Patience also recognizes that our students are not an extension of our own wills, but those with free wills of their own, forming every day they are with us. And patience gives space for grace—for the moments when our hopes and our students’ actions align with what we hope God wills for us.

As fate would have it, today is the feast of St. Cyprian. A bishop in North Africa in the Third Century, he would find much of our current circumstances familiar: society-rending arguments, plagues, and purity tests, among others. He was famously impatient for much of his life—he rushed into arguments with popes, for example—but matured and wrote a treatise on patience that has survived to this day.

“If faith and hope are to bear their fruit,” St. Cyprian shares pragmatically, “patience is necessary.”

May the faith we have in our students and our hopes for them bear fruit this year, no matter how much patience it takes. And in the process of summoning patient urgency, may we not only transform our students, but ourselves.

St. Cyprian, pray for us!