Teachers and the Ninety and Nine

I’m haunted by the Biblical story about leaving the ninety and nine sheep safely in the fold to go rescue the one lost sheep:

How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?

And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.  (Matthew 18:12-13)

As a teacher, does this mean that I should ignore the students who are succeeding and more self-sufficient and spend my time trying to “save” struggling students?

Certainly, this is the mainstream philosophy of public education: I had plenty of professors in college who told prospective teachers, “Don’t worry about the smart kids–they can take care of themselves.”  On any campus of which I’ve ever had any substantial knowledge, the number of programs targeting (and the amount of budget invested in) the needs of high achieving students was dwarfed by the gargantuan industry that is remediation, credit retrieval, and discipline, among plenty more.  A case can be made for these priorities; after all, there are (sadly but honestly) far more kids in America today on the left side of the bell curve than on the right. 

However, mere majority shouldn’t dictate our standards.  Might it not better serve the long range interests of our nation by agreeing to raise the bar and fully develop the potential of those with the most of it, rather than focusing almost exclusively on making minimal gains with the very lowest skilled?  How well would any hospital operate (to borrow a metaphor from Walter Williams) if the vast majority of effort was spent on emergency cases nearing terminal status, and letting the stable patients fend for themselves? 

Still, this doesn’t help me in the classroom, for surely the Savior’s injunction means something to me; it must apply somehow. 

I think I’m figuring out a way in which it does. 

Here’s where the practical realities of the classroom differ from the spiritual scenario of the parable: in Jesus’s story, the ninety and nine were not lost; presumably, they were, then, safe.  After all, what sense would it make to go after the one if, while you were out doing that rescuing, the ninety and nine then got lost?  This is precisely what happens in public school classrooms.  Teachers, goaded by administrative dictates or personal pangs about social justice, often concentrate on the lowest achievers–those students needed to make No Child Left Behind statistics work or who seem like fodder for a future inspiring story of their own–and leave behind (pun intended) the majority (the ninety and nine) who don’t fit into that vision. 

I’m not arguing that teachers should just keep pumping up the top one or five or ten percent, and ignore the rest, but the fact in education today is that the further down you go on the achievement/potential scale, the more importance is placed there.  This seems disproportionate, to say the least.  There must be a way to reach out to the apathetic and uninvolved without sacrificing those who may do even more amazing things if not neglected.

On the way to a resolution, I’ve been reminded of another scriptural teaching about shepherds, this one from the Book of Mormon: “For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.” (Alma 5:59)

How can this teaching about getting rid of wolves cooperate with the command to seek after the lost?  I’d suggest that these two teachings need to be combined to give a full picture–our flocks may have lost sheep and wolves: lost sheep need to be sought and rescued, wolves need to be cast out.  I think most teachers would agree that our schools are all too often forced to host wolves in lost sheep’s clothing.  It is my opinion that these wolves are sometimes the same students who dominate the lowest echelons of our test scores, graduation rates, and discipline problems.  Many of these wolves have no interest in being reclaimed–short of the kind of spiritual conversion implied in the Savior’s story (which is not an option for teachers in secular institutions), such missions to convert truculent youth to education are essentially doomed to failure, and come at the expense of those who might have benefitted far more from that love. 

Our system has long since evolved into one where such people are coddled, sheltered, and even rewarded for their poor choices.  If we could cast such wolves out of our classroom flocks, we could effectively invest more of our resources into going after those real lost sheep who have gone astray for one reason or another (illness, family problems, lack of educational background, and indoctrination by the media are some of the common pied pipers who have led these lambs away from the flock in the first place), and who are more likely to come back into the fold. 

Then, and only then can we truly realize the purpose the Lord had in telling that story in the first place: “Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14)  Jesus wanted us to seek after lost sheep so that children would be rescued.  If that’s the goal, then we need to do those things that will most effectively save the most children.  That means expelling the wolves, and bringing lost lambs into the flock. 

I’m infinitely grateful to David O. McKay for making this point about the ninety and nine:

When, a few years ago, a little four-year-old lad wandered into the bad lands of North Dakota, the whole countryside was aroused and organized for the rescue. They gave no thought, however, to the hundreds of four-year-olds who were safe in their mothers’ keeping. A train wreck or an airplane disaster shocks us to attention, awakens sympathy and a demand for more safeguards, while to the hundreds of trains and airplanes carrying millions to safety, we give scarcely a passing thought.

So while we solicitously call attention to the tragedies in the stream of human life, let us not be unmindful of the much greater group who move steadily and successfully along, avoiding the sandbars and rapids of sinful indulgence and spiritual decay, whose noble lives confirm and increase confidence in the growing generation. As we seek the lost sheep, let us be appreciative of the “ninety and nine” ( Matt. 18:12-13) that are safe in the fold.

–“Safeguards Against the Delinquency of Youth,” October 1946 General Conference (found under Matthew 18:12-13 here


3 comments on “Teachers and the Ninety and Nine

  1. Pingback: Inner Education for Inward Educators

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