Throughout my time at Hope Academy, I’ve heard visitors marvel at the respectful behavior they observe in our students – many of whom are coming from incredibly challenging backgrounds. “What’s your secret?” they sometimes ask.

As a teacher, I can tell you that there is certainly no magic formula—just lots and lots of prayer, patience, and persistence. But there is one tool we have in our toolbelt that is distinct, and that is our “Shepherding the Heart” philosophy.

Before I explain Shepherding the Heart, I want to tell you about one of the most challenging group of students I’ve ever taught. In that class was a little boy I’ll call Marcus.

When Marcus began Kindergarten, he was disobedient, disrespectful, manipulative, foul-mouthed, and lied more than he told the truth. In love, I would confront him on his actions. But there was no remorse, and no change in behavior. On the surface, it seemed like he had no moral compass.

How do you help a child with no apparent sense of right and wrong?

Shepherding the Heart

This is where “Shepherding the Heart” comes in. Although I had taught for years before coming to Hope Academy, Hope’s Shepherding approach to discipline was unlike anything I’d seen. Based on a book by Tedd Tripp called Shepherding a Child’s Heart we encourage teachers and parents to think of themselves in a pastoral role – or shepherds – caring for the children God has entrusted to them.

Just as Christ is a Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, so are we with our children. We are constantly warning them of pitfalls, teaching them to recognize what’s good, and bringing them back when they wander from a good path. One of the most effective ways Jesus did this was by asking good questions that reach to the heart.

In Shepherding a Child’s Heart, we go beyond rule-following, to the root of a matter. If a child steals something, we talk about why they did that. What were they not trusting God for? How did their actions affect the people around them? What does God say about that? The goal is to help children see why they do what they do, and to relate with God in their daily life. Only then will we see deep and lasting change.

A Student Case Study

So, back to Marcus (*note: name has been changed) and that challenging year. I knew that my role in his life would be a tough one. I was persistent in calling out his behavior and not letting it slide. I explained why it was wrong, showed him what was right, gave consequences, and helped him to see the fruit of his actions. Over and over and over. It was exhausting. I knew that he was testing boundaries to see if I would really follow through with what I said. He needed me to be consistent.

One day, I read “The Story of the Woodsman” to this class—many of whom had trouble telling the truth. In the story, a poor woodsman is faced with three opportunities to lie and thereby advance his status. Each time he had the opportunity to lie, I stopped and asked the students what they thought he wanted to do, and what he should do.

The first time, many students said that he should lie in order to get what he wants. The second time, fewer hands went up. The third time, the entire class was shouting for him to tell the truth—and Marcus was shouting the loudest!

Prior to reading that story, it seemed like none of my conversations with Marcus were getting through. But when we could talk about temptation and truthfulness in someone else’s life – through story – something began to click.

I caught little glimmers of hope when this boy began to purposely do things that were good, and then make sure that I knew it. That was the first time I noticed him recognizing a contrast between good and bad. But there still was such a tug-of-war going on in his heart. He’d do something kind, then turn around and lie or cheat.

Later that year, an issue arose where Marcus was talking with another staff member. They were discussing some of the difficult consequences I had put in place. It thrilled my heart to find out that this boy had said, “Yeah, I know Mrs. Harris is doing that because she loves me and wants the best for me.” I was shocked. I hadn’t really known until then that what I’d been doing was getting through.

Glimmers of Hope

Little by little, I saw Marcus taking baby steps towards goodness and truth. He gradually began taking ownership for some of his actions – a huge success. Many of the disobedient behaviors that were rampant at the beginning of the school year had significantly subsided. But at the end of kindergarten, he still had a long way to go.

One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in this staff is our unity in shepherding children’s hearts together. We continue to care for children and families even after they’ve left our class.

So, fast-forward a few years to a story one of our second grade teachers recounted about Marcus. At the beginning of the year, this teacher had a jar of candy that he left out on his desk – on purpose – to test the honesty of his class. One day, he noticed that one of pieces was missing. This teacher called a meeting to tell his class he was sad that someone had stolen and been dishonest. He asked whoever had done that to come find him later and confess what they’d done.

To my great surprise, Marcus, my former silver-tongued kindergartner, came up and confessed what he’d done. To my awe, his teacher said he had very few problems with Marcus lying or stealing the rest of the year. In fact, Marcus was even quick to admit his wrongs! By the end of the school year, Marcus was named Gentleman of the Month for his kind, Christ-like behavior in class.

What I love is that this little boy has continued stopping by my room to tell me about the good things he’s doing. He was so proud to tell me he was Gentleman of the Month. It’s like he realized what I wanted for him in Kindergarten, and is letting me know that he’s getting there. Like all of us, he is still very much a work in progress, but I see things changing in his heart and actions. This gives me so much hope for his future, and for the students we get to shepherd here and beyond.