I’ve always joked that I landed my first teaching job in a Christian high school because I had supper with my sister-in-law’s parents at the nearby Dutch retirement building before the interview. As you probably know, or have guessed already, I am not Dutch (and apparently not much … please read this as a joke!). Although one could argue at length the similarities between the Scots and the good Netherlands folk, I initially felt myself “a stranger in a strange land.” In those days, the multicultural elements at the school where I taught were the students from a narrow range of Reformed churches! I could have offered to change my name to Van Cameron-sma, but I was tall and blond and it was fairly easy for me to blend in.
In all seriousness, my exposure to the Christian education before my first job in a Christian high school was little to none. We had friends in a nearby city who sent their children to a Christian school there, but my parents never considered Christian education an option, perceiving that school to be ethnic and denominational only. So I went to public elementary and high school, and two different publicly-funded universities to receive my education. I remember being asked at one of my job interviews how I could possibly presume to teach at a Christian school when I had no formal Christian education. Smart aleck that I am, I quickly replied that Moses had been educated in Egypt and I think he did alright. In all fairness though, it was an interesting question. I was a good teacher, took my faith seriously and had a good working knowledge of scripture, I but had a long way to go before I was able to fully bring that faith into the science classroom where I teach.
My first Christian teachers’ convention, put on by the Ontario Christian School Teachers Association (OCSTA), was an intensely alienating experience. Not only did everyone seem to know each other, but it seemed to me that they were all related—something that I found out later was almost true. The convention that year was held at a big hotel in Toronto, and the only things I remember clearly are Diane Stronks (currently the executive director of OCSTA) at the microphone for the business meeting, and Johanna (Hiemstra) Kuyvenhoven (currently on the faculty of Calvin College) telling stories at the banquet. Both of these women have since become close friends, but at the time, sitting alone in my hotel room, I wondered what on earth I had got myself into.
I had not gone looking for my job in Christian schools; it came to me. My mom’s friend, who was sending her children to Christian schools, saw an ad in the Banner and called me immediately. There were no teaching jobs available in 1994, and I was so glad to have work. I didn’t care what school it was at or even that I had to move to small town Ontario for it. However, I did more than just survive my first year. The staff at the school was fantastic. They were welcoming, encouraging, engaging, and supportive, and this made all the difference. I was also given a copy of Harro VanBrummelen’s Walking with God in the Classroom and slowly I began to explore what it really meant to teach Christianly.
It seems to me that one can explore Christian teaching on several levels. First, there are the personal aspects of who one is as a teacher. Being a Christian teacher means being a good example in one’s life and conduct, displaying the willingness to grow the fruit of the Spirit and bring these characteristics to bear when dealing with students, parents, and colleagues. It also means seeking to establish and uphold routines and structures that balance the concepts of fairness and forgiveness, justice and mercy, accountability and grace.
Second, I would argue that it is not enough to do all of the above while neglecting the goldmine of the curriculum. Being a Christian teacher also involves cracking open one’s subject area and laying a foundation for a course that begins solidly with a view of the world where Christ is the king who boldly proclaims over every inch of the creation, “This is mine!” Looking for and emphasizing foundational concepts in a course or unit not only provides an excellent framework for planning, but also allows students to view the material in terms of overarching themes. Individual concepts can then reinforce these themes as you teach. I have seen students who were complacent about their faith and “bored” with scripture come alive with excitement about the order and predictability we see in the periodicity of matter, the dual nature and mystery involved in light energy, or the “chicken and egg” argument regarding which came first—proteins or their DNA code, which proteins themselves unlock. Concepts such as these act as natural springboards into fantastic discussions with wonderful spiritual ramifications. I could go on, but that might be content for another article.
Third, I would hope that being a Christian teacher involves leading students to more meaningful relationship with Christ through our relationships with them. Many students come to us having been baptized or dedicated to God as infants, maturing in their faith, and supported by home and church as well as school. But this is not the case across the board. Although evangelism is not the school’s primary role, we have an obligation not only to nurture the faith development of students, but also to introduce those for whom belief and trust are difficult concepts, or those for whom the Christian world view is brand new, to the hope we have in Christ.
Last, I feel the need to add that being a Christian teacher involves the willingness not only to mentor others, but also to learn from our colleagues and our students. Our own humility can speak volumes! I cannot count the number of times I have been ministered to by the young people who have been entrusted to my care. To the degree that we are willing to learn, we become better teachers ourselves, and this openness unfolds itself in a willingness to share. I once had a discussion with a colleague who complained about no longer “getting anything out of the OCSTA convention” since he had been in the job so long. “Then perhaps,” I offered, “it’s now your time to give.”
Over the last fifteen years, I have discovered what an enormous blessing teaching at Christian schools has been. The journey continues and I welcome the discussions, conferences, courses, journals, and myriad of excellent books that continue to provide encouragement and food for thought along the way.