A Teacher’s Greatest Thrill

Some people work for a large, satisfying paycheck. Others work for the public and private recognition they receive from appreciative customers or clients. And some others work for the opportunities for rapid advancement to even higher levels or the deep, inner sense of accomplishment that their jobs give them.

I must admit that I’ve never been driven by a paycheck, titles and positions of prominence, the process of climbing the ladder of success, or prestigious perks that any job promised. (I guess my only ambition in that respect was to have an office with a window, which I never did achieve until I began freelancing and could look out the upstairs window of my house!) Maybe I just lacked initiative or ambition. The various points along the continuum of my working life have never offered a whole lot of recognition, either public or private. As an admitted introvert, perhaps that’s the way I preferred it.

Instead, the greatest thrills I’ve had in my career have been seeing my former students excel in their callings. Some  former students of both sexes have excelled in business, law, government, education, and pastoral ministry. Many of the girls have grown up to become godly mothers. But the thrill has been most gratifying when those callings found former students using what they had learned and working for a cause greater than themselves rather than pursuing merely materialistic endeavors.

My wife and I had to privilege of hosting one such former student for lunch this past weekend. We first got to know Lisa when she was only a second-grade student. She was enrolled in the second-grade class next door to my wife’s room. Lisa’s parents were good friends of my parents and attended the same church. I got to know Lisa when she was a student in the junior and senior English classes I taught. She was a model student: quiet, soft-spoken, but articulate when called upon; attentive; inquisitive; eager to both learn and excel at her studies; and always striving to do her best.

Perhaps the most illustrative symbol I had of Lisa’s dedication as a student was a research paper she did for me during her junior year. Whereas many students gave the assignment little forethought, waited until the last minute to choose a research topic, and then muddled their way through the process and produced mediocre papers, Lisa had a workable topic early in the selection process. She worked faithfully and consistently through the process of preparing the paper. And the result of her work was exemplary at every step of the production process. For years thereafter, I used Lisa’s paper as a model for other students. This past weekend, I mentioned that paper in our too-brief time of conversation, and Lisa admitted that she still had it among her collection of memorabilia. She had done her best, produced exemplary work, and was rightfully proud of the end product.

But Lisa did more than write an exemplary research paper. She graduated as valedictorian, attended college, and excelled, earning her degree in nursing and pursuing a successful medical career. She later taught a biology lab class for our local homeschool cooperative on the side. Partially as a result of her enthusiasm and thoroughness in that classroom environment, one of our own daughters majored in nursing, earning her BSN and having her own career in medicine.

But Lisa had even higher expectations for herself. It was during that year of teaching the lab class that Lisa sensed a higher call, the call to medical missions work in Bangladesh. Leaving a successful, well-paying career in nursing, she ventured out in response to that call and has been pursuing it faithfully ever since.

From that mission field, Lisa sent her supporting churches and individuals regular written updates of her work, the needs there, and the successes she witnessed and was a part of. She hosted numerous government officials, both of the host country and of the United States, including former U.S. senator of Tennessee Bill Frist. And her newsletters always exemplified the best practices of writing: they inspired, informed, persuaded, and occasionally even entertained. They grabbed the readers’ attention early and held it right to the very end, and they persuaded her readers to pray for and support her work on the field. In all her years of service, she has never been below 100 percent support, an unusual feat, if you know anything about foreign missionary work.

Lisa is driven by ambition, but it’s not an ambition for personal advancement or aggrandizement; it’s an ambition to pursue even greater opportunities for service to others. She is now back in the United States seeking to pursue her PhD in nursing education, which will open doorways of service as an international nursing consultant, opportunities that would otherwise not be open to her. Her career has not been about herself; it has been about others.

As my wife and I listened to how God has led in Lisa’s life and ministry, we could not help but be proud of her and her accomplishments. We know that we played only a small part in her work–in fact, her achievements have been more in spite of our involvement than because of it–but we rejoice in seeing how the Lord has blessed her work. She and her ministry have been more than repayment for our work as teachers.

Perhaps John the Apostle stated our feelings best: “I have no greater joy that to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 4). Although we have no blood relationship, Lisa has been like one of our children. And she’s done us proud. More importantly, I think the Lord Himself would say of her, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

 

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A Brief Step Back in Time

My wife, a second-grade teacher, usually has her mind, even during her summer vacation, on school-related matters. Sometimes, that leads us on excursions to scout out sites of potential field trips for her classes. I usually go along for the ride, unless it somehow deals with history.

That’s what we were doing yesterday. For several years, she had heard about the Hagood Mill, a location that she thought might be a good field-trip venue for second graders–an example of a small mountain settlement, including restored log cabins, grist mill, a cotton gin, blacksmith shop, pottery shed, and even a moonshine still. It even sounded of interest to me. After all, my own ancestors came from such humble beginnings (minus the still, I hope) in the mountains of western North Carolina, and it’s always good to remember where you’ve come from.

“Since Saturday is your birthday,” I said to her, “I’ll even take you out for lunch at some quaint local eatery near the rustic village.”

My wife readily agreed, and off we went, camera in hand. Since it was hot and projected only to get hotter, we took water bottles. “Don’t forget a couple of power bars,” I called over my shoulder as I headed for the garage. She got the water; she hadn’t heard my comment about food, so we had none.

The village was out in the middle of nowhere, much farther out than I ever dreamed it might be. En route, we passed a couple of seedy-looking eateries, one calling itself a cafe, the other named a diner. “Keep them in mind,” I muttered, hoping that we would find something better farther down the road.

Arriving at the site, we entered the office and inquired about a tour. It was supposed to be a self-guided tour, the lady at the desk told us. We looked around the gift shop briefly. It didn’t take more than a brief glance to cover everything inside. Then I asked the lady what she could tell us about the site before we embarked on our self-guided tour. My eyes glazed over quickly as she mumbled about something or other. But then she mentioned something that caught my ear: petroglyphs.

“Would you like to see the petroglyph exhibit?” she asked. “I’ll show them to you if you’re interested.” She moved toward the door before we could reply. We followed dutifully.

Petroglyphs are drawings left carved on stones by ancient peoples. (In our area, that could have been Cherokees, but it might also have been some earlier peoples.) The meanings of the drawings are unknown. Were they mere artistic renderings? Were they messages of some sort? “Good place for hunting.” “Good place for medicinal plants.” “Dangerous place for poisonous snakes.” (That was my thought as I later wandered in and out of and around the various buildings! They and the nearby stream provided excellent hiding places on a hot day for the venomous, slithering creatures.) I watched my steps as much as I did the historic features of the place.

The exhibit in the building that had been erected over the large, rounded stone on which some ancient inhabitants of or wayfarers through the area had drawn the petroglyphs was as-yet unfinished. What was there seemed interesting at a glance, but we had no time to do more than glance because our hostess ushered us through a door with a sign reading “Program in Progress” and into a dark room. As my eyes adjusted to the alternating yellow, red, and blue lights that were scattered around the edges of the exposed rock, I noticed that suspended over the edges of the rock on three sides of the room was a concrete walkway lined by a metal rail. A recorded narration was playing over the audio system. With a wave of her hand and a hasty “Goodbye,” our hostess disappeared. We spent several minutes looking for the petroglyphs, taking photos when we found them, and finished listening to the narration. (The photo shows one set of them, human figures enclosed in some sort of domicile with a little cupola on top. Many others were too small and faint for the camera to pick up.)

We then returned to the outer room, read the displays, and watched the audio-visual presentation. Leaving the petroglyph exhibit, we proceeded through the grist mill, cabins, and other buildings. We had seen many similar structures elsewhere before, most notably in the Smokies, but it was still interesting. The grounds around them were meticulously manicured, and volunteers were spreading mulch, picking up twigs and leaves that had blown down in a recent storm, and otherwise working to keep the grounds beautiful. (Shown here are a few representative glimpses of the buildings we saw.)

My wife injected a moment of levity into the otherwise somber and serene scene. I feared momentarily, however, that I had lost her. She seemed to have fallen for someone more suave and debonaire than I, a young man from the hills. But after a brief fling with him, she returned to my arms.

By the time we had finished, it was past my normal lunch time, and my stomach was letting me know it. We retraced our tracks, hunting for a place to eat. We hadn’t seen any but the two questionable-looking eateries on the way in. Both of them were by that time crowded to the gills with numerous construction crews. We chose to persevere and find something closer to home. We ended up dining at two other places we had long wanted to visit but hadn’t for lack of opportunity. Hunger has a way of creating the opportunity. We grabbed an Asian wrap and a Great American cheeseburger at the Whistle Stop Cafe followed by ice cream dessert from Pink Mama’s, both quaint and unusual businesses in Travelers Rest, South Carolina.

Now we know.

 

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

“New” Old Ways

“In their never-ending search for better ways to teach, educators are tempted to be enamored of anything new and to eschew what they perceive to be outdated or old-fashioned. Sometimes, however, some of the best ‘new’ teaching principles turn out to be long-forgotten or neglected old ways.” (from Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught, p. 267)

I’ve often wondered what today’s teachers do when the power goes out in their classrooms and they can’t use their computers and smart boards and projection screens. When the technology fails, does learning stop? Take time to consider the old ways of doing things, and be prepared for every occurrence. Keep the learning process going no matter what!

 

(Available from Amazon.com)

 

Nobodies

Reclusive poet Emily Dickinson wrote a short bit of verse titled “Nobody.” It proclaimed the virtue of being a “nobody,” someone who had no special significance or influence and received no public recognition. That’s how she wanted to be perceived because that’s what she thought she was.

I have often felt like that. I’m not famous for anything. I’m not widely known. Even when I go “back home” to the community where I grew up, no one knows me. When I left there to go to college in another state, no one, not even my closest friends or track teammates, kept up with me or what I was doing. Forty years later, when the hometown newspaper published an article about the release of my first book (along with my phone number and e-mail address, courtesy of the editor, who was a family friend), only two former classmates contacted me. Like Dickinson, I’m “nobody.” Are you nobody, too?

But then I’m reminded that God often uses nobodies, sometimes without their even knowing that they are being used.

Robert Fulghum wrote in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, “You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think. There are always those who couldn’t do without you. The rub is that you don’t always know who.”

First, you are important to your spouse, even if he or she sometimes doesn’t seem to acknowledge your value. Then you are important to your children–or, if you don’t have children, your sibling’s children, or those of a friend or a neighbor. Even little kids whom you don’t know–or maybe haven’t even seen before. But they see you. They watch you.

To quote Fulghum again, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”

But that also goes for the adults around us. They’re watching what we say and do. They notice how we deal with frustrations, disappointments, tragedies, and joys. They see how we treat others, not only our closest relations but also those who work for us or with us or for whom we work.

One day, in response to a statement by someone on Facebook, I replied, “It’s nice to hear from former students.” I wasn’t fishing (or is that phishing?) for posts from my former students but merely stating a fact. But I got several responses from people who had once survived one or more of the junior high history classes that I taught. Many of them responded. Soon, their posts turned from private messages to me to reminiscences among themselves about things that they recalled from my classes.

Many of the things that they mentioned I had long forgotten–but they had not. It was fun to be reminded of the incidents. (And a bit shocking as I read about how those junior high students now had children of their own who were older than the parents had been when they were in my classes!) It was especially humbling to know that a few of them had become teachers–even one a history teacher!–because of my influence.

I had never known, perhaps might never have known but for that Facebook exchange.

If you don’t think that you’ve had or are having an influence on someone else, think again. You might not be aware of the influence you’re having or have had in the past, but it’s there nonetheless. You might be a nobody in the world’s eyes, but even nobodies exert an influence on someone. Silent, unsung, unheralded. But important and influential to someone.

Teacher and author Jesse Stuart was right when he said, “I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

I hate to disagree with you, Emily Dickinson, but no one is really a nobody–not even you.

Put the Cookies on the Bottom Shelf!

An effective teacher teaches such that the lowest-achiever, the least capable student in the classroom, can understand. If the lowest student can understand a concept, certainly everyone else will be able to. . . .

The best teachers take complex concepts and present them simply and meaningfully to their students when the time and subject matter are appropriate and the students are ready to learn them. This does not mean “dumbing it down” or being anti-intellectual. It does not mean either resorting to mere entertainment or rejecting the teaching of higher-order thinking skills. It does not mean teaching junior high and high school students using one’s college class notes. And it does not mean assigning professional-level materials as “ancillary” or “supplemental” readings.

It does mean taking students from where they currently are, making them stretch (but not too much at once), and guiding them slowly onward, as they are ready and as far as you can take them.

Let’s start putting those cookies on the bottom shelf!

(Excerpts from Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught by Dennis L. Peterson, 2017, pp. 208, 215)

Copyright (c) 2018

Following the Crowd

“Just because ‘everyone else’ is doing it doesn’t mean that you must do it, too!” Mother used to tell me when I was trying to convince her to let me do something that my friends were doing. “If ‘everyone else’ goes and jumps off a cliff, are you going to do that, too?”

Of course, I had no better comeback to that logic than a mere, “But Mother. . . .” And that didn’t carry any weight with her. Mother had spoken, and that was that!

Today, we see a lot of people “jumping on the bandwagon” to do what “everyone else is doing” without really thinking logically about what they are doing or the consequences. We see it in politics, of course. Everyone seems to want to be on whichever side is winning, regardless of what the candidate is or stands for. We see it in clothing fashions. Not only kids but also adults who are “old enough to know better” are wearing today what as a kid I was ashamed to wear to work with Daddy. (I recall being embarrassed if I had to wear to work with him jeans that had holes in the knees. Today, people take pride in wearing jeans that have intentional, machine-made rips and tears all over them!) We also see the “bandwagon” syndrome in churches. No one seems to want to be left behind by the latest trends and fads.

Much of the modern literature flooding the market is pure fluff, filled with the latest jargon, cliches, and buzzwords but of little lasting value. Christian education certainly is not immune to this tendency. From time to time, the fad fashioners change the names of their fads and repackage them (e.g., “School to Work,” “No Child Left Behind,” “Common Core”), but they remain the same old weakening of the educational process. And time-strapped teachers are susceptible to grasp at anything that promises to be easy and less time consuming. In fact, in many cases, even Christian publishers are more than willing to hop on the trendy bandwagon, following novel methods and ideas that, in the long term, do not work. Often, they even do damage and hinder the learning of their students.

In following the crowd to chase such fads and trends, such publishers and teachers are ignoring the  tried and true principles of effective education. Rather than chasing after the ever-changing fads with the rest of the crowd, why not return to the tried and true? The biblical principles of “precept upon precept, line upon line” of ancient Israel are still valid today. These are the principles that John Milton Gregory explained in his classic work The Seven Laws of Teaching.  Rather than constantly changing, these laws or principles remain forever effective. As author and teacher Jesse Stuart wrote, “Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal” because he or she “lives on and on through his students.”

(Learn more about the practical application of Gregory’s seven laws of teaching and these educational principles in my book Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught, available at www.amazon.com.)

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

Good Teaching

“[E]ducation doesn’t depend on the latest technological gadgets or machinery or publications. Good teaching is not restricted by the availability or unavailability of ready-made materials. It depends on having students who want to learn and are ready to work hard to do so. It depends on having teachers who are dedicated to serving the Lord by teaching their subjects. . . .”

(Available at http://www.amazon.com.)

True Education

Good teaching is not restricted by the availability or unavailability of ready-made materials. It depends on having students who want to learn and are ready to work hard to do so. It depends on having teachers who are dedicated to serving the Lord by teaching their subjects, which often include subjects that are out of their field because they are the only available warm body to meet the current need.

–From the Preface of Teacher

 

(available at http://www.amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle versions)

Thoughts on Starting School Again

After having my wife at home all summer vacation, I’ve been going through withdrawal this week as she’s been attending teacher in-service training in preparation for starting another school year. While she’s been away, I’ve tried to busy myself with a writing project that deals with education. Those two facts have set my mind to thinking about school. I have mixed feelings. Having spent 19 years in the classroom myself and another 11 years as a textbook author, I sort of miss the classroom. But then I see all the preparations my wife has to do and all the meetings she has to attend, some lasting past my bedtime, and I reconsider!

That said, in this blog post, I just want to offer some quotations, food for thought about education. Enjoy!

_______________________________

“Learning is life’s greatest game–it is not work.

Learning is a dessert–it is not a vegetable.

Learning is a reward–it is not a punishment.

Learning is a pleasure–it is not a chore.

Learning is a privilege–it is not a denial.”

(Ladies Home Journal, May 1963)

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play IS serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

(Fred Rogers)

“A parent gives life, but a parent gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

(Henry Adams)

“There are three great questions which in life we have over and over again to answer. Is it right or wrong? Is it true or false? Is it beautiful or ugly? Our education ought to help us to answer these questions.”

John Lubbock

And my favorite:

“I am firm in my believe that a teacher lives on and on through his students. I will live if my teaching is inspirational, good, and stands firm for good values and character training. Tell me how can good teaching ever die? Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

(Jesse Stuart)

Best Lessons from Worst Teachers

Sometimes the best lessons one can learn come from the worst teachers.

Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?

As I recall the teachers I’ve had, from first grade through graduate school, however, I think that statement is absolutely correct. I’ve learned some of the most valuable lessons about how not to teach from teachers who taught incorrectly. (The bad teachers will go nameless in this blog!)

Knowing the subject matter is critical for any teacher. Students gain confidence and respect for a teacher who “knows his stuff.” But knowledge alone is insufficient. The teacher has to possess far more than mere knowledge. He or she must love the subject, and that love will come through to the students as enthusiasm, energy, vitality. The teacher must love the students, which means holding them to high standards of conduct and performance, making them work and exert themselves, and encouraging them to stretch their minds.

But an effective teacher must also know what he or she does not know and admit as much. Many teachers, when asked a challenging question, tried to muddle through an answer, hopeful that they would give the impression that they knew when really they didn’t. Apparently, such teachers thought that if they didn’t at least sound knowledgeable, the students would lose respect for them. Often, such teachers were evident by confusing, convoluted “answers” filled with a lot of meaningless jargon.

In fact, students respect a teacher who will openly admit that he or she doesn’t know an answer–but who works to find the answer and report back to the student what he or she has learned. A successful teacher is a perpetual student. No one ever knows it all about anything. Anything.

A successful teacher who is continually learning his subject matter will be eager to share that learning with the students. And that enthusiasm is contagious. An adage about writers is “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” One could paraphrase that for teachers: “No enthusiasm in the teacher, no enthusiasm in the learner.”

We’ve no doubt all known teachers who just went through the motions. They came to class every day dragging their feet and dreading every moment in the classroom. They took advantage of every break away from students. They showed no desire to enhance lesson plans, lecture notes, and learning activities, preferring to do the same things year after year after year. They seemed to be putting in time until they could retire.

I once had a history teacher who often got so lost in his own world of history that he seemed to forget where he was. He sat behind his desk as he lectured. Sometimes he stared out the window, and we could see in his eyes that he was in a world far away, perhaps in ancient Egypt among the pyramids of the pharaohs. Suddenly, he stood up like a rocket being launched, raised his voice, and uttered some profound statement (maybe about those pyramids or pharaohs). Then he walked slowly around the room, continuing to lecture calmly.

Lecturing from behind one’s desk is not necessarily the best way to keep a class of high school students awake, but that teacher showed how deeply involved one could get in the subject he loved. When we saw Mr. Lakin staring out the window with that far-away look in his eyes, we knew that he loved (and lived) history and was lost in the past. He wanted us to catch that vision of the past, too. I don’t know about my classmates, but I did. When he stared out the window and saw Egypt, his verbal description took me with him, and I saw those same pyramids.

Mr. Booher had problems knowing how to deal with junior high class clowns, but he taught me a love for geography and map work through his quiet, knowledgeable encouragement of my efforts. But his lack of classroom discipline also taught me to set a standard of conduct early in the year and then stick to it consistently. I learned from his example that a teacher can always relax classroom rules if the students prove they can handle such freedom, but it’s well nigh impossible to “crack down” once one has permitted lax behavior to become the norm.

I also recall many teachers whom I saw come to class with only the textbook in hand, and I saw them go home in the afternoon the same way. No homework papers to grade and return to students. No lesson plan book. No extra materials brought from home or the library to share with the class. No interesting object lessons.

For some reason, the coaches were notorious for this. Many such teachers “taught” by simply assigning problems or readings to be done during the class hour while the teacher looked through Time or The Sporting News. They had us students grade our papers in class so they wouldn’t have any work to do after school or when they got home that night.

I had one math teacher who began every class by assigning a set of problems and then spent most of the class period smoking in the teachers’ lounge. Was it any wonder that the boys in the class got into trouble? No one but the teacher was surprised when they jury-rigged the door to open only with great difficulty for a week and then rigged it the next week to open too easily. The teacher, having acclimated herself to exerting great effort to open it that first week, nearly injured herself the next week when the door suddenly flew open with ease.

A few teachers, however, were always bringing something interesting to class. Their arms or book bags or briefcases were bulging with things they wanted to share with us. They believed in “teaching beyond the textbook,” in sharing with us some of the things they had discovered on personal trips or in their private reading. Quite often, the things brought in had nothing to do with the day’s lesson, but it was something extra that the teacher wanted to share, and it whetted our appetite for learning. A hornet’s nest. A geode. A thingamabob or a dowhichit. It was like “Teacher’s Show and Tell.”

It doesn’t have to be great, fantastic, earth-shattering things; it can be little, simple things. An old photograph with a story behind it. An old newspaper clipping. A letter from a soldier during the war. Or even a gun or bayonet (back in the old days when that was allowed) brought back as a war souvenir. An interesting story from an eccentric character. Or a short selection from Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story.

One can learn important lessons from even teachers with bad practices. But it’s always refreshing to learn from a teacher who does it right.