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

Tell Us a Farm Story, Daddy!

When my siblings and I were just youngsters, our father often told us stories from his Depression-era childhood, when he grew up on a dairy farm. Daddy was a sole son, so he had a lot of responsibility on the farm, but he also collected a lot of experiences that became grist for his story mill.

Although we kids viewed his storytelling as a means of our entertainment (and maybe Daddy also was entertained by telling them), there was a greater purpose behind them. He wanted to preserve our heritage for us, and he hoped that we would remember not only the stories but also the lessons they taught.

We called Daddy’s stories “farm stories,” although the setting for some of them was not the farm. “Tell us a farm story, Daddy!” we’d cry in chorus when we’d see him sit down in his recliner after supper. Sometimes he would be too tired from a long day of work. But often he regaled us with several stories, much to our delight, even if we’d heard the same stories over and over.

Sometimes he told stories other than “farm stories.” Such as Peter Rabbit. But it was his version of that story, because he always added some details that weren’t in the traditional version. For example, he might start out, “One upon a time, there was a family of rabbits: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, Peter–and Sharp!”

Having heard the story repeatedly, we knew that Sharp was coming, but we always interrupted him at that point to ask, “Who was Sharp?”

He never told us; we just accepted it as an unexplained but essential part of his story. We accepted the added character so readily that whenever he began to tell the story and commenced listing the characters, we all chimed in unison at the appropriate instant, “and Sharp!

Part of our growing up included my parents’ instruction in important life values. The farm stories that Daddy told included, subtly, those values. Our parents sought to instill those values in us with the hope and prayer that they would one day become our values, values that we accepted not as theirs but as our own convictions.

Preservation of such values comes as a result of tales told generation after generation. Failure to tell and retell them and failure to listen to and heed them or to think lightly of them leads to their loss. I hope that doesn’t happen to our family’s stories and values and heritage. That’s why I told Daddy’s “farm stories” to my kids when they were growing up, with a few of my own stories thrown in for good measure. And I hope that my kids repeat those same stories (with a few of their own thrown in) to my grandchildren.

When I’m gone or unable to tell those value-laden stories, I hope that my children and grandchildren will be able to hear them from other sources, including reading them in the articles and books I’ve written. That was the main reason behind my writing of Look Unto the Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee https://www.amazon.com/Look-Unto-Hills-Stories-Tennessee/dp/1975798899 .

What about the stories of your own heritage? What are you doing to preserve and pass on that family history? Make it a point to tell or write down a few of your own stories, “that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psa. 78:6-7).

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)

 

Twice- (or More Often) Told Tales

Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Some books are to be tested, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Such is similarly the case with stories, especially stories that involve one’s family. Some family stories are good for one or two tellings, but a few stories are to be told over and over again. They are, like the title of a set of books that I was given as a child, Stories that Never Grow Old. And they should be told and retold so often that one’s children can tell them accurately to their own children, and their children’s children to their children.

They do not have to be long, elaborate, detail-laden stories; they might be mere passing incidents. But, told and retold, they become part of family lore and potentially carry with them strong family values. That’s how the children of Israel passed their religion from one generation to another with the purpose “that the generation to come might know” (see Psa. 78:1-7).

For example, when our daughters were young, my wife and I were driving in the city with them one day. We were driving the speed limit, but when a traffic light that we were quickly approaching turned yellow, I couldn’t stop safely, so I sped up ever so slightly and sang out, “We’re going through! The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”

In response to my daughters’ curious inquiries of “What was that?” and “What did you mean, Daddy?” I told them about Fred, a college roommate who was a cinema major/speech minor. Fred had a lot of speaking assignments for his classes, and he practiced all of them before the mirror for hours on end. One night, when I was trying to study int he room, he was practicing an excerpt from James Thurber’s story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” As he practiced, he was increasingly dissatisfied with his rendition of one particular segment, and he kept repeating it in attempts to get it right–the right sound, volume, tone, and intensity of feeling. In fact, he repeated it so often that I had that part of the story memorized as well as he did by the end of the evening. And I’ve never forgotten it.

When I went through the caution light, the situation reminded me of Fred’s story line, and I instinctively repeated it aloud. After I had told the story to the girls, I used the phrase every time I went through an intersection on a yellow light. They soon became so familiar with it from my repeated recitation that they started saying it before I could.

The other day, one of my daughters told me of an incident that occurred as she and her husband were driving in their city. They had almost entered an intersection when the traffic light changed to yellow. Reflexively, she cried out, “We’re going through! The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”

Her surprised husband looked at her strangely and asked, “What was that outburst all about?”

Suddenly realizing what she had done, my daughter burst out laughing.

“What made you say that?” her husband pressed.

Between fits of laughter, she explained the whole backstory of the exclamation. Now he knows. The story is spreading.

My sons-in-law are getting used to such things as they happen often in our family. Just as they’ve become used to saying, in chorus, “We were meant to be here!” whenever we’re out shopping and find a parking spot close to the store when the parking lot is crowded.

I recounted that lengthy explanation as an illustration of how family stories, legends, and even values get passed from generation to generation. That particular incident is inconsequential, but some family stories are critical to an understanding of who we are as a family, how we got to where we are today, or what makes us tick as a family.

What stories do you have to tell your descendants? Tell them! And then retell them–over and over again. Your family will, in turn, tell them again. “That the generations to come might know. . . .”

 

 

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

The Importance of Stories in Teaching

“Everyone loves a story. Watch people during a long verbal presentation such as a speech or sermon. Minds wander. Eyes glaze over. Heads begin to nod. But then the speaker begins to share a story about someone to illustrate his point, and all waning attention is restored. Minds sharpen and refocus. Chins rise from chests. And the listeners become more attentive. That is the nature of stories about people. We can capitalize on that fact by teaching through the stories of biographical study.”

[Excerpt from Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught, pp. 193-94, available at https://www.amazon.com/Teacher-Teaching-Taught-Christian-Education/dp/1974529835.]

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

Don’t Forget the “Average” Kid!

Some classrooms will probably have one or two students who could become stars, but our teaching must not be toward them; rather, if should be toward reaching the average child. That does not mean that we ignore the need to enrich the education of the stars; they are an additional responsibility, not the primary target.

It is much easier and more enjoyable for the teacher to address needs and interests of the more advanced student whose level of understanding is nearer his or her own than to work patiently with the common, average, or slower students who make up the vast majority of the students in our classes. (Unlike Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon, not all of our students are or can be “above average.”) The teacher is called to ensure that all students learn, not just the “stars.”

The ever-present tendency is to ignore or bypass the average and low students with callous disregard, to write them off as of no consequence. Remember, however, that history shows that it is not generally the “stars” whom God ends up using most in life but rather the average student, the plodder, the one who struggles and yet perseveres over time because a teacher cared enough to work with him or her.

[Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught, p. 210. Available at http://www.amazon.com.]

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

 

On Moral Development

Merely teaching our students to “be good” is not enough; even a “good” student may in reality be very immoral. Rather, we must teach them to be godly. According to our standard, Scripture, godliness is nothing less than perfection [“But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16)]. That is God’s standard, not man’s. Lest we excuse ourselves that it is an impossible standard, we have as our living role model Jesus Christ, who “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The degree of our students’ morality, then, is limited only by their perception of God’s holiness. Therefore, if we want moral students, we must continually emphasize God’s holiness.

In short, this view holds that what one does is an indication of one’s relationship to the Lord and an understanding of who God is. But it also operates fully aware of the true condition of one’s heart. A true Christian is not one who is one outwardly but who is one of the heart. (See Romans 2:28-29.) Godliness, then, is knowing what God knows, viewing things as He views them, thinking as He thinks, and then acting according to His understanding.

In Christian education, the issue is how teachers can educate students such that they accept God’s Word as their own personal standard and act consistently with its principles. The educator must teach, as John Stott wrote, both “micro-ethics” (personal morality) and “macro-ethics” (social responsibility), and both must be based on the principle of godliness.

[Excerpt from Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught, Dennis L. Peterson, 2017, p. 81. Available at http://www.amazon.com.]

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

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