Tuesday, August 28, 2012

First Days of School

Today was the first day of classes at Dordt. I had the wonderful experience of meeting up with 65 students beginning Education 101 today.

Ah, the first day...

I have had a total of 33 "First Day of School" experiences so far, if you count everything from preschool on. Sort of weird when I think of it that way--since I was 4 years old, I've never not had a "First Day" that year! Someone once commented to me that this is one of the best things about teaching: the rhythms of the academic year...beginnings, middles, endings, breaks...  I love it.

I remember my first college class very vividly. It was the fall of 1994. My friends and I--perhaps a little cocky--entered the lecture hall and sat down right in the front row. And then we noticed the professor eyeing us.

Clad in a "Marvin the Martian" t-shirt, shorts, and sandals.

Shaved head and long gotee, John Lennon-style glasses perched on his nose.

Not standing behind the podium, but sitting on top of it.

And staring at us.

(Too late to change seats?)

And he started off class talking about the percentage of people who typically did not pass the class. As my friend Matt put it, "a good way to ensure the students start taking notes immediately." We were all thoroughly impressed (or terrified). Looking back, I guess I wasn't sure what to expect from my first college class...but that was probably not what I was expecting.

Now, this was 18 years ago. The freshmen in my EDUC 101 class this morning were...born 18 years ago. (Yikes.) I'm hoping they had a less terrifying, but equally intellectually challenging first day with me. But the fact that I remember the details of my first college class so clearly means it was a big deal for me. I can admit it now, I was scared on my first day of college.

The big thing I noticed today (more than ever before) is how the newness of this experience is off-putting for some students. I had about five students stay after class in each section this morning to be sure they were clear on (what I thought were) small points we had talked about.

Not small to them. This is their new world and, for some of them, it's a scary place for all the unknowns.

Good to remember. First days--for all their excitement--can be scary.

And...if I'm honest with myself...I was a little scared this morning too. Teaching is a fearful thing, you know? Putting yourself on display like that. Hoping you don't fall flat on the first day.

If you know any teachers, wish them well as they get started this year. If you know any students, lift them up as they begin a new year. Pray for them. Encourage them. Love up on them.

First days are scary, after all.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Guitar and a Vacuum Cleaner: All You Need to Teach

Okay, in my defense, I had to get these things out of my house, because they were cluttering up the entryway from the kitchen into the garage. But...I did carry a guitar and a vacuum cleaner into the building as I headed up to my office this morning.

And no less than three colleagues commented on the odd pairing.

The best quote of the morning:
"Dave! A guitar and a vacuum cleaner? I guess that's all you need to teach!"

He was smiling as he said it, so I know it was meant well. Also, I taught his kids as a middle school science teacher in a former life, so he knows the (sometimes non-traditional) angle from which I approach my classroom practice.

By now you're probably wondering just why I would be hefting this odd pair up the stairs toward the faculty offices. Fair enough...

I'm very accustomed to teaching with a guitar close by. One never knows when the right moment will pop up for that perfect song! Now that I don't have a classroom of my own (really), I'm planning to hang my first guitar (20 years old now...yikes) on the wall of my office. Call it "art"...but there's also part of me that can't quite imagine not having a guitar at hand when I need one.

And the vacuum...well, that's a little harder to explain. It was time for us to invest in a new one at home, but the former middle school science teacher in me can't bear to throw out a possible piece of lab equipment. An old vacuum cleaner? So much potential! Maybe I'll take it apart and it will become a model wind tunnel, or maybe we'll use it when we talk about teaching meteorology (gotta create some wind!), or maybe I'll just keep it in the back supply room for when we make a real mess of the lab in the Methods for Teaching Science course I teach.

My colleague's comment got me thinking though...what do I need to teach? What is preference, and what is essential?

Do I need a SMARTBoard to teach well?
Do I need an iPad?
Do I need high-speed Internet access?
Do I need an overhead projector?
Do I need a chalkboard?
Do I need pencil and paper?

I am a techie teacher, after all. I have a pretty strong preference for teaching with technology--assuming the tech tools actually enhance what I'm doing.

But do I need them?

I'm blessed to be in a teaching situation where I have a whole lot of great tools close at hand. I know of many colleagues in education who don't have the same blessings.

I'm picturing a school I know of in a nearby town--a friend's kids attend there--where they have about a dozen computers that are shared by the whole student body of K-8 students. That's a different situation.

I'm picturing a school I know of in the Dominican Republic--a former student is teaching there--where they are happy to have any cast-off colored pencils, crayons, notebooks, etc. American kids are ready to toss out at the end of the year. That's a different situation.

I'm picturing a school I know of in Nigeria--another former student teaching there--where they have Internet access...sometimes. They have electricity...sometimes. That's a very different situation.

What qualifies as a "necessity" for teaching in 2012? Is it dependent on the surrounding culture?

Time for more reflection...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Wheels Didn't Fall Off...

I'm struggling a little bit to reconcile not teaching in a K-8 setting this year. That has been such a large part of my identity for the past 14 years--probably too much of my identity, actually (see my last blog post for more about that.)

I dropped my kids off at school yesterday for the first day of school for the new year. It was really, really strange to walk through the hallways and see the place as "just a parent" now. Actually, the weirdest part was having so many of my former students waving with a "Hi Mr. Mulder!" or giving me high-fives in the hall; I even got a few hugs.

I was very involved in the life of school for years. In a lot of ways, I thought of myself as a "linchpin" member of the team--involved in many things, providing leadership in many ways, relating well with the kids, the facutly, the staff, the administration. Especially in my most recent role as Technology Coordinator, I felt like a critical piece, keeping everything moving down the rails.

But now I'm not there. At least, not in the same sort of role.

And you know what? The wheels didn't fall off. The train is moving down the track and picking up speed, and I'm not on it--not the engineer, not the conductor, not even a passenger, really.

I'm not a linchpin. At least, not anymore, if I ever was.

Causes me to pause, and reflect on just how important a role I played there. This comes out of a place of selfishness and self-centeredness, probably. Do I have an over-inflated sense of self-importance? (Very likely.) They say, "everyone is replaceable," and while I know in my head that is true, my heart sometimes begs to differ. My sinful human nature picks at me and makes me think I'm somehow irreplaceable.

But I'm thankful to see that things are working well without me there. My kids reported that the first day was a really good day. Many of my former colleagues' Facebook posts last night were celebrating a wonderful first day.

Actually, I'm thankful that it doesn't all depend on me. God has provided great teachers and staff members at the school. I was blessed to be a part of the team for eleven years, and believe I used my gifts and talents in useful service. I contributed to the Kingdom in large ways and small ways throughout my time there, both with individual students and teachers, with whole classes and the whole staff, and even influencing decision-making for the entire school. Maybe I was a linchpin team member while I was there, but God has blessed the school with new staff members to replace those of us who left this year, and He's raising up new leaders even now to continue to shape the direction the school will go in the future.


Today, I dropped my kids off again.

"Bye, Dad!" They jumped out of the van, and ran to meet their friends. They didn't look back.

But I did.

I looked back as I drove away. And I said a prayer of thanks for the school, for the place it has been and the place it is and will be.

Today at school, Christ's name is being proclaimed. Teachers are putting tremendous amounts of effort into excellent teaching, building community, and developing the Kingdom. Kids are learning--and not just math and science and music and the like; they are learning to be disciples!

Is school different without me there this year? Probably. But it's probably not different in any way that really matters, thanks be to God!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Do a Little More for Jesus" -- The Trap of Expectations and Obligations

I'd like to share a video from one of my favorite bands, Mutemath. Posted below is the video for their song "Blood Pressure."

Kind of a trippy video, isn't it? I really enjoy these guys for both their musicality as well as their heart--they sing about stuff that resonates with me. While not a "Christian" band, the band members have expressed their faith in several venues, and it comes to expression both lyrically and thematically.

This song in particular hits me, especially as I think about the pressures on Christian teachers in terms of expectations and obligations. The line in the song, "Why can't you do a little more for Jesus?" sums up a lot of this. I think Christian teachers (okay...me, anyway) often take on a lot of extra stuff because it's expected that they will. In my most recent school position, I was serving on six separate committees, in addition to all of my other duties as a teacher. I was also serving as an adjunct instructor at a Christian college, and heavily involved in my church, both in leading a small group and regularly leading Sunday worship.

"Why can't you do a little more for Jesus?" You want me to coach the 7th grade girls basketball team too? You want me to serve on the Professional Development committee? You want me to serve on the church education committee? You want me to lead singing in chapel one Wednesday a month?

Somehow, it's almost a badge of honor to brag about how busy we are in Kingdom work.

I'm gradually shifting my thinking about this. While I've always been quick to volunteer for (too many) great Kingdom tasks, I'm really starting to think this is perhaps harmful for teachers. We have a finite number of hours in a day, after all. And for those of us with spouses and families, "Doing a little more for Jesus" might mean neglecting other important people in our lives.

Please hear me right--I'm not saying that Christian teachers shouldn't be active in other Kingdom work outside of their classrooms, because I think it's important that we use our gifts and talents in many venues, both in our vocations and our avocations. What I am saying is that when schools, communities, and even the teachers themselves fall into the trap of expectations and obligations, this is dangerous and unhealthy. (My pastor calls this "should-ing on people"--what a great phrase, isn't it?) If we feel obligated to serve on one more committee, if we think that we ought to plan every chapel for the next year because everyone is expecting us to, if we are neglecting our own needs or those of our family because of what we "should" be doing, we are missing the boat. I'm speaking here from painful first-hand experience. It's hard for me to say "no" to things, because I there's some part of me that thinks that if I have the gifts and talents to do something, I should do them. If I'm not, I'm somehow not doing enough for Jesus.

Right...doing it for Jesus. Except that...often...I'm doing it for...me. I want to look good. I want people to notice all the great stuff I'm doing and praise me for it. 

What I'm realizing is that this is idolatry. (Props to Tim Keller and my small group from church for helping to shape my thinking here.) I recognize that I'm making doing good stuff into an idol that I worship. I want people to think highly of me. I want people to value me for the things I do. I might even think that somehow I can win God's favor by working hard enough at it and doing enough good things--the things I "should" be doing.

Thanks be to God that He loved me first. There is nothing I can do that will make God love me any more or any less than He loves right now, and He loves as much as it is possible for an infinite God to love. What a thought!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Politics and Faith Development

A couple years back, during the 2010 mid-term election season, my friend Dusty posted a provocative question on his Facebook page:
If Jesus were here in body like He was 2000 years ago, would He be a Republican or a Democrat? Liberal or Conservative? Would He join the Tea Party?


As you might imagine, this prompted a pretty interesting conversation between folks of lots of different perspectives.

Here was one of my contributions early in the discussion:
I actually had a conversation about this topic during the 2008 Presidential Campaign with my 7th grade Bible class. At the outset of our discussion, most of the kids assumed Jesus would be a Republican, but mostly because they identify Christians with Republicans. (I'm thinking they were parroting their parents--Sioux County *is* one of the most staunchly Republican counties in the whole nation.) One outspoken 7th grade girl (whose parents happen to lean left) was bold enough to speak up that she thought there is no way Jesus could be a Republican, because he cares to much about the poor, the sick, the beaten-down, etc. (Ouch.) THAT prompted a lot of conversation!  

I changed the subject a bit so we could talk about the different "political parties" in Palestine in Jesus' day: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots. The Pharisees were definitely conservative--focused on the Law and personal piety. The Sadducees were also conservative--interested in the status quo as the wealthy aristocracy. The Zealots were liberal with a slight anarchist bent--they'd do what it takes to get rid of the Roman occupiers.  

In our conversation, we noted that Jesus didn't really fit in with any of those groups, and spoke against all of them (either through actions or by words). Of course, there's no direct correlation between these "parties" and our contemporary American parties, but the key theme we noted was that Jesus was much more concerned with people than politics. (He seemed to get *everyone* rankled about something!) :-) 

Maybe that's the point? Jesus wasn't/isn't a politician; He seems much more concerned about loving people than who has political power.

Our Facebook conversation went on for some time, and another friend, Michael, suggested that Dusty's original question is perhaps the wrong question to be asking. Michael suggested that Jesus would be probably be more concerned with us as individuals (rather than political affiliations), and how we are each working to advance the kingdom. That really got me thinking, and here is another of my contributions in response:
I agree with Michael, but what does this look like in community? In his first post, Michael brings up the importance of personal commitment to advancing the Kingdom (which I TOTALLY agree with). My concern is (not for your post, but for our "Christian" culture) that we're TOO concerned with people's individual responses to Christ's call--i.e., having a "personal relationship with Jesus." I don't want to sound like I'm minimizing the importance of this relationship; Jesus *is* my personal Lord and Savior and I'm continually awed and humbled by His love for me.   

It's just that...well...the history of God's people is the history of God's PEOPLE--not as individuals, but as a group, right? So...I agree with you that we have to "pick sides"...but what if the way for Jesus' followers is in fact a "third way"--not "liberal" or "conservative," not "Republican" or "Democrat"...maybe it's more that we need to try to be active in politics while recognizing the brokenness of it all too! Jesus isn't a Republican, Democrat, Pharisee, Sadducee, Zealot, Marxist, Capitalist, Socialist, Fascist, Green, <insert-your-flavor-here> any more than He's Reformed, Baptist, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, or <insert-your-flavor-here>.   

I sometimes think we worry far too much about trying to fit Jesus into our box--our way of thinking--that we miss out on his real message: to build the Kingdom of God. What does that mean? While I agree with Michael about being personally invested in the political "scene," I'm still struggling for how to answer that question for the greater Body of Christ. How do we *communally* respond to the political fracas?

Jesus never shied away from the culture around him. Think about the rag-tag group of disciples Jesus picked for himself, including:
  • Matthew, the tax collector (hired by the Romans, hated by the Jews), 
  • Simon the Zealot (dedicated to overthrowing the Romans), 
  • James and John, the "Sons of Thunder" (they sound like big talkers to me), 
  • Thomas (the skeptic who demanded proof of the Resurrection), and
  • Peter (the hot-headed, act-first-and-think-second, roughneck fisherman.)
Others, while not part of the Twelve, clearly represented the ruling elite: Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man and probably part of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin. 

People of all stripes were drawn to Jesus, learned to follow Jesus. After Jesus' death and resurrection and ascension, they formed a new community, the Body. And while they were of course living in the culture that surrounded them, they were also counter-cultural, in much the same way that Christ himself was.

Lately, I'm thinking more about Jesus and politics and how we should communally respond in our cultural setting as the Body in the 21st Century--perhaps ever more since I'm seeing more and more ads on TV of one politician (or party) lambasting another candidate for President. Everyone is so quick to sling mud and rake muck that it's hard to have a reasonable conversation about political stuff, let alone a faith-informed one. And I really am concerned that many Christians (at least around here) automatically reduce a Christian response to politics to simply voting the Republican ticket. (For the record, I am a registered Republican, but I'd definitely call myself a moderate. If there was a viable third party--someplace in the middle--that's probably where my views would most neatly line up.)

Where does this land us in terms of teaching Christianly? Well...I'm thinking a lot lately about how faith development happens in schools. Scary to bring up a topic like politics, even in a Christian school, because there is clearly a range of perspectives within the umbrella of Christendom. In some ways, it might be harder to talk about politics in a Christian school, which is a sad comment, really.

That said, I think distinctively Christian teachers must address potentially controversial topics like this one. We don't learn discipleship by blindly nodding along to what teachers, church leaders, or other authority figures pontificate. Discipleship, in my mind at least, is a process of actively engaging culture through the lens of Scripture, within the support of the Body.

Learning to be a disciple means we have to engage the world around us! If we, as distinctively Christian teachers, really want to help develop our students' faith lives, we must be willing to have open conversations, even about challenging topics like this.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


There's a whole swirl of things behind this...
- I have been using Twitter for the past year or so as a personal professional development tool. This has actually been pretty huge for me, and I've read a lot of valuable things. I'm findind that if you follow interesting people, they will post things that will challenge (or affirm) your thinking, which results in learning.
- I have been struggling with insomnia lately, and when I can't sleep, I find myself reading interesting things other people have posted on Twitter.
- As I read interesting things on Twitter, it sometimes gets my writing juices flowing (like right now.)

Okay, so that's the background. 

I've been blogging here for a couple of months now, and I'm really starting to enjoy it. I might be hooked in fact. I love to write, and whether people are reading it or not, I like the idea of publishing my thoughts on stuff that matters to me someplace. (Why not in a free, online venue?)

Which brings me to the point where I start questioning how much time I should allow myself to spend fiddling with this. And then, in one of my insomniac Twitter sessions, I come across a gem like this: 10 Benefits of Blogging.

Boom. Justification.