A Journey in Teaching
I've been told I need a filter…

Jul
16

Two days ago I started writing about Gordon College being in the news. Yesterday I highlighted some of the factors on why the college will not change in the short term. Today I want to finish by offering solace to those who want to see change today.

First, lets be clear about the scope of the issue. Gordon (and other conservative christian schools) is not banning certain groups of people from campus. It is requiring that any prospective members sign a statement agreeing to behave by certain community standards.The issue is not one of institutional integrity. It is of untenable policy. For those who want to see Gordon torn down and consigned to the ash bin of history I have nothing for you. You are welcome to go check out the cable news pundit of your choosing. For those who want Gordon to become a better version of itself, keep reading.

I personally believe Gordon and all schools like it will eventually change their policies toward LGBT people. I do not know when this will happen or the precise scope of these changes but they will. But when they do change it will not be to acquiesce to a new cultural norm of government mandate but because they believe are following Christ more clearly as an institution. 

I do not think many secular people fully understand the religious scope of a place like Gordon College. I’ll try to lay it out as clearly as I can. Gordon is a (conservative) Christian college. This means they want to follow Jesus in all they do. To follow Jesus they read, believe and try to follow the Bible. At the moment they believe the Bible says LGBT behavior is sinful. Hence their policies on belief and behavior. I realize you might not agree with this. That’s totally fine. But Gordon genuinely believes the above. They have a right to do so. And until the calculus above changes, the policies pertaining to LGBT people will not change in any profound ways.

If you are an LGBT person or supporter who has been burned by your experiences at Gordon or another school their is hope however. I offer a few ideas to put out the fire in the short term of this issue.

1) Petitions. This is already occurring. The trustees cannot ignore their student body and faculty if they are constantly confronted with the inadequacy of their current policy. I would focus petitions on small attainable things like meetings with school leaders. Asking big, direct things will have the leaders cocoon themselves in fears about money (see part 2) and religious liberty.

2) Call for consistency. I do not know how strictly Gordon enforces its community standards. But if it is not expelling straight students for premarital sex or drinking alcohol but are expelling students who come out as LGBT than this is an easy thing to confront them with. LGBT students need to be assured in writing that they will not be subject to school discipline and/or community rejection if they are publicly out on campus. If Gordon is unwilling to provide a safe campus for LGBT people because of their religious beliefs they need to say that openly. 

3) Call for some distinctions in employment. At the moment I can understand Gordon not wanting its trustees or professors to be openly gay. But what about their landscapers, or the construction workers who build their next building? Do they have to sign the community standards? If not I am not sure why they are asking for the federal exemption. If they are I think this is an easy compromise that allows for Gordon’s religious freedom concerns to be met while also not seeming utterly callous to society.

I never attended a Christian school or college but I am firmly committed to the idea that they belong and bring something to society. I know too many fantastic wonderful people who received their education and training from Christian schools and institutions. Moving forward I see ample opportunity for misunderstanding, polarization and judgement on both sides. But the time to do nothing has passed. I pray for all involved that wisdom and peace would dictate their actions moving forward and that together places like Gordon can become even better representations of Christ in their communities and society as a whole.

 

Jul
15

Yesterday I introduced the current news story of Gordon College seeking a religious exemption from having to hire LGBT people. Today I want to put down a few thoughts on how this will play out in the coming weeks and years. In the short term I do not think anything is going to change. Gordon will not change any policies it has unless it is forced to. This may be hard for some to hear but the reality is Gordon has more to lose if it changes policy now than if it does nothing.

The primary cause for Gordon’s inaction? Aside from their religious convictions (which as I noted yesterday I believe are genuine) the main fact is money. Surprise!

If Gordon changes it policies allowing LGBT people to study and work on campus the effect on fundraising would be dramatic. Think about what happened to Worldvision only a few months ago. They tried to mildly change their policy on LGBT people and people dropped their child sponsorships in droves. It’s not exaggeration to say that thousands of dollars left the organization overnight. Worldvision reverted to its old policy within the week.

No matter how many liberal students or professors happen to be currently on the campus Gordon is still a conservative Christian school. That is how it is marketed and that is the appeal for many who attend (or at least their parents.)

In Massachusetts it can be hard to understand this but if Gordon changed it policies today it would be a disaster for them. Freshmen who had been accepted for this fall would choose to go elsewhere. Current students would apply to transfer. Many alumni would no longer donate to the school. Schools like Liberty or Cedarville would take the lion-share of these disaffected students. I would guess that the trustees of Gordon see this as a greater threat to their existence than even losing their accreditation (which has been in the news this week.)

I am not trying to say that Gordon College is only looking at its bottom-line but the reality is in the short-term they have more to gain from maintaining the status quo than from changing.

There is a simple fix that I want to mention briefly. Gordon could renounce all forms of federal money and aid much like Patrick Henry College in VA does. If you do not take federal money it is much easier to say we are a private institution we can do what they please. I do not see this happening though. Gordon costs over $40,000 a year to attend. Even with an expected uptick in fundraising by marketing this as “an attack on our religious liberty, repelled by our faithfulness!” they won’t make up enough to make the school affordable for many. They need the access to federal loans and other things.

So in the short-term Gordon is going to try to carve out the most generous religious exemption it can to maintain the status quo and keep its essential identity as they see it. But where does that leave the disaffected and LGBT members of their community? I’ll write about that tomorrow.

Jul
14

Gordon College (MA) has been in the news lately. Their president recently signed a letter with other leaders that was sent to President Obama asking for a continued religious exemption when an anticipated executive order would be signed in the near future. The response was immediate and overall almost completely negative. The issues being raised are big and important ones: religious freedom, LGBT rights, government reach and/or overreach. Unfortunately the issue also lines up nicely for pundits to polarize our country even further.

I’m writing today as someone who grew up evangelical and feels like I have a pretty clear understanding of that subculture. I also write as someone who feels considerably more liberal than I did 10 years ago. Be warned what I am about write will make neither side happy. Evangelicals are not all the bigots some would smear them as. At the same time the status quo needs to change and they will need to consider things in the future. Liberals and/or less religious people have their hearts in exactly the right place as they seek to end discrimination and make the lives of LGBT people better. However their understanding of why entities like Gordon College believe what they do needs to improve and they need to consider how best to achieve their goals moving forward.

Today I will highlight some of the underlying details of the controversy. Tomorrow i will consider how each side can think about the future. (Brief disclosure before I continue. I applied to Gordon College for my undergraduate degree over 10 years ago but did not attend. I do have a significant number of friends and acquaintances  who have attended the school. They are all fantastic people.)

1) Gordon College is not the evil organization it has been made to appear.

It has been amazing to see the nefarious intent hoisted upon Gordon College as an institution in the past week. For someone who has never heard of the school they would probably assume it was full of hopelessly bigoted rednecks. This is categorically untrue. To my knowledge Gordon College has not changed any policy leading up to this letter. They are a conservative Christian college. This means they ask students,faculty, and staff to sign (voluntarily) a statement of faith and code of conduct. A part of this will be a line saying something along the lines of, “Members of the community will abstain from sex unless they are married.” This may sound crazy or naive or prudish or just plain lame to the average person but every conservative christian college and university in the US has a rule like this. It is their conviction as a religious institution and one that is genuinely held. When these rules were written discrimination, or hate or judgement against LGBT people were not the intent. If you disagree with this that is your prerogative but I would suggest evidence needs to be produced before smearing organizations like Gordon. However we still have a problem and this leads to my second point.

2) Gordon’s policies on sexual behavior are quickly becoming untenable.

The huge blind spot of the policies I highlight above is that they ignore LGBT people. LGBT students at Gordon can abstain from sex or they can get (presumably) kicked out. Even if they get married (which is legal in Massachusetts) that is not an option if they want to remain a member in good standing at the college. This is the issue that has people understandably upset about discrimination and students’ quality of life at the college. The fact that Gordon accepts federal student loans and is tax-exempt is problematic too. Why should they get federal money and perks but not have to follow the rules the federal government enacts for everyone? Today Gordon College is in the press but every Christian college will have to deal with these issues moving forward.

I’ve obviously provided more questions than answers here. Tomorrow I will look at what both sides can do moving forward. I welcome comments.

Jun
23

Since I finished college I have lived overseas for two years in two very different places. I’ve trained and finished 2 marathons. I had minor surgery in a foreign hospital. I worked multiple summers at a camp where I had one 24-hour day off a week. I’ve had a very eventful, stressful, blessed life.

But the last 6 months have been something uniquely different.

I got married which obviously is a huge deal and is a part of this story but I’ll save that story for another entry. The thing that made the last six months so memorable was my job. Back in December I wrote an entry about how excited I was about this new (and first in the states!)  teaching job. Finally I would be teaching, everyday, in my own classroom. Fantastic.

Of course, I had to google the town before I applied because I had never heard of it. Of course, it was 50 miles away, 65 miles after I got married. Of course, classes started promptly at 7:30 which meant a wake-up time between 5:15 and 5:30 AM. Of course, all I had to organize my lessons was 10 year old text book that was simply intolerable to use by itself. Of course, the teachers I was replacing while meaning well had had almost zero control or respect from the majority of the students. Of course, I’m mildly narcoleptic with a full 8 hours of sleep but downright zombie-like with less than 7. And of course, I was planning a wedding for the first 3 months.

It was an interesting 6 months. 

I’ll start with the positive. I am overall very happy with the teaching I did get done in the 6 months. I had the students do real history. They studied primary sources, they analyzed maps, they wrote a paper, they created awesome posters and they often were delightful to spend time with. Best of all some of the students really appreciated the fact I was there and that I knew what I was doing. I did right by these students and my colleagues and principal were uniformly great to me.

Now the negative. This might have been the most stressful, frustrating, difficult six months I have ever had. While many students enjoyed my style and efforts many students did not. For many reasons they were not tuned into school and did not have the support or motivation to become so. A number of my students were consistently disruptive, disrespectful, loud and did almost no work. The most frustrating manifestation of these attitudes and behaviors was the inability in three of my four classes for the entire class to stop talking long enough for me to give directions, have a class discussion, or really do anything meaningful. Understand that before this year I’ve worked with young people in many different situations, ages and group sizes. I have always been able to get the attention of a group no matter how rowdy or chaotic they had been. My inability to get them to listen was probably the most challenging aspect of the past six months.

The school year ended this past Friday and it is difficult to evaluate. I (and the school) know I came in mid-year to a very difficult situation with a very challenging group of students. But even with that I still feel responsible for the times when I was short with students and even lost my temper. It’s hard to balance the fact that I worked so hard with the idea that I could have done things even better. I won’t be returning to the school because they don’t have enough money for my position and are reorganizing for next year and so now I’m back in the job search. This is both stressful and a relief.

I suppose the way I’ll sum things up is this. I’m extraordinarily grateful I had this experience. I’m thankful a school district hired me and gave me a chance. I’m thankful for all the students I met. It almost goes without saying but Jocelyn and I will have these last 6 months emblazoned in our memories the rest of our lives and I do not think that is a bad thing.

Dec
12

Roughly 5 years ago I faced the moment that almost all history majors must face.

“Should I become a teacher?”

And so I signed up for a year teaching English in a country I didn’t know with a roommate I barely got along with. That decision was the motivation to start this blog.

After a year overseas I realized 2 things. One, I didn’t want to live overseas permanently. Two, I would become a teacher in the US.

So I got home, applied to graduate school and last May completed my Masters in Education in History (Grades 8-12), getting my teacher’s license in the process.

And then I began my job search for the summer.

At one point I had over 30 applications pending. The number ballooned because by August I realized a job in a high school history classroom would probably not happen for this school year. I applied to long-term sub jobs, middle school jobs and finally paraprofessional jobs. I had two interviews all summer and no job offers.

The week before school started a classmate told me a school was looking for paraprofessionals. I emailed them and a day later I had an interview and a job offer. I would be a paraprofessional hired specifically to help a student with autism and severe developmental delays navigate his school day at the high school. It paid poorly but was full-time with benefits. I took the job.

The job was both alternatively awesome and incredibly frustrating. The teachers I met were fantastic, kind, and totally supportive of me being there. I was respected as a teacher even though that was not my actual position yet. The student and his classmates were lovely kids whose innocence and personalities were truly infectious. But ultimately the job was not fulfilling. I rarely got to see other students in the building and usually the simplest tasks I asked of my student were simply impossible. I cared for those kids to my utmost and the teacher I worked with saw that but it was difficult each day. People who work with students of special needs deserve a medal. It is tremendously rewarding but also unbelievably challenging. I knew I needed to keep looking.

In October jobs started to be posted online for long-term subbing jobs for this school year. I applied to a few just for the heck of it. A few weeks later I got an interview request from a school an hour away from me. Longer than I wanted but you do not turn down an interview. I drove the hour and felt like I botched my first answer as I was still answering. When I left I saw good points but could not see myself getting a job offer. I even forgot to send a a thank you until 5 days after the interview. There was little hope in my mind.

A week after the interview the principal emailed me and asked me to call his office. He wanted me to come in. I had a job offer.

Today I went in to meet my students for the first time. It was just a day to hang out, observe and start thinking about when I start after the winter break. The kids have had a substitute the last two months. She has done her best in incredibly difficult circumstances but she does not have formal training as a teacher and the kids know it. The kids were generally loud, disruptive and inconsiderate. And yet as I sat there I could barely contain my excitement.

I’m going to be a teacher. I’m going to teach 8th graders US history until at least June. It’s been a long journey to this point but here I am and I cannot wait to continue the next step.

Aug
30

The VMAs were this past Sunday, MTV’s ode to just about anything except music videos. This years show provoked a storm of commentary thanks to Twitter and its always-pushing-the-boundaries choice of performers. By most accounts this program was largely panned as the morally bankrupt extravaganza that it was. From Lady Gaga to Robin Thicke to Miley Cyrus there was surely little that could be redeemed from this epic failure of entertainment, right?

However I saw something while watching that I thought was important, was good,  and was in fact (at least partially) redeeming to the rest of the night. The pair of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis teamed up with Mary Lambert and Jennifer Hudson for a stirring rendition of their gay rights anthem “Same Love.”

For many Evangelical Christians this was the nail in the coffin for the evening; the last straw on a night that promoted far too much promiscuity and lewdness. Just another sign that the “gay agenda” has taken over our culture and our society, to the detriment of real, Bible-believing Christians.

This viewpoint, however genuine and sincere, is misplaced. “Same Love” is not an attack on the church, it is an appeal that the church can do so much better.

The line in the live performance that really resonated with me was something that was added in. Ms. Lambert and Ms. Hudson end the song by simply repeating back and forth to one another, “No more crying on Sunday.”

As Christians we talk about the gospel  as something filled with joy and hope and love. We talk about sin and death and sacrifice too of course but within all of that there is hope. Hope that Jesus does love us, did come to earth and did die on the cross. We preach that lives are eternally better when those lives live for God.

And yet even with all that hope and ministry and truth there is a tremendous blind spot for those who are LGBT individuals. For them Sunday is all too often not an oasis from the pain they received during the week from family, friends or others. In fact, Sunday is often the source of their agony, a huge blaring siren call that, in fact, they will never be good enough, they are irrevocably sinners, and so God cannot forgive them, or love them, or even bother to help them.

And so we have what you might expect. Gay teens are five times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. This is shocking, as it should be. But the real travesty is that the conservative evangelical church has not only ignored this problem but has now claimed persecution for themselves.

I realize many decent people are concerned about same-sex marriage. I realize that there are legitimate concerns about religious liberty and how it connects to gay rights.  But there needs to be a discussion backed up by solid steps to help these youth who are left with so little hope that they take their own lives. Preaching the gospel should lead to salvation, not suicide.

Macklemore’s song is a scathing indictment of the church’s treatment of LGBT people and youth up to this point. But I have hope that change can come not only from outside the church but from within. For this I am thankful.

Aug
15

I’ve worked at summer camps 7 of the last 10 summers. I’m pretty biased when it comes to how awesome they are for kids and as simply great places that exist in the world. However as anything that provides short-term care and ministry it also opens itself to criticism. People ask (in both well-meaning and mean spirited ways) “What about the other 51 weeks of the year?”, “What about follow-up?”, “What about the cost involved? Is it worth it?”

I only spent a week at a summer camp this year but it crystalized in my mind why summer camp ministries are in fact, “worth it.”

Summer camp is for a large group of kids the only spiritual experience they get growing up.

These kids will never set foot in a church during their adolescence. Their parents are at best dysfunctional and at worst abusive. But for whatever reason, grandparents or scholarships or parents just wanting to get rid rid of them for a week they end up at camp every summer.

And they have a blast.

They have fun and make friends and learn about God but most importantly they feel loved and cared for in a way that for a million different reasons they do not get at home.

I have volunteered with middle schoolers the last two years at my church. I’ve enjoyed it and I think most of the kids I hang out with enjoy it a ton too. I would love to see every broken kid I have seen in the past end up in a safe place like a church youth group. But the reality is they won’t.  These are kids who every day is a struggle. They may become Christians at camp, they may not but whatever happens when they go home it is hard to maintain even a semblance of a spiritual life. But still, camp is all they’ve got. And I’ve seen too many kids grasp for that rope with all their might.

If one’s goal is to see as many kids as possible loved and cared for and given an opportunity to see Jesus as that ultimate reality that provides that than I cannot see another way. Supporting summer camp and other parachurch organizations is a must.

Jun
12

I don’t like Sundays.

I like church. It’s kind of funny. The one thing most people dread about the day I actually don’t mind. I like it for a whole list of reasons but that’s not why I am writing this entry. It is the rest of the day that stinks. 

Sunday. It’s the day you realize the weekend is over and the only thing you have to look forward to is…Monday. Jeez that stinks. When I lived in the Czech Republic Sunday afternoons were the hardest. A weekend of friends and/or travel was over and I returned to my little apartment in my little remote town and I usually just felt like dying a bit inside. Once my week started and I could distract myself with teaching and planning I was fine but Sunday afternoons…gosh…just awful.

Being back at home things have changed a lot but I still dread the week on Sunday afternoons a bit. But other things have changed too. Drastically. Let me explain.

Here was my typical Sunday a couple years ago. Church at 9:15 or 11. I go to a big church. It’s easy to walk in and out without talking to folks. I preferred this. Keeps life simple. I was out by 12:15 at the latest and home by 12:30. Cue nap, then running and then relaxing the rest of the day. Simple, uncomplicated. The way life should be.

Two years ago I started volunteering with my church’s middle school group as a small group leader. About a year ago I started dating one of the other leaders. Let me explain what happened this past Sunday.

Out of bed at 8:15am. I’m running late. I went to the middle school meeting at 9:15am. Over a 100 kids each Sunday and this week I did the main talk. Hooray for responsibility. 11am go to main church service (subject: True Sex. How racy!). Drove to my house at 12:30pm to pick up a cake that I had baked for middle school end of year staff party (I am a man who bakes delicious things from boxes. Deal with it.) Went to party from 1pm-3pm. Went home for precisely 15 minutes. By 4pm was on way to my girlfriend’s sister’s birthday dinner. Ate food till 6:30pm. Then went to see Star Trek at 7:30pm (IMAX 3D!) I was home by 10:30ish.

So yeah my Sundays have changed a little bit. I am not 100% sure how to process all these changes but I will say this: I’m not complaining.

May
13

I finished student-teaching this past Friday. I got written feedback from all my students, the department head got me pizza for my final lunch and as an extra bonus the incredibly pregnant wife of the teacher I worked with all semester made me cupcakes. It was a pretty awesome day.

With a month of full-time teaching in America under my belt and less than a week away from graduating with my Masters in Education I offer a couple points of reflection that the past few months have taught me.

1) The biggest risk as a teacher is becoming jaded about your students.

I want all my kids to succeed. I want them to believe that with hard work and effort they can do anything. I really want them to believe that they are not stupid. But even in just 14 weeks I found myself at times standing in the middle of the class judging my students. Harshly.

It is shocking how quickly the negative feelings build up. I am a teacher, a highly-educated professional. How can this be happening? I realize that no matter how disengaged and uninterested and unimpressive a student or class may be that does not give me excuse to put them in a box. It is very clear. If I begin to not like my students as a whole, I need to stop teaching. The next point grows out of this point and is equally important.

2) I can never, ever give up on a student.

The senior sat in the front row. He rarely if ever spoke in class. He liked talking to his buddies nearby but that was generally it. He was absent 1-3 times a week. He rarely did work on time and if he was present the day of the test he did poorly. This behavior got worse in the last month. He missed or ignored nearly every major assignment. He was absent the last 3 days I taught. Entering this past Friday his average stood at a 28 for his final term.

The second to last period of my last day he walks in. He had an old homework assignment and had his project which he had put online a few days before. He presented his project and made up a test. We also had a conversation. I learned that he was a Muslim from India. He had come to America when he was 11 speaking no English  He spoke 4 languages fluently but was still considered an “English language learner.” I had happened to teach about Islam just a few days ago but he did not say anything because of the recent Boston Bombings. He was going to go to mosque that afternoon because Friday is the holy day in Islam.

After our conversation he shook my hand and left. A relatively small interaction but it completely and utterly changed my view of him. Instead of a bad, lazy nonentity he was a true individual with his own set of challenges and motivations. Unfortunately I had hardly tapped into anything this student found meaningful until the final day of my last week.

Now to be clear, this event did not change his absence record, it did not improve his quality of work and it did not take back all the times he slept in class. But it vastly improved my insight of who he was as a student who I had the responsibility and privilege to teach.

It does not matter how bad or disengaged a kid is. It does not matter how much they show up. It does not matter if their home life is an utter shambles. That kid can do awesome work, he or she can work hard, that kid can be educated. And I cannot ever give up on trying to make that from happening.

All that is to say I am still very much in my idealistic new teacher phase. Bring on the job interviews because I feel like teaching some students this fall.

Apr
15

I have a week vacation from student teaching and I expected to spend this afternoon applying for teaching jobs. With the idea that writing one’s thoughts can be therapeutic for author and reader alike I offer some thoughts about today.

Patriots day is arguably the best weekend of the year to be a resident of Massachusetts. Celebrating the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord and the start of the Revolutionary War, it is a great weekend filled with events, patriotism and fun. It is like a version of July 4th specifically for Boston. Monday is the cap off with a mid-morning Red Sox game and of course the Boston Marathon.

Most people might think of a marathon as fairly unexciting for anyone who is not running in it or knows someone who does. Growing up near Boston though this event is the talk of the town. It is the oldest continuously run marathon in the world. It is televised from start to finish on local TV. Terms like Hopkinton, heartbreak hill, Wellesley, and Boylston St. are well known markers and subjects of conversation. I always watched it when I moved back here in middle school. When I became a runner in high school, I dreamed of running it officially. Many of my high school friends ran it as unqualified “bandits.” My dad had run it a number of times when he was younger. Boston loves its marathon.

To qualify you have to run an entire other marathon in a fairly competitive time based on your age and gender. In 2009 I qualified and successfully ran in the Boston marathon. Friends and family were at various points on the course. My mother and her best friend were in the bleachers at the finish exactly where today, 4 years later, the first explosion ripped through.

My finishing time would have me safely on the way home with my mom at that point but that gives me little comfort for the pain and destruction wrought today. I hate that this happened. I hate that it destroyed such a wonderful celebration of this city and our country.

I ran a road race today in Lexington. I did warm up strides on the green where the “shot heard round the world” occurred. I ate ice cream and relaxed in the beautiful sun off main street afterwards. And then I got in my car, turned on the radio and heard that two explosions had occurred.

I have heard back from as many family and friends as I can figure might have been there and all are safe. Of course some people are not. Tonight we will pray for them, think of them and grieve for them. But no matter how awful today has turned out I still love this weekend and this marathon and all it represents. May we be given peace in these thoughts at least.

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