Our daughter Leah held my hand as we entered the school building on her first day of kindergarten. The place and faces were familiar to us – I’d spent nine years at the same Protestant Reformed grade school. Leah took in everything with an excited smile, and when the bell rang, I bravely left. As I drove home minus one child, I wept.
Our son Willem began kindergarten two years later, but in a different place. My husband, B.J., a teacher, had accepted a position in Loveland, CO, and we had moved there from Iowa early that summer. When we arrived at school on the first day of the 2012-2013 school year, Will gave me a slobbery smack on the lips, grabbed his backpack, and took off running.
“Wait,” I called. “Don’t you want me to take you to your classroom?”
“I know where it is, Mom,” he hollered over his shoulder as he disappeared inside.
Parents—especially mothers—sometimes have a difficult time when their children start school. A flood of sentimental emotions, perhaps? In part, probably yes. But for Christian parents, those emotions are driven in some measure by a very solemn reality: they are entrusting the instruction of this God-given child, whom they’ve rocked, fed, potty-trained, disciplined, comforted—whose strengths and weaknesses and quirks they know—to another. Throughout this day and for many days to come, there will be another standing in their place.
Teaching is a high calling.
The Need for Teachers
Young people, our Protestant Reformed Schools are in need of teachers.
I’ve been told that some of our young men and women think that there are more of them seeking a teaching license than there are or will be positions in our schools to fill. This assumption is a concern of some of our administrators, whom I surveyed prior to writing this article. Nine out of the twelve principals who responded noted that they not only have had difficulty finding staff in the past, but that they anticipate difficulty in the future as well.
Why are teachers in such demand? First, our schools are growing. Ten out of the twelve schools represented in the survey predict growth in the next five years—some of them substantial growth. With the recent increase in the number of Protestant Reformed high schools, there is a special need for young people to pursue secondary education. One man noted that “as has been the case with…many ministers nearing retirement” so “many of our teachers are getting older and are near retirement age.” Also, many positions in our schools are filled by young women who, in the Lord’s providence, teach for a relatively short period of time before marrying and bearing children of their own. Other positions are filled by mothers who still have children at home but were recruited by school boards to fill positions for which there were no other applicants. That being said, young men, there is a need especially for you to consider teaching. Our schools are stronger when male authority figures are present on the staff and among the students, especially those students who are in the upper grades.
Need in the West
Some other interesting dynamics came to light in the administrators’ responses to my brief poll. Three respondents replied that they have not had nor do they expect to have difficulty hiring adequate staff. Those schools, as you probably guessed, are located in Michigan. “There have always been multiple choices for interviews,” one commented. Another, highlighting the quality of the candidates, said, “When I think about the last couple interview sessions we had, I would be very happy to have secured many of the applicants as teachers.”
In contrast, administrators of our Western schools noted the stress that accompanies the hiring process. “It is not uncommon to have zero or only one applicant for an advertised position,” one wrote, noting that he initiated contact with over 30 people in an attempt to fill a recent position. “I think about the days when I was taking courses for my masters in administration and they were teaching us how to sort through the piles of resumes; that almost seems like comic relief to me now.”
Why the difficulty obtaining teachers in the West? Well, most of our PR teachers are from the East. Besides that, Western schools are generally smaller, which means that teaching in a Western school at the elementary level likely involves the initially daunting prospect of a multiple-grade classroom. One who accepts a position in a Western high school will likely have to teach a variety of subjects at various grade levels with fewer prep periods (though there are teachers, my husband being one of them, who will attest how thoroughly they enjoy teaching new subjects every year). Also, Western schools have the reputation of paying less than schools in the East – a reputation not without warrant, fellow Westerners. (It is important to remember, however, that our Western schools were/are often supported by a single and sometimes small congregation.) One who taught at a school in the West many years ago noted that he moved back to Michigan when it became clear that remaining where he was meant financial ruin. In defense of the West, this is not the problem it once was. Western school boards have worked hard in recent years to meet the salary recommendations of the Federation of the Protestant Reformed Schools. Schools in the West now pay wages that are competitive with those of their sister PR schools in the East.
A Word to Those Who Live in the West
People of the West, our history shows that the staffing of our schools has depended heavily on men and women who move away from family and friends to teach our children. We’ve produced few teachers in our generations, particularly few male teachers. Do we value Christian education enough to encourage our own sons and daughters to pursue a career in education? Perhaps we should do away with a few of our jokes about schooling getting in the way of our children’s “real education”—farming, hunting, etc.— and seriously consider if we are doing all that we can to see that our Christian schools are maintained.
A Word to Those Who Live in the East
Now to those of you who live in the East: you comprise the majority of the members of our denomination. It is only natural that the number of teachers you yield is greater. True, you also have greater numbers of children to teach and more schools to staff. But if you are a young person who is considering teaching, please do not rule out the possibility of moving away and establishing yourself away from your roots. Such sacrifices are necessary if all of our schools are all going to thrive.
A Word about Teacher Compensation
Shortly before writing this, I had a conversation with a mother of teenagers about encouraging our young people to become teachers. She reflected that some of our youth may be deterred from a career in education because they see teachers struggling to make ends meet. I have asked especially you, young men, to consider teaching. If in the Lord’s providence you marry and have children in the future, you will also bear the responsibility of providing for your family. Will you be able as a teacher in a PR school to fulfill that obligation? I sent that inquiry – along with a couple of related questions – to all Protestant Reformed teachers who are also heads of households.
Nearly thirty men responded to my survey, some of them in length. They acknowledged that in answering that question, many factors come into play: the number of children one is given, what medical needs arise, etc. Overall, their answer was, briefly: “Yes, but it will require you to be frugal and have adequate summer work.” Nearly every one of those men said that he depends heavily on a secondary income. Many of them not only work throughout the summer, they hold part-time jobs during the school year as well. Those side jobs – which include everything from bus driving to lawn care, constitute up to 30% of the respondents’ total incomes and are deemed necessary, particularly to pay tuition. Some of them expressed concern that the additional jobs hinder the quality of their teaching, but another noted that financial stress has the same effect. Several of the men were troubled by the amount of time their multiple jobs take from their wives and children. Over half of the thirty who responded said that their wives also earn an income. Some of these women work a little each week cleaning houses; some of them earn incomes that surpass their husbands’; some of them are employed, though they would prefer to be at home.
I did not expect to be as moved by the testimonies of these men as I was. “No one who enters the profession of teacher in our PRC schools ought to think for one minute they might be doing it for the money,” noted one teacher. Another echoed, “If you are in it for the money, look for employment elsewhere. Education is an intensely rewarding occupation, but those rewards do not come in the form of dollars.” Yet some of these hardworking men conveyed bitterness regarding teacher compensation. “We hear so often in our circles that teachers have a high calling, which God certainly gives to us. But it is my feeling that too often this is simply lip service,” one wrote. Others listed things that they and their children treat as luxuries though many others deem them necessities: a larger home, newer vehicle, dental care, family vacations, cell phone plans…
And yet not one of these men suggested that there was a simple solution to their financial difficulties. Many noted that they are fully aware that there are others in the churches who also have a hard time making ends meet, especially when the heavy tuition years hit. A couple advocated tuition discounts for teachers. One suggested that “our boards increase salaries for heads of household based on number of children, if children are in school, and other circumstances. Our churches do this so well. A minister in his early years with no children and late in life with no dependents at home will have a salary lower than a minister with many children at home who are of school age.” Several expressed concern that too often the lines between church and school are blurred when school boards use diaconates as co-payers of their struggling employees.
Overwhelmingly, however, those teachers who answered my questions concluded that the benefits of their occupation outweigh the negatives:
“God always provided for us. I do not know what would have been our situation if we had had more children, but God did not give us others. We always felt that our calling was to teach, and that was part of our sacrifice for God’s kingdom. That is no excuse for others in that kingdom to be stingy toward their teachers, but teachers must realize their high calling in God’s kingdom as well. There must be a lot of trust and faith in all of us.”
“I must say that many times I wondered where we as a family would get the money to make it through another year, and yet by the end, we had paid all our bills. With all this being said, I would do it all over again. I love teaching and working with others who are of like mind and faith.”
“There are hardships and difficulties in every occupation, due to the curse. For me the benefits of teaching far outweigh the negatives. I have the ability to go to work early any day I want or need to. I can work late or take my work home with me. I can attend more of my children’s games than many parents. I am in a Christian environment where I have the freedom and opportunities to worship and praise my Savior. I feel directly connected to working in his kingdom…I have neither riches nor poverty, and for that the scriptures comfort me in the knowledge that I am blessed.”
Additional positives? A teacher’s salary does not fluctuate depending on the business cycle or housing market. My husband and I know at the beginning of each month exactly how much money is coming in, and we budget accordingly. Not to mention that B.J. looks forward to his summer work with as much enthusiasm as he anticipates the start of the school year. The men in the survey noted that they’ve received boxes of clothes, food, monetary gifts – even tuition bills anonymously paid in full. Our family has been blessed with meat, countless meals, grocery cards, and gas money to get us “home” for Christmas.
A Blessed Life
There is great blessing to teaching in a Protestant Reformed school. The high school that I attended was affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, and nearly all of my teachers there were members of that denomination. Most of my classmates also attended CRC churches, others the Reformed church, and one, a Lutheran church. Our Bible teacher presented the covenant as an agreement: would I say yes to God’s “free offer”? Chapel speakers encouraged us to be active in “kingdom building.” Lines between worldly and godly living were blurred.
My husband’s first teaching position was at a school that also bore the name Reformed: Netherlands Reformed. He enjoyed his work there and grew close to many of his students. However, both he and they were viewed by parents, board, and staff as those outside of the “saving benefits” of God’s covenant. Because of this view, the children and staff members who were not NR were prohibited from praying their own prayers. B.J. was given simple form prayers to use, and when he and the students recited the Lord’s Prayer together, they were required to first say in unison, “Lord, teach us to pray…” They were required to do this so that they, who were considered unregenerate, would not be guilty of the sin of addressing God as their Father.
In contrast to these two types of Reformed schools, our Protestant Reformed schools are founded on the truth that God’s covenant does not depend upon man’s agreement and that it is a promise made to believers and their children (Acts 2:39). Parent and teachers regard the students as God’s children and together take seriously their responsibility to diligently teach them his commands as the rule for thankful living (Deut. 6:6-7). Since we view our children as those who have been regenerated, we rejoice when we see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, and we comfort them with the knowledge that they belong to a sovereign Savior.
I reflected on this as I fixed supper the other day. Our daughter Leah, now a third grader, sat at the kitchen table. I watched as she pursed her lips and doodled on a corner of her paper.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“I’ve picked my text for devotions and written a paragraph about it,” she replied. “I just don’t know how to begin my prayer!”
“Well, Jesus taught us how to pray,” I respond. “He said, ‘When you pray, say, ‘Our Father…’’” Leah nods, thinks for a moment, and then begins to write. I smile. I know her teacher will not object to that address.
The life of a Reformed teacher is truly a blessed life. We get to work among other men and women of like faith, without having to deal with the world on a regular basis. We get to work with covenant children. The parental support is second to none! God truly blesses those who labor for a kingdom cause such as covenant Christian education!
Those Who Can
What does it take to be a Reformed teacher? A friend of ours will sometime razz my husband, “Those who can’t, teach.” I know it’s meant as a joke, but I’m always irritated when I hear that remark. It brings me back to my college days and those who really weren’t sure what they were going to do with their degrees: “I figure if nothing else, I can always teach,” they’d say.
Teaching is not a “default” position, young people. It requires men and women who can. Those who can care enough about covenant children and young people to model godly living and spend day after day explaining God’s world to them. Those who can put themselves in the place of the student who struggles. Those who can graciously discuss that child’s needs with his or her parents. Those who can handle discipline issues in a God-honoring manner. Those who not only understand their subject material but can also convey it to their pupils in a way that they are able to appreciate it as well. Those who can do all those things and trust that the Lord will bless their efforts and provide for their families.
Those who can, teach.