Transformation: Reflections by J. Ernest Martin '63

Transformation

Reflections presented by J. Ernest Martin '63 at Homecoming Weekend worship service, Oct. 21, 2018. Ernie was the recipient of the Lifetime Service Award. 

During my junior year at EMHS, Jerry Good, Bible teacher and guidance counselor, asked me what I intended to do with my life.  While I was trying to figure out what to say, he mentioned I would make an excellent teacher. I told him no way (especially not in a Mennonite School, with its picky rules)—told him maybe I would go for an engineering degree.  But then I took physics and quickly decided to major in English. (influence of Jay B. Landis)  About ready to graduate from Madison College, thinking I might write (but not teach) my favorite prof and head of the English Department made a strong case for more carefully considering teaching. And then he nominated me for a graduate fellowship to continue academic preparation for teaching.

But before going to grad school, Judy and I spent 3 years living and teaching English at Malosa Secondary School—one of the 12 secondary schools in Malawi, Central Africa. Those three years deeply broadened my thinking, particularly in terms of what it means to walk with God. I quickly came to believe that Heaven is deeply populated with a great crowd of believers—far beyond the Mennonite only crowd that I was lead to believe growing up. Also, I concluded that our US culture was marked by a ferocious enslavement to time.  As the country group Alabama lyrics go, “we are always in a hurry to get things done”;  We rush and rush until life is no fun.” In contrast “African time” put people first. Furthermore, creative pondering of issues and systems which turn students into numbers in the accountability race requires what I called “staring out the window time”.

Nearing the end of grad school, I began applying for teaching jobs. I did not set out to obtain a position in a Christian School. After trying to live for 3 years on an MCC stipend and then a grad school fellowship, I just needed a job. I was offered  positions at a Rockingham County school and a Catholic high school in Fredricksberg, but the timing didn’t work out.  I interviewed in Fairfax County for a writing instructor/supervisor position (which I really wanted), but had been told that I was one of 50 applicants so not much hope.  I also interviewed for an English position at Central Christian in Ohio. The first week of school at Central, Fairfax called with a job offer—too late to accept.

Central’s principal introduced me by saying that Mr. Martin graduated from EMHS and then Madison College, taught and lived with the Anglicans for 3 years in Central Africa and then did graduate work at Catholic University in DC.  Went on to say “we are not entirely sure what he actually believes, but we think he is worth the risk”.  I already then believed any educator committed to Christ and daily following His way was/and is a Christian teacher—doing Christian education in the classroom (whether a public or private Christian school)—so I could have accepted the Fairfax or Rockingham job, knowing that Christ would have also walked with me there.

Education is not Christian primarily because the school uses “Christian” textbooks; education is not Christian just because each teacher opens class with prayer; education is not Christian just because the school requires Chapel attendance; and offering Bible classes does not by itself make the school Christian.  Indeed, all of these together do not necessarily result in Christian ed. Rather, education becomes Christian when the teacher seeks above all to nurture student hearts and brains as sacred spaces—challenging these hearts and brains to a level of thinking that is not readily forced into accepting and living by worn-out clichés.  Whether in a public or private setting, the Christian educator believes each student to be God’s unique creation--created in His image with the ability to reflect, evaluate and make reasoned decisions within the context of “loving God and Neighbor”. 

Furthermore, Christian teachers seek to daily follow Christ, continually nurturing their own brains and hearts with prayer, scripture, devotional writings and interaction with other Christians, also treating colleagues minds and hearts as sacred spaces.  A Christian teacher keeps abreast of cutting edge educational thinking and practice—staying both spiritually and academically sharp--not relying on lackluster teaching strategies that produce total boredom.

I cherish T. S. Eliot’s definition of service, found in section IX of “The Rock”.  Eliot writes

 “Lord, shall we not bring these gifts to Your service?

Shall we not bring to Your service all our powers

For life, for dignity, grace and order,

And (bring to Your service) intellectual pleasures of the senses?

The Lord who created must wish us to create

And employ our creation again in His service . . .”

 

After 5 years at Central, Sam Weaver offered me a job as curriculum director and upper level English teacher at EMHS.  This was a very attractive job offer, because I was given the opportunity to work with a group of somewhat like-minded educators to shape the EMHS curriculum and to teach both literature and writing. (Also meant that we and our 3 children would be closer to extended family)  I told Sam I would commit to 5 years. (community college, construction)   So, why did I stay for 34 years??  Early on I learned to appreciate a community of educators committed to requiring academic excellence while infusing faith in the context of personal integrity, and a strong call to service.

As the 34 years began to unfold, I became more and more concerned that the educational tendency to attach neat and “comfortable” labels to students was seriously counter-productive.  In my student teaching, I had already noticed that students labelled slow learners, rarely escaped that educational track and the mediocre expectations that went with it.  And I wasn’t in education very long before becoming convinced that it was exceedingly dangerous to label a 16 year old with behavior or learning problems as a person least likely to succeed.  How many of those students do you know who in their 20’s and 30’s became strong leaders and eventually pillars in their communities?  Conversely, those earmarked to succeed sometimes become so wrapped in themselves, it takes a long time, if ever, for the expected success to happen.

Romans 12:2 advises Christ’s disciples “to no longer conform to the pattern of the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds”.  The addiction to labels has been and is clearly a worldly pattern.  Consider Christ’s “un-labelling” model:  Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman at the well, dining with tax collectors.

I eventually came across the concept of Emotional Intelligence.  In EQ I finally had a name for skills that were missing or severely under developed in students with learning problems; in contrast, those who excelled in EQ skills were often named gifted and talented.  While issues in the wiring of the brain can make learning difficult, a “slow learner” most likely lacks perseverance, has not adequately learned to delay gratification, and/or has not learned to concentrate and focus on the task at hand.  These EQ skills can be learned, mastered, and developed to increasingly higher levels, if teachers design assignments and projects which require building these skills enroot to the completion of the assigned task.   As Director of Curriculum, I could freely train and encourage teachers to include building and reinforcing EQ skills across the curriculum—a strategy which is advantageous for both struggling and advanced students.

Then during the 90’s I had the unique privilege of participating in several international Learning and the Brain Conferences—and discovered a whole new approach to teaching.  No longer focused primarily on mastery of content, I revised much of my methodology to require students to engage their brains as they wrestled with content. The human brain loves stories, choices, humor and cognitive dissonance. Student brains will more likely become engaged if the teacher tells pertinent stories, if the teacher gives a broad range of choices to complete assignments and projects (some of which should contain a recognizable dissonance), and if the teacher sprinkles plenty of humor throughout each lesson. The complexity of the human brain is truly amazing—containing 100 billion or so densely packed, interconnected neurons. I experienced a growing realization that as an educator, I had done far too little to require students to fully engage these neurons—and thereby had sold God’s unique creation short.                                                                                                                                Knowing that student brains are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made”,   Christian educators in public or private settings ought to create increasingly complex assignments and class discussions that require student brain engagement. (Brain engagement not the same thing as easily measurable memorization or selecting multiple choice answers.)  God created human brains to critique issues, to evaluate the truth and worth of each statement or claim, and to ponder God’s interaction with each aspect of His creation. In the process of this sort of brain engagement, students are more likely to recognize that it is God in “whom we live and move and have our being”.

            Teaching at EMHS also gave me the opportunity to ask my students to thoroughly explore some of the many Biblical allusions embedded in great literature—which lends itself to deep pondering and reflection. Believing in the let your “yah be yah and your nay, nay” I  emphasized and required my students to use clear, simple but vigorous language.  EMHS also provided the setting to work at implementing something we called “redemptive discipline”—a sort of discipline that seeks to extend grace in the process of responding appropriately to misbehavior.

            I thank my family for putting up with long hours and a sometimes-irritated father and husband! I also thank Sam Weaver, J. David Yoder and Paul Leaman (the three principals under whom I served during my EMHS tenure) for giving me the freedom and encouragement to work at creating pathways to meet student needs.  I also want to thank the always excellent team of faculty and staff who were such a pleasure and inspiration with whom to work!

I close by recognizing and claiming the authenticity in Catholic theologian Thomas Merton’s words—and I quote  “God loves us irrespective of our merits and whatever is good in us comes from His love, not from our own doing.”