Saturday, May 13, 2017

Taking Time to Thank Teachers

The first full week of the month of May each year is set aside as TeacherAppreciation Week.  So this year, I’ve decided to pause and remember some of my former teachers.  I want to honor them by writing a brief account of how each has influenced the path I have chosen and am still choosing in life.  By doing this, I hope to thank and honor God Who brought them into my life.

Mrs. Olive Johnson
When I began my formal schooling at Dundee (Ohio) Elementary School, I was like a rough board that had been sawn with a dull blade.  As the elder sibling, I enjoyed most of my preschool years without any interference from my sister who arrived when I was four years old.  Having had mostly my own way as a preschooler, I had developed few social skills with other children.  My first grade teacher, Mrs. Olive Johnson, was God’s tool for trimming this crude board into shape and sanding off the splintery surface.  Fittingly, she sent me to the principal’s office several times so that he could literally “use the board” on me.  “The board” was a fearsome tool that most of my peers only heard about but never saw.  I explained to them that it even had little holes in it which I later learned in physics were designed to reduce air resistance during swings to the backside.

After a few weeks, Mrs. Johnson had left no doubt in my mind that she was in for the long haul when it came to shaping my behavior.  By the end of the school year, I began to realize that her goals for me and her other students were aimed much deeper than simply sanding off our splinters and rough edges necessary for us to sit, listen, and learn.  She performed many acts that demonstrated her desire to build up our inner character.  For example, I remember the fun of coming to the door of our classroom each morning during the last few weeks of school in May, 1954 to see the tally of how many of days of school remained.  Greeting us each morning was a small poster she had made to report the number of school days remaining, along with a short proverb or another quote for the day to challenge each of us to finish the year well.

Received on my birthday, 1987
Mrs. Johnson’s challenges and example to me did not stop on the last day of school.  For many years afterwards, she greeted me each Sunday at Dundee Methodist Church where my family attended.  There, she demonstrated her love for God by her involvement in the educational and music ministries.  Indeed, Mrs. Johnson’s supportive love, prayers, and example continued for several decades after I graduated from her first grade classroom.  Each year during these decades, I received a birthday card, often with an encouraging or challenging poem she had personally written.  I understand she performed this ministry to many or all of her hundreds of students.  One of her last cards to me was a congratulatory card upon my completion of a graduate degree.

On the last day of school, Mrs. Johnson gave us each the gift of a book, Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, which contains many character-building short stories.  I recalled many wonderful hours as a boy reading my favorite stories from the book.  Later, when I became a father, I used Uncle Arthur’s to teach our children; and, more recently I have read from the book to our grandchildren.

With Mrs. Gardner-Weber, at age 100.
Next, I want to thank Mrs. Kathryn Gardner-Weber, my second and third grade teacher, for taking up the challenge of teaching me where Mrs. Johnson had left off in first grade.  Mrs. Gardner’s approach toward me included the choice of a finer sand paper, and thankfully without the need of the principal and his “board.” I have thanked her for her way of challenging me to do my best, and also making me believe that I could do better than just mediocre work.  Like Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Gardner was also active in both the teaching and music ministry of our church.  My regular Sunday encounters with Mrs. Gardner and her husband, Lloyd during the next ten years as I was going through adolescence and becoming a young man helped me to believe in God, “believe in myself,” and as a result, believe that I could accomplish something with my life.

It is an unexpected blessing to me that Mrs. Gardner, now Mrs. Gardner-Weber, twice a widow at age 102, remains a good friend and encourager.  She is a friendly encourager to fellow residents of her assisted living facility and still plays the piano which Abby and I enjoy when we visit her.

God blessed me with many fine teachers from my elementary years through high school.  During my freshman year at Malone College as a history major, I enrolled in General Biology to complete my “life science requirement.”  This choice brought me under the teaching of Dr. Charles C. King, known affectionately as “Charlie” by his faculty peers.  I could tell that Dr. King cared about us and loved biology, particularly botany and ecology.  I enjoyed learning the common and scientific names of local tree and shrub species.  When I returned to my farm home for the summer, my elementary knowledge of plant identification caused me to view the family farm in an entirely different light.  Until then, my “simple taxonomy” of plants on the farm had consisted of five categories--trees, shrubs/vines, wildflowers, mosses/ferns, and fungi.  But now my taxonomy allowed me to view plants in a systematic fashion based on the concept of genera and families of plants. 

Dr. Charles C. King, Prof. of Biology
Subsequent courses in botany and zoology at Malone, including opportunities to learn on field trips to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, allowed me to advance from the level of plant identification to an elementary understanding of how environmental factors such as topography and soil properties influenced plant distribution.   Under Dr. King’s leadership, I completed an undergraduate research project aimed at determining the affect of urban impacts on the distribution of tree species in Canton, Ohio.  Abby Moser, my wife to be following graduation, assisted me in the field research phase, and we presented our findings at the Annual Meeting of the Ohio Academy of Science, in 1969.

After graduation from Malone and a June, 1969 wedding, Abby and I were both hired as English and biology teachers respectively, at nearby Dover High School.  By God’s good grace, we lived close enough to Canton, Ohio to make it possible for Dr. King to continue as a mentor to me.  “Charlie” encouraged me to enter graduate school and introduced me to the plant biology program at The Ohio State University, his alma mater, and to West Virginia University where we attended a “Geobotany Conference” organized by another “Charlie,” Dr. Charles H. Baer. 

We were blessed to receive a doctoral fellowship through the West Virginia University Foundation which allowed Abby and I along with our little, 1-year-old son, Bradley to establish our home in Morgantown with Abby as a stay-at-home mom.   God honored our decision to make church attendance a priority, and through a visit and presentation of the claims of the Gospel of Christ by lay leaders at the local Christian Missionary Alliance Church, I was led to an assurance of my salvation by grace as God’s gift through Christ’s death and resurrection.  This visit to our home by Leroy Haenze and Pearl Langdon launched me into a period of spiritual growth and transformation that included valuing the importance of pursuing the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, study, memorization, and meditation so that I could teach and entrust these to faithful men and women who would be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).

Dr. Alan W. Haney, professor, author, land steward, and friend.
Upon completion of my doctoral degree in plant physiology at WVU in 1974, I was awarded a postdoctoral position at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.  My role as “Lecturer in Botany” was to assist Dr. Alan W. Haney whose chief responsibility in the Department of Botany was to teach Introduction to Botany, a course that served not only departmental majors but also students in programs such as agronomy and horticulture.  Each semester, 500 students enrolled in the course and attended lectures presented by Dr. Haney.  He gave me several opportunities to present lectures as well, but I was largely responsible for assisting with the weekly prepping sessions for our graduate teaching assistants (TA’s) who then assisted Dr. Haney and I in  the teaching of approximately 40 weekly, small-group discussion sections and approximately 20 weekly, laboratory sections. 

It soon became clear to me that Dr. Haney loved the students and was very enthusiastic about both botany and botany teaching.  He emphasized the importance of learning the names of each student at the start of each semester, and to be well prepared to engage with students in a personable and enthusiastic manner.  As a young lecturer who was still finding his confidence as a science educator, I was timid but teachable.  To the extent that I was willing to risk failure, Dr. Haney was available to move me forward with a gentle, caring spirit; and for that, I regard him as a great mentor and friend.
Alan W. Haney’s love for students, his enthusiasm for botany and science education, and his use of inquiry laboratories and an emphasis on concept learning to teaching science were all influential in shaping my own approach to college science teaching.  Fittingly, Dr. Haney’s recommendation was an important part of my successful application to teach at Cedarville College several years later.

Ruth and Merlin Ager
During my 32 years as professor of biology at Cedarville College/University, I was privileged to teach in the presence of many fine educators, administrators, students, and friends.  Therefore, it would be impossible to name so many that I love and appreciate.  However, there is one Cedarville colleague and friend who has earned the title of “My Weekly Bible Teacher.” His name is Dr. Merlin Ager, Professor of Education, who faithfully taught the Philadelphia Sunday School Class during the 33 years we attended Grace Baptist Church in Cedarville.  Merlin and his faithful wife, Ruth, have had a very influential part in our lives and in the lives of our children, Brad and Melinda.  I am sure that readers of this blog will agree that the Ager’s deserve much love, honor, and respect for their Christ-like example and servant spirit.  Thank you, Merlin and Ruth for teaching me so much from the Scriptures and by the way in which you live out the truths of the Word.

Thanks for reading (or skimming) my expressions of thanks to five former teachers on this Teacher Appreciation Week.  However, I must confess my regret of not expressing my thanks and appreciation to them more often, particularly to the first four teachers who invested so much in me during the years when I had not yet learned how fitting and encouraging it is to thank and honor ones teachers.  Thankfully, the last four teachers of the five I have featured are still alive, and I hope to thank and honor them again in the days ahead.  Who among your teachers can you honor with a heart-felt thanks?

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