At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, October 30, 2014

When There's a Time...

Teaching is a rewarding vocation that nonetheless has the feel of being in a submarine most of the time. You rarely emerge into the glorious light to see the full fruits of your labors. So much of the reward that I've experienced comes from conversations with former students who look back on the days of "seed-planting" in their lives and find there were things of immense goodness and value that took root.

That is something--by the way--that goes beyond any professional development (which is still important), that goes well beyond any prior training or a multitude of advanced degrees. There are a number of moments in my career at four different schools where I have drank deeply of success; so what are those chronological nuggets?

(1) When there's a time in which a student faces a major test in my class, is worrying constantly about their performance, and then listens to encouragement that who they are is more important than the specific grade they make, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(2) When there's a time in which a student understands that we learn best when we speak with one another, not at one another, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(3) When there's a time in which a student learns and believes that there is a meaningful Center of the universe, and he or she is NOT it, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(4) When there's a time in which a student realizes that--to quote Philip Yancey--"if you live through a moment, you can live through a day, and how you live a day is eventually how you live your life", then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(5) When there's a time when one of my students works on a group drabble assignment and creates a beautiful 100-word short story on the eighth commandment and joyfully cries out, "I've always struggled with writing all my life, but this I can do!", then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(6) When there's a time in which I convince a kid--even for a little while--that the motion picture of the beautiful art gallery of human existence and natural beauty that surrounds them is infinitely greater than any selfie on Twitter or photo on Instagram, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(7) When there's a time in which a student--consciously or unwittingly--participates in even a little bit of bringing in God's dream for this world, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(8) When there's a time in which my students know deep in the core of their beings that my classroom is always a safe place to ask questions, admit doubts, and to make mistakes, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(9) When there's a time in which my students understand they are very small specks in the vast tapestry of the universe yet they are extremely valued by God, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

(10) When there's a time--and this is my overriding goal every day--in which a student leaves my class with courage for the rest of the day and some hope for tomorrow, then I've succeeded as a teacher.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Saturday's Children

This week's post comes as the football season is heating up. Of course, the college season is in full midseason gear. The NFL has passed the one-third-of-the-way mark, and the Canadian Football League is making its mad dash toward the Grey Cup playoffs. But for a post entitled "Saturday's Children", you might think I'm speaking of college football. And that'd be a good guess, especially if you're thinking of Giles Tippette's book of the same name that chronicles Rice University's gut-wrenching 1971 season (think the writing ability of John Feinstein on steroids with additional grit). But no, I'm speaking of the high school game, which in Missouri has entered the win-or-go-home phase.

This season at Westminster Christian Academy has been close to magical. In Class 4, our Wildcats are ranked (before press time tomorrow) seventh in the state of Missouri and are the first seed in our district. The first playoff game is this coming Saturday at our home stadium against the St. Clair High School Bulldogs, and Wildcat Nation is ready to take the proverbial bull by the horns and ride the path of hard work and determination and turn it into the Road to Glory. Make no mistake. It will take some bounces going our way, but in coaching, team discipline and attitude, we have a championship-caliber team.

If you're in the area, this first-round game is a great opportunity to come out and see what we're buzzing about here at Westminster. And if you need some additional impetus to show up at this clash, look no further than this blog post.

That's right: I'm giving you my...


(10) The 2:30 kickoff means we're going head-to-head for Nielsen ratings with Mississippi State vs. Kentucky (CBS), Michigan vs. Michigan State (ABC), and even Vanderbilt vs. Missouri (SECN). But look at it this this age of delayed gratification, you can set your DVRs for those college games and always catch them later while you work around the Ole Miss-LSU game that night. This is Westminster football. That means it takes priority.

(9) Weather: It's too early to be fully precise, but preliminary forecasts are calling for a Saturday afternoon of full sunshine with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees. Come on, people--that is one beautiful day for high school playoff football.

(8) If you are somewhat unfamiliar with Westminster or haven't been around here for awhile, the game will also give you an up-close glimpse of our state-of-the-art campus, with quality academic, athletics, and fine arts facilities. 800 Maryville Center Drive is an absolute jewel.

(7) The football game is literally the only athletic event on Westminster's campus this Saturday. So you'll have nothing else to draw you aside. However, you can make it to plenty of away games and still get to the varsity contest in time (e.g., the 7th and 8th grade football games at MICDS at 9 am and 10:30 am). In fact, are there any requests for a massive tailgating party in the parking lot prior to game time? Anyone got a massive BBQ smoker?

(6) Westminster junior student John Pottebaum, fearless leader of the WCA student Blue Crew, has gone on record saying that if St. Clair is tied or leading the game midway through the first quarter, he will drink a bottle of barbecue sauce and chase it with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Although that's not an optimal situation for our football team, it's certainly an interesting possibility.

(Actually, Pottebaum never promised that. Scratch #6. I was just kidding.)

(5) This playoff run is the final push for quarterback Brendan Bognar, linebacker Caleb Miller, and many of our other senior players who have exhibited leadership and winning attitude all season long. Showing up for the game will honor their season-long efforts.

(4) This weekend coincides with my beautiful wife's birthday. Our whole family will be at the game, so you can come by and wish her a happy anniversary of her 21st birthday.

(3) We honestly have the best game crew in the business. There is nothing like having the opportunity to announce the game, and I enjoy it greatly. Dave Dorton (scoreboard) and LB Graham (play clock) keep things running smoothly, and Luke Breems is a crack statistician. Plus, the Howard Warren-Scott Holley-Warren Smith first-down chain gang has been ranked by the Missouri State High School Activities Association as the #1 chain gang in the entire state!

(Okay, there are no chain-gang rankings, but they'd be number 1 if there were.)

(2) The other aspects of the game are just as memorable. Dr. Jim Sefrit gives phenomenal and heartfelt pre-game prayers, the student choir can sing the national anthem with the soul of Diana Ross and the volume of Laura Wright. And the volunteers at the concession stand go above and beyond the call of duty.

(1) I cannot stress how essential it is you attend the game if able. High school playoff football is here and it's win or go home. If you don't want to watch football, many Americans will want to know why. And if many Americans are asking that question, there are likely other questions they are asking. Questions like "Isn't it probable that person doesn't put the nozzle back on the gas pump properly at QuikTrip? Isn't it also somewhat likely they don't organize their coupons for grocery shopping? And isn't it entirely reasonable to assume that no football love probably means that person doesn't like scrambled eggs, bacon, sawmill gravy, biscuits, and grits?" And that's where you'd be sledding into some dangerous territory, people. Because if you don't like biscuits, the terrorists win.

Don't let the terrorists win. Come to Saturday's game and cheer on Saturday's children.

Go Wildcats! 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

How to Pray

If your spiritual journey is even somewhat remotely important to you, perhaps you're like me and you really struggle with how to pray. I don't know where this struggle arises from. It could be from a lack of humility. In all likelihood, I'm sure my pathetic inability to isolate everything that distracts from in front of me. And there are probably a host of other reasons, which says everything about the abundance of my spiritual disorders.

There are many remedies promised through book and other resources, spiritual disciplines and otherwise. Of course, you could begin with Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now, as long as you get several copies of it and put them on a roaring fire to set the mood for your prayer time (some of those volumes will feed a fire for several hours). But a simple, yet revolutionary, idea is to go to the prayerbook of God's people down through the ages.

The Psalms.

Although our biblical literacy seems to be diminishing, several of the Psalms of the Bible hold a prominent place. Yet these words must go beyond sentimental memory and move to seminal focus. Prayer--and it's result of encountering God--shines the brightest in the raw and honest words of the Psalms.

I could say more, except for the fact that my dad said it better in the lead-up to a Bible conference in Sydney, Australia. Check out this video interview about preaching and praying the Psalms. If you're not a pastor, don't let the "preaching" part intimidate you. There's plenty of meat here for everyone to chew on.

Happy viewing!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Crazy Kids!

I'm back in the announcer's booth this Saturday for Westminster Christian Academy's homecoming game of sorts. It's part of an insanely chock-full Carnival weekend of fun, games, alumni gatherings, and so forth.

To spice things up, I asked my students--at the beginning of a recent quiz on moral philosophy--a silly question.

"Rabbi is announcing the football game at Carnival. If you could have him work in one word or phrase during the game what would it be?"

Yes, you guessed I am "Rabbi" (holdover from having a father who specialized in Old Testament studies and all things Hebrew). The whole question had a massive whiff of the scene in the movie Leap of Faith when the whole entourage of Steve Martin's traveling evangelist show puts money in the pot with a word or phrase he must work into his sermon. If he uses them all, he wins the money.

Now, not everyone answered, but many had fun with it, and so for a bit of mindless entertainment on your Thursday, here are some responses:



"That's how we do it"

"Whatever happens, God loves you"

"I'm very hungry and I would love some 'wh'-eat thins" (Family Guy fans will recognize the reference)



"If you know what I mean"


"Chelsea is my favorite student because she reads my books" (Quick, three guesses as to the first name of the student who wrote that)


"Chickens are fuzzy"

Well, I doubt I'll be working those in (gotta stay professional, you know), but it's nice to know the creative juices among my students can still flow like the Jordan River at springtime.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Better Than We Once Were: Part 3

Coming down the home stretch...As I multitask while watching a Season 2 episode of The Walking Dead (prepping for this Sunday's season premiere), I am thinking about the final leg of the three-legged stool as we at Westminster Christian Academy seek to "raise the academic profile".

Obviously, when one person or a group want to make impact in an area, the tempting thing can be to make "immediate impact." Success is--in our American timetable tendency--something that must be rapid and measurable. This is understandable. We like to have documented results that we can put in our public relations literature. There are a host of reasons why we often make massive sea changes, curricular tidal waves, and such and such. And that's why it's helpful to know that...

(3) Patience matters: I know it sounds like I'm pulling the parking brake on this one, but turning up the academic excellence is not always something equivalent to flash-boiling water on the stove.

First of all, schools need to ask themselves what is working well. Don't do things differently for the sake of doing it, any more than holding to tradition for the sake of tradition. Nothing ever happened in a vacuum, and a school is rooted in some sort of context they work with. Where many schools and school systems run aground is running after some sort of academic spearheading without tethering themselves to practices that have served them well.

Secondly, the moving parts of implementing a new academic vision will be constantly moving. The teaching profession is facing a hard reality: turnover rates among high school faculty in private school tend to hit 1 in every 5, whether they be "movers" (to another school) or "leavers" (as in jetting the profession). This means that whatever new vision a school has, chances are there will be some who start, some who leave, and some who come and go. That's a reality, and sometimes it may be difficult to make a lot of visible headway between the real and the ideal. 

Third, success takes time. A long time. Raising the academic profile is not a sprint, but a marathon; it's not a snapshot, but a motion picture. You are not microwaving a new vision; you build, one layer after another. There will be some things a school does well initially that it can keep working on; other things will be pitched aside. But nothing happens overnight. The Cubs' upward climb toward winning the 2017 World Series, for example, will be the culmination of years of hard work (I am not kidding, by the way, about 2017).

So yes, truth matters. Subject mastery matters. But seeing these things through is the character quality of patience. A school will need it in spades, and only then will a community of true learning see success.