Dr. Mark Witwer, with over 41 years as a teacher, curriculum leader, college professor, joined the Curriculum Trak podcast, The Teacher’s Lounge, recently to dig deeper into the thoughts he shared a while ago on the Curriculum Trak blog about teaching Christianly, as well as a few thoughts from some of his other blogs as well. Mark resides in the center of Florida and serves as an adjunct professor of education at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale. In the classroom, he was drawn towards the teaching of science, specifically zoology, and especially the study of amphibians and reptiles. He has also worked with a publishing partner of Curriculum Trak, Biologos, which focuses on the intersections of science and the Bible.
Michael Arnold: I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for quite a while and I’ve tried not to be too pushy pestering you for quite some time to join the podcast and, you set aside your concerns and your angst about this form of a conversation and you’re here today. Thank you so much.
Let’s start with what you want to add to that introduction. Maybe any other details you think would be helpful for our listeners to know.
Mark Witwer: The only detail to correct would be that at Knox, I’m an adjunct professor of Christian education, not education in general, which is important because my doctorate is in religion and society studies. And my focus was on Christian ed, but it’s not a straight sort of education degree. So I don’t want to oversell my credentials on the pure education side. I’ve got some education background, but my focus is on Christian ed. What does it mean to teach Christianly? That’s fascinated me all this time. I think it’s maybe the major factor in keeping me in Christian education all these years.
There are other things about it I like too, but I got fascinated with what are we talking about when we say we want to teach Christianly, or the buzzwords tend to be integrating faith and learning: what is that supposed to be? The longer I was in Christian schools, the more I began to wonder what that really meant and what teachers thought it meant. There were books out there that told us what we’re supposed to think it meant. I wasn’t sure if teachers agreed or not, which is what led to my doctoral work.
Michael Arnold: But you started the blog post with a statement, I never planned to be a teacher, and I think you referenced the fact that this question drew you into it. So share that story just a little bit, if you don’t mind. What brought you into education in the first place and what led you down this path of what does it mean to teach Christianly?
Mark Witwer: I became a Christian in high school. I wound up at a Christian college, which was a great surprise to me. I didn’t even know that Christian colleges existed until probably my senior year. And I wound up at a Christian college and along the way, I’d always loved science. I’ve been a nature buff, a fan of reptiles and amphibians in particular, but nature in general, since I can remember. I’m one of these little boys that are interested in snakes and just never grew out of it. And so in college, one might have thought I’d major in biology or something, but at some point I became convinced God wanted me to go seminary.
And so I thought science might not be the greatest preparation for that. What would be? And I had a friend who was an English major and he was at college on the GI Bill. He was older. He was married. He was just brilliant. He was probably one of the smartest people I’d ever met. And he had this English major and I could see what it was doing for him and his ability to deal with the Bible, which after all is a written text, right? And so this was a whole new idea to me that somehow an English major could be great preparation for dealing with scripture. And so I did an English major.
So I was probably one of the few English majors in history that wasn’t that interested in books, novels, literature. I was fascinated by linguistics and grammar and how language works. And that sort of thing. But I learned to write. One of the things I knew I needed to do was learn to write. I’d hear horror stories of people coming out of seminary and they knew the Bible very well, but they really couldn’t speak well and they couldn’t write. And I thought, This is not good, I don’t want to do that. And it was good for me to take the English major. I was forced to write a lot, and I’ve been grateful for that ever since.
So I wound up going to seminary. And after two years in a Master Divinity program, I was interning on the pastoral staff at my home church in Maryland, and wrestling with some issues, and I thought, I’ve just got to get some of these issues settled. I thought I would just put off going back for my third year of seminary and get this stuff straight.
So I was interning on the pastoral staff through the summer. I continued that in a less formal sense into the fall. And about the end of first quarter, I was still hanging around and doing things with the church. The church had a small Christian school that went up through ninth grade. I had never ever thought about teaching. That had never crossed my mind as a possibility, but about this time, I had begun to wonder what I was going to do with my seminary background, because I had come to realize that I didn’t really have pastoral gifts. I just didn’t really feel called to the ministry. But I had discovered in doing some preaching and teaching of Bible studies and things, that I liked to teach, and I always loved science. And I had begun to pray, God, what am I supposed to do with this? I love science. I’ve discovered I like teaching. What do I do with that? It never crossed my mind to teach science, not once.
So one morning, the school director called me into her office at about the end of first quarter in the school, and she said to me, “Mark, we need a science teacher. Are you interested?” And it was like the hair went up on the back of my neck, like I was seeing the handwriting on the wall. So I stepped into the classroom with no education background. I don’t recommend doing that, by the way, but ignorance is bliss. I was having a great time. The students were having a good time. I loved teaching science to the students. We had a little zoo in the classroom and all that sort of thing. So that’s what got me into teaching. Now it was a Christian school. I not only knew nothing about teaching, but I also really had not thought about Christian schooling.
I didn’t go back to seminary. I stuck with the teaching. So I went back to school in the summers and the evenings and weekends to get my education courses, to get certified in the state of Maryland where I was, and also to get more science background. And along the way, of course, we’re doing in-service training and things like that at school, talking about teaching Christianly. I’m beginning to think, Okay, so we’re doing something different here than we would be doing in the public school. At the time, I thought the difference was primarily that I was free to share my faith, which I enjoyed. It was great to be able to speak openly about my faith with the students and meet them in their struggles.
I was teaching middle schoolers, seventh, eighth, and ninth graders, and I had all of them for science and I had some of them for some math and Bible in there. And I think at one point I might’ve done a little short stint in a physical education class. I don’t think that lasted very long as I recall, but science was mainly what it was all about. Obviously, since I was teaching science, I wanted to deal carefully with the origins issues, evolution, creation, age of the earth. I knew that was going to be important to deal with that maybe a little differently than I would have if I were teaching a public school. But that was about the limit of what my understanding of teaching Christianly was.
Over the years, that began to broaden. I wound up going to another school in the Philadelphia area, where I was for twenty-one years.And one of the requirements that school had was for what they called professional status, basically tenure in a sense, is I needed to get a master’s degree, which the school very generously helped fund. And I also needed to write a paper and present it to the board, a committee of the board, on my philosophy of Christian education. And you had to do this within the, like the paper was within the first three years or so that you were there. And of course the master’s took a little longer, took me seven years to do the masters, but that’s another story.
I remember my meager science background, even though I loved it, all I had was a minor in college and some courses I’d picked up. And I was doing a straight masters in science. It wasn’t a science ed degree, it was straight science. So, they looked at my transcript and they laughed and said my grades were fine, but we probably need to beef up my background a little bit. So I had these extra courses. I had a fifty-some hour master’s program by the time it was done at Villanova University, which was a really good school for me to be in, very rigorous. And I learned a lot. By the time I was done, I really did have the background I needed. But this philosophy of Christian education paper, when I heard about that requirement, I remember thinking, What is my philosophy of Christian education? I really hadn’t thought about it in that way.
I had tiptoed into some things and we did some in-service at the other school. And, of course, I’d internalized some of that, but I really hadn’t sat down and pounded out how I thought this all fit together. So that was the beginning. And over the years, God was patient, and I’m a slow learner, and the things that matter most, it seems to take me forever to catch on. I began to see that there’s a lot more to teaching science Christianly than just the origins issues. There are a lot of other things about teaching science Christianly. What are we supposed to do with the things we learn in science as a student? What’s it for?
We start to wade into it. What are my students supposed to do with what they’ve learned besides tell me information back so I can give them a grade? I think that’s a really important question that goes right to the heart of what we care about because of our Christian identity. So I began to see that and I began to realize that in other subjects too, some are easier than others to make the connections between faith and learning. I began to realize that talking to my colleagues. I became aware of the fact, especially during my doctoral work, which I did late in my teaching career.
I finished my doctorate just several years before I retired. Again, I don’t recommend that career track. God has a sense of humor. But it worked for me. I look back on my own life story and just laugh, partly embarrassed and deeply grateful that God knew what I needed when I needed it. It took me fifteen years to do the doctorate for various reasons. And by the time I was done, it had really soaked in, after fifteen years of wrestling within reading.
I got involved in this in the late 70s, early 80s, so I lived through a lot of the expansion and growth and development for much of the Christian school movement’s history. And certainly in my early years, our focus when we talked about integrating faith and learning was primarily on content. We were mostly thinking about teaching our material from a Christian perspective, giving students a Christian viewpoint, seeing the subject matter through a Christian lens.
And I think that’s critically important. If you don’t know the truth about something, you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak. You’re in danger. You need to know the truth. However, I became increasingly aware, especially in the doctoral work, that there’s another conversation to be had as well. Information is critical. I want to make that very clear. But we don’t tend to be motivated to act on what we know by the information itself. We tend to be motivated by what we imagine, by what we want, by our dreams, by our vision. Something has grabbed hold of our imagination and we want that. We’re not even always aware of it. What is it that we really want? What do we want most in life? That’s almost a scary question. Most of us are going to find that some of the things that come to mind, they’re not things we know we’re supposed to want. We’re supposed to be seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, loving God and loving others. And many of the things we really want don’t necessarily align with that. They’re not necessarily out of alignment, but they could at times be in conflict. We might have to make a choice. So I became aware that, in my thinking about Christian education and teaching Christianly and connecting faith and learning, the information was critical.
Students needed a Christian perspective. I loved doing that. I’m a math-science guy. I’m linear. I like the philosophy of how you look at things Christianly. But what they need equally is to do things and experience things that capture their imagination, that make the gospel attractive, that make them realize the joy that comes in acting on some things they know that they might not have acted on before, and using their learning for something besides self advancement, and so on.
It’s another huge topic, but the point being that I started out thinking teaching Christianly meant presenting a Christian perspective on the information. I still love doing that. And of course, Curriculum Trak has a wonderful resource for that, a faith and learning resource. But I began to realize that it’s what we do with that information that is critical. My idea of thinking about teaching Christianly has broadened a great deal. Now I’m thinking a lot about not just what we teach the students, but how we teach it. It’s the practices we engage in the classroom, things we have them doing and thinking and being exposed to and so forth.
Working Definition of Teaching Christianly
Michael Arnold: So a working definition of teaching Christianly could be what we teach, but also how we teach from a Christian perspective.
Mark Witwer: There are a lot more things that are really important to nurturing students’ hearts than just the instruction, but focusing on the teacher’s role as an instructor, the way I like to say it is, it’s allowing our faith to influence what we teach and how we teach in order to encourage students towards greater love for God and neighbor. That’s my primary goal. The secondary goal is, yes, I want them to have a good transcript. Yes, I want them to be able to go to college, if that’s part of God’s story for them. I want academic excellence. There’s no place for careless academics in a Christian school. You’ll lose your right to have the ministry as a school if you’re careless about your academics. But, primarily, the reason I’m teaching to encourage students towards greater love of God and neighbor by the way I teach it and by what I teach, of course.
Michael Arnold: What experiences or challenges, victories, or failures were instrumental in bringing you to this realization as you’ve grown in your journey as an educator? Anything in particular stick out to you?
Mark Witwer: One thing I remember is this excellent, high school level math teacher saying to me, “I know I’m supposed to be integrating faith and learning, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to say in my math class without saying the same corny thing every day.”
Now I was focusing mostly on the content of instruction, but I was having a lot of fun trying to do that. But I was seeing how difficult it was and I’m philosophically inclined. And I realized some of my colleagues were not philosophically inclined. They were very intelligent. That’s got nothing to do with being intelligent. They just didn’t enjoy hashing things down to the deep roots of something. They were really good at presenting their material in the classroom and figuring out what it is students needed to know and getting it across to them and all that. But they didn’t necessarily want to hash out every little detail of why. I began to see that this project we had of trying to teach Christianly was, as one author put it, trying to make us all into little philosophers.
I got to thinking: why is this? What’s this frustration? Where’s it coming from? What’s it all about? So those kinds of experiences drove me to the doctorate. I naively thought I was going to do the doctorate, learn everything I possibly could about teaching Christianly, and then I’d have it all figured out. And I realized I went too far into the doctoral program. I realized, oh my goodness, there’s a whole lot here, and I’m not going to figure it all out. I became familiar with all the questions and why it’s so difficult, and that’s helpful. But it’s not like now I have a checklist: Here are all the right things to do. Just check off these boxes you’re all set. Every teacher is different. Every classroom is different. Every subject area is different.
There are neat ways to pursue letting your Christian identity inform what you’re doing in the classroom with the hopes of shaping the student, encouraging the students towards greater love of God and neighbor while you teach and by the way you teach your material well. There are lots of neat things about that. But it isn’t just a simple checklist and so the guilt trip that a lot of teachers feel and I felt and I’ve heard teachers vocalize over the years, the guilt trip that they’re not doing it “like they’re supposed to be,” is not necessary. We don’t need that guilt trip.
We need to recognize that there are ways to do this that fit who we are. The bottom line is why are we doing what we’re doing? What is it we really want for students? And what I’ve already implied is that I think the right answer to that question has something to do with–I’m saying it that way on purpose because we’re all different, God loves variety, and there’s not going to be one simple, tight answer to a question like that–but I think it probably should have something to do with wanting the students to increase in their love of God and neighbor, wanting to see life change. That should be the bottom line as to why we’re doing what we’re doing in Christian education. And if that’s true, then there are some neat ways to do that. Let your Christian faith inform what’s going on in your classroom.
I went to this legendary, really excellent high school art teacher who had done it for years and years. I said, “How would you define creativity?” She didn’t even hesitate. “One word,” she said. “Courage.” And I thought, That’s it! If you’re going to try new things, including in this area of seeing how your faith might inform your teaching, you’re going to have some failures. It’s okay. It’s all right. It isn’t always going to work. And some of the things you think are failures, if you get a little survey input from the students, now and then, you’ll be surprised. Some of the things you were thinking about dropping because you didn’t think they were working, you’ll find several students saying, I really got a lot out of X, Y, Z. And it just reminds us that the students are all different. They’re not all wired like I am. So you try things.
Michael Arnold: I was just going to ask if I could pull on those threads a little bit more, the what and the how, those two sides– What are we teaching? How are we teaching it? Are we driving our students to see how to love God and how to love neighbor, which I think is just a very practical definition and something that we can all wrap our minds around. But do you think that we as educators stop to think about the what question enough? What am I teaching? The biblical worldview component you mentioned, dealing with origins, but also some of the other aspects of science. Do we stop to really ponder what we are actually teaching in our craft or do we look at the name of our chapter or unit and just run with it?
Mark Witwer: I think, to be fair, one always has to remember how busy teachers are. I’m retired now. When you were teaching full time, you remember what it was like. I know you were in the classroom. You’re just unbelievably busy. You don’t even realize how busy you are maybe fully until you step away from it. Retirement is one way to do that. During summers, you get relaxed after a few weeks, you find that you’re relaxed and the school year’s going to start again. And even if you love your teaching and you love your students, there’s something in you, I think in many of us, I know I experienced this, that just starts to get tense. You can feel your insides winding up again and gearing up for the race again, at the end of the summer. It’s just a difficult calling. There’s nothing easy about it. It’s not for the faint of heart. That’s for sure. So having said that, I think most teachers are too busy to do what you’re talking about.
It’s not their fault. It’s not something they should feel guilty about. It’s a dilemma that I wrestle with a little bit. As you can tell, my heart yearns for us to see our Christian school teaching as something that’s about life change primarily. I think that many of our really excellent Christian schools, and there are a lot of them around nowadays, have changed so much from 40 years ago when more of them were smaller and struggling. This doesn’t mean they weren’t doing their job well; they were operating on a shoestring. They were small. Now they’ve got so many Christian schools around that have huge, beautiful facilities. They’re paying their teachers very well. They’ve got terrific curricular resources and it’s just wonderful.
I think that one potential downside of that is it’s easy for us to be so focused on academic excellence. This is important because our schools will fail if we don’t teach well, especially in the market I just described. In the Orlando area where I live, there are five or six, at least, really good Christian schools. By “really good” I mean well established, relatively large, strong enrollments, beautiful facilities, that sort of thing. If you’re not on top of your game in a market like that, you’re going to lose students to the other schools. You do have to take your academics seriously. But if you’re so busy doing that, that the vast lion’s share of your resources and your time in administrator meetings is taken up by just trying to teach really well, staying on top of technology, getting the latest training for things that are constantly changing, that we’re not spending a significant amount of our energy and resources and whatnot thinking about how are we promoting spiritual formation in our school, how are we promoting life change, then I think there’s a danger there. I don’t want to sound critical because I get the tension, and I also get that a lot of administrators, this is not their area of background.
A lot of administrators have got a terrific background in and gifting in leadership. They’re really good leaders. They understand people. They have enough of an awareness of curriculum. They’re certainly good at organizational management. And those are their areas of gifting. And then you say to them the reason for its existence is being a Christian school, as opposed to simply a great private school with Christian teachers. The difference has something to do with life change and student formation. I’m sure for a lot of administrators, that probably makes them a little uncomfortable. So there are lots of reasons I think why schools don’t perhaps give that the focus that you were implying in your question. But it’s not that their hands should be slapped for it. It’s a challenge that we face.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview with Mark Witwer. Check it out next week!