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. What follows is a portion of part 2 of the podcast interview.

Michael Arnold: I think a lot of schools begin to approach teaching Christianly with that idea of biblical worldview that you suggested. How do we teach these concepts from a biblical perspective or how do we use these concepts to further inform a biblical worldview?

I wonder, of those big ideas of a biblical worldview, which one would you think is the most important? And I want to suggest that perhaps the most important one that we could focus on as educators is what does it mean to be human? As a math student, as a science student, as a music student, as a P. E. student, how does this help me understand God’s perspective of humanity to the greatest degree possible? What’s your take on that?

Mark Witwer: I think that’s good. There might be many teachers who would say, Honestly, I haven’t really sat down and wrestled with that. I would say that what you’re trying to do is get students to wrestle with, how should my Christian identity inform what I’m supposed to be doing? How am I supposed to be living?

Of course, the quick and easy answer is a long list of all these things– you shouldn’t be doing this, you should do that. That’s not what I’m really talking about. The students all know that and they’ve either bought in or they haven’t. But what I mean is how does it affect the way I treat my friends? How does it affect the way that I should respond to my parents who perhaps are really hard to get along with? How does my Christian identity inform how I should be loving God and loving others to broaden it?

I like to ask the question, What is it about my subject area or this particular course I’m teaching that would be important to God? Why does God care about this? If I were creating an educational system from scratch, would this be included? Most of us would probably say sure. Okay, why? We like to give a lot of pragmatic answers. But I’m saying something more. How do you think God cares about it beyond just the practical? What’s it got to do with living as a human being in this place and time where God has put us? Those are the big questions and they’re fun.

What’s the Purpose?

Michael Arnold: That’s a great guiding question, I think, that gets into what we are teaching, which is the first part of your idea about teaching Christianly.

Mark Witwer: It overlaps with practices too how we teach. If you want your students to see it more richly, it’s not about just telling them that. Find things they can do that will show them the riches, that will make something in their heart say, this is cool. There’ve got to be things out there like that.

Pray. God’s more interested in your students’ welfare than you are, and if you really want it for them, maybe God does too. If you continue to hang in there with something that you really don’t see the immediate value, you got to do it, rather than grouse and grump and do the minimal amount necessary to get through it.

We as teachers, we learn to be merciful with our students. If they gave us 100 percent in every class all day, they would be dead by the end of the week. You can’t give 100 percent for seven or so different classes every day. Is it that God’s going to use all the wonderful things I do, or that God is going to use the things I do, even if I have to stop at some point and say, I just can’t do anymore?

There were times when I overdid it and I can see by hindsight I was overdoing it, but I produced some stuff that was cool and I got a lot of kudos for that. Tthat makes it harder to walk away when you start to feel like maybe this isn’t faithfulness. Maybe it’s overdoing it. Maybe for my family’s sake, I need to ratchet this back and I’m just not going to have time to do that and that and that. I’m going to have to pick one of those three things. I’m not going to be getting as much praise and adulation. So there’s an interesting choice for us there. But that’s all okay.
That’s where God meets us. God meets us in the things that are hard. Our students see that you will grow in ways you can’t imagine if you hang in there.

How Do Teachers Teach Christianly?

Michael Arnold: So, let me ask it this way, maybe just boil that down to a few bullet points. We talked at length about the what, the biblical worldview, but if you were to brainstorm some bullet point examples of how you teach when it comes to teaching Christianly, what does that look like in classrooms?

Mark Witwer: There are a number of things one can play around with. I think I tiptoe through some of those in some of those blogs (What Is Teaching Christianly?, But I Thought I Was Hired to Teach, and Inviting Students to JOY) . I won’t be able to unpack them at great length here, but they’re touched on there. And I’m always happy to, if somebody wants to email me and unpack some of this further, I’m happy to do that too. I love working with teachers who are curious about exploring these things.

Let me say this upfront, once we start to get into practices, a lot of it is going to sound to many teachers like we’re really just talking about teaching well. In other words, many teachers don’t recognize some of the teaching practices that are faith motivated, faith driven. They don’t recognize those as teaching Christianly because they’re not uniquely Christian. That is, a teacher in a public school might do the same thing. The difference is the reason why it’s being done.

When you start talking about practices, many teachers can have the reaction I had early on when I started to be exposed to some of this thinking that was new to me. You’re just talking about teaching well.

If it’s faith motivated, if it’s your Christian identity that’s driving your commitment to this practice in the classroom, and I would go further to say then, because you’re trying to encourage love of God and neighbor, then that makes it Christian teaching. In the research that I did, I got survey input from about a thousand Christian school teachers across the country, K to 12. And a number of them would cite when they’re asked about Christian practices in the classroom, the examples that they gave were often standard educational practices. They talk about group work. They talk about differentiating instruction. So maybe that’s not as jazzy as something that’s uniquely Christian, but I think it’s powerfully shaping in students’ lives. It’s a big deal. It’s definitely Christian teaching.

But let’s say we as Christians are very much aware that there are things we don’t all agree about. We all believe Jesus rose from the dead. We all believe the Bible is the Word of God. We don’t all agree about other details, like the role of women in the church. We don’t agree about origins issues. Nowadays, we’re painfully aware that we don’t all agree about politics. We disagree about theological things. We disagree about the interaction of our faith with society. I think it’s terribly important that our students in Christian school learn how to disagree Christianly. Paul has a lot to say about this in Corinthians and Romans where he’s talking about Christians, the weaker and the stronger brother. He has a lot to say about how to disagree. And it’s interesting that he, being an apostle, could have just settled those debates. Is it okay to eat meat offered to idols in the temple? He could have just said, it doesn’t matter, let it go, move on. But what he says is, “I myself am convinced that no food’s particularly holy in and of itself.”

So in a sense, he answered the question, but the next thing out of his mouth is, “So those of you who feel like this is okay, and fine and good, your responsibility is to love your brothers and sisters who think it’s wrong. And your responsibility, if you think it’s wrong, is not to be judgmental towards those who think it’s okay.” So the strong, so to speak, were not to look down their nose at the weak, and the weak were not to judge them. In other words, you need to love each other anyway, in your disagreement, but not by removing the disagreement. I think there are huge lessons in that for us as people of faith in this day and age. We need to get past the idea that the only way we can have unity is to have uniformity.

I think critically important in these things is that God wants us to love our neighbor. God wants us to love our enemies. Even if we were to regard other Christians as our enemies who disagree with us about the role of women in the church, let’s say, or about an evolution-creation question, then God says, love your enemies.
Okay. So with that in mind, then you say, how do I teach this material? How do I do group work? Is there a way we can do group work where one of my stated goals is disagreeing Christianly, that when you disagree, you’re going to disagree respectfully.

I did a unit on Christian views of creation in my science classes, especially earth science. I didn’t teach biology a lot, but I taught earth science 35 years straight. You can’t teach earth science without encountering in the textbooks discussion of ancient earth and ancient universe, Big Bang theory, Big Bang cosmology, and all of that.
Even though biological evolution might or might not come up much, certainly the age of the earth and the universe did. I knew that we just needed to process this. What I gradually did was create a unit called Christian Views of Creation. I taught that unit for years and gradually became aware that it was just really important to me that students learn to disagree Christianly.

And I wasn’t intentionally teaching that. I could say it, but I realized that telling isn’t teaching. It’s a start, a good start, but the students need to interact with this somehow. What practices could I plug in here? And what occurred to me was, let’s spend the first two or three days wading into this thing of how Christians disagree. So we looked at what Paul did, and so forth, and then the students wanted to do a debate. I always had mixed feelings about that. At the end of a unit like that, they want to do a debate, and I’m thinking, oh my goodness, this could go so sideways because you have such strong feelings. Christian Views of Creation was not about telling them what they ought to think, except for the bottom line that all Christians agree that God made everything. The mantra of that unit was that we all agree, Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word, that God made everything, but we really disagree about how and when.

I wasn’t trying to push them into a particular position. I could see a debate going all kinds of interesting places. But the point was, the debate gave them a chance to further practice, this thing of disagreeing Christianly, because the bottom line for the students was their grades, right? They knew part of their grade was, did they handle themselves respectfully when somebody said something that got their dander up? Now, I don’t expect perfection. I expect you to try. If I see that you’re making an effort to be respectful, to handle your conversations graciously, you’re fine. No problem. If I think you’re not trying at all, that’s going to be an issue. I never had an issue.

So that’s just one small example. It’s just a matter of trying to think what’s important for you, for these students. And God can help you see those things over time. And how do you go about giving them practices, that can move them in that direction?

I’ll share one more because it’s a different kind of example and it’s so easy to do, but it feels strange in most of our evangelical schools. I worked with a 7th grade English teacher once. She had her 7th grade English students every morning at the beginning of class say a short prayer. It was basically two or three sentences, just devoting the class to the Lord and asking Him to bless their time.

I did something similar with my graduate course when I taught it in person. To give you a feel for what this was like for the graduate students, mine went like this: Father, we embrace your gifts as paths to service. Please guide us in teaching well that love for you and others might increase.

Very simple little thing, an invocation. This teacher had her students saying one that was appropriate for 7th graders every day. She would have students coming back to her the next year, 8th graders, saying, “We really miss that prayer.” Isn’t that interesting? I’m sure at first when she’d have them say this out loud together, it felt a little weird. It’s not something we do in a lot of our churches, saying prayers out loud together. It’s not part of our culture. And so it feels a little strange, but over time, it doesn’t feel strange. That’s the nature of a practiced routine. After a while, it doesn’t feel strange.

They shape our imaginations. They shape the way we see life and the purpose of life and what’s good.


Michael Arnold: Well, at the risk of oversimplifying it, because I don’t want to do that by any means, but as I’m listening to this, I just keep going back to one of my own mantras, which is Focus on Relationships. The heart of teaching is to focus on relationships, and that can help guide you towards best practices.

Mark Witwer: Yes. I think that’s true. The whole thing of the goal of loving God and others, increasing in our love for God and others, it’s relational. Now that will express itself differently in different subjects with different aged students and teacher personalities.

Some of us are very gregarious and outgoing and extroverted. Others are not at all. I have a sneaky feeling that the majority of teachers out there are introverts. Since we generally work alone in our classrooms, we’re pretty comfortable in that kind of a setting. We don’t need to be extroverts.

Teachers need to get past that too. I used to think, knowing I was an introvert early on, I used to feel guilty about that. Something’s wrong with me. And I’d look at my colleagues, some of whom were very gregarious and obviously had youth pastor kind of gifts, and I thought something was wrong with me.

Michael Arnold: That’s a big pitfall for teachers, though. I’m not like a teacher down the hall. So I must not be a good teacher, especially in the area of measuring relationships, like my relationships with my students aren’t like theirs, so therefore it must not be as effective.

Mark Witwer: I had a good relationship with my students. We enjoyed each other. But it wasn’t like they were in my classroom all the time and during my planning period and that sort of thing. And I don’t know that I would have flourished well if they had been. Because the key to being an introvert is not that you don’t like people. But the difference is that we recharge by ourselves. We recharge alone. We don’t recharge in groups. And so I used to feel like something was wrong with me because I was that way.

Those are the areas where God meets us. It’s where we struggle and we wish we didn’t have those struggles. If your area of suffering is feeling like you wish you were more, that’s where God will meet you.

This is easy for me to say. I’m 68 years old. It’s one of the advantages of getting older. I think you do begin to see your faith history. You begin to realize that God really does have things in control, even though you’re a mess. You’re a mess and you get increasingly comfortable with it. Not necessarily that you’ll ever be entirely comfortable with it. At least I’m not. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Of course, I’m not going to be comfortable with my mess, but it’s there. And that’s where God meets me. And it does constantly remind me, Who am I trusting?

This is one of the things that got me praying for my students. Some of those who are hearing this podcast are going to cringe when I say this, but I didn’t pray really faithfully for my students. Not like I should have. I wasn’t praying for each one of them until maybe the last decade of my career. I’m ashamed to admit it. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t praying for them at all, or certain individual students who were having struggles, of course. But I wasn’t praying as consistently as I should have for the whole group.

And what made that change was one day I had an epiphany. It’s just the strangest thing. I’d been teaching for 25 or 30 years. I don’t know why it took that long before all of a sudden it struck me one day. I was thinking about teaching Christianly at the time, I believe, and it occurred to me that even if I taught perfectly, my classes were engaging, excellent pedagogy, my faith and learning connections were spot on and they were engaging students and everything was perfect, even if I taught perfectly, lives would not change unless the Holy Spirit worked. I’m just saying it, it’s so obvious. I had just never seen it.

I have spent my adult life, my career, trying to hone my craft, both as a science teacher and also as a science teacher teaching Christianly. And now I’m realizing that in a sense, the thing that matters most to me, which is life change for the students, isn’t going to happen unless something completely out of my control takes place. And at that point I realized this is why we pray. And that got me going. I started praying.

I’ve developed a system because I need a system or I’ll forget, a simple little system that I devised where I could pray for all of my students, not all of them every day. You can’t sustain that. It’s too much. I took my class lists and I took five names and prayed for them one day, as soon as I came to school and sat down at my desk. Before I forget, I’d pray for those five students. The next day I’d take the next five. It didn’t take but a few moments. I could pray longer if I felt like it or had time. But even if I only had moments, that’s all it took. And that became a practice for me, which shapes me. But that’s what got me going on that, was realizing these are the places God meets us, where we’re struggling. And it’s where we learn to trust Him. And I had to learn, in a way I hadn’t before, to trust Him with my teaching.

Michael Arnold: Well, I think we as educators are always looking for best practices, emerging practices, trying to get better at our craft. And I think the point you’re making is as Christian educators, we get to partner with the Holy Spirit. We get to partner with His work and that’s what sets us apart in our profession.

Mark Witwer: Yes, that’s right. We’re trusting God to do His work in His way, in His time. God’s time schedule may not be yours. And sometimes, for those of us who’ve taught long enough, some of those students will come back five years later and they’re youth pastors and stuff like that. So that’s encouraging.

But even in those cases where that doesn’t happen, you never know. Somebody could be on their deathbed, and something God uses (emphasis on God’s use here, we can’t control it) from their time in our classroom, the Holy Spirit brings it to mind, and they throw themselves on God’s mercy at the last moment. Who knows? We don’t need to know. We just need to know whom we trust.

God can do anything. He’s full of surprises. We are engaged in something exciting. It’s not about the nuts and bolts of our getting everything right. We’re not going to get it all right. We do the best we can. We try to be faithful. Ultimately, this is an adventure of God being at work and our trying to dream big dreams as to what God might do.

And, I’ve got to read something. I love this short little passage. It’s from the first book in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Fellowship of the Rings. And it’s the very first paragraph of chapter eight.

Frodo Baggins is this little hobbit who has embarked on a journey that is going to be horrifically difficult and costly and taxing and scary. And he has no idea what’s coming, but he’s seen a little bit of it already just in the beginning of this journey. And he’s in the house of this sort of humorous supernatural sort of protector figure named Tom Bombadil. He’s safe, finally, from some scary stuff they just experienced and unbelievable things that were going to be coming. And it says this:

That night they heard no noises, but either in his dreams or out of them, he couldn’t tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind, a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a gray rain curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.

And I’d like to think, the older I get, the more I think, what we’re trying to do in teaching Christianly, we’re trying to give the kids a vision of a far green country. We’re trying to encourage a hunger and a thirst for this far green country, for something so mysterious and so wonderful and maybe it’s not yet. If we as teachers don’t have a far green country that we’re heading for, then it’s going to be harder for us. We need this too. We need to ask God to help us catch a vision for a far green country that we want.

Last Words

Michael Arnold: Well, Mark, maybe that’s a good place to wrap our conversation up. I really appreciate your insights, your experiences, and your passion for Christian education. So thank you for being with us today. I like to give my guests the last word. I would invite you to imagine that you’re in the teachers’ workroom at the end of the day, surrounded by educators who have just poured themselves out and you want to inspire them to push towards that next step towards teaching Christianly. What would you say to them as they flee the building and head home for the evening? How would you address a crowd like that?

Mark Witwer: I think what I would say is, wrestle with that seemingly simple but terribly deep question of, what do you want most for your students? And if the answer that you would give, as mine would have been 30 years ago, would be, I really want them to learn my subject well, then you just give that to God and say, Lord, if there’s more, show me.

If you want the vision of a far green country, something more wonderful and deeper, more mysterious and exciting about your classroom culture, let’s say, that can encourage students towards love of God and neighbor, if you want that, God wants it more than you do. And He’ll show you what that looks like for you, your personality, your students, your classroom.

If you find yourself saying, What I really want for my students is life change, that is what I want most. I want them to learn my subject. I love my subject, but I want their lives to change. I want them to grow in their love of God and neighbor. Then pray. The first step is the simplest. You don’t need to worry about not knowing 20 things to do. There are lots of resources out there. God can lead you to them. Pray that God will guide you on what some first steps might be. I think the heartbeat that will put life into all that, that will make a teacher want to dive into those things and use them well, is that question of, what do you want most? What are you dreaming for your students? God hears those prayers. He will take you where He wants you to be. It’s His story written in your life. And it’ll be exciting.

Photo by Olivia Snow on Unsplash

Dr. Mark Witwer served for 41 years in four Christian schools, teaching many courses but especially Earth Science, Physics, Zoology, and middle school Life and Physical Science. Mark also served as an administrator, leading curriculum in three schools and serving as Dean of Faculty in one. He is currently adjunct Professor of Christian Education at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and loves helping teachers, pastors, and homeschooling parents explore what it means to teach Christianly. Mark has a bachelor’s degree in English with a science minor (Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana), a master’s degree in secondary school science (Villanova University), and a PhD in religion and society studies, focused on Christian education (Omega Graduate School, Dayton, Tennessee). You can explore more of Mark’s contributions to Christian education at the CACE blog and the science-and-faith website www.teachfastly.com.