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Since the time that Protestant Reformed schools were proposed, there has been an awareness of the need for training teachers for those schools. And especially as school societies formed in various congregations and, one after another, schools materialized, teachers longed for training to equip them for giving distinctly Protestant Reformed instruction. The churches understood the need. It came into expression in the requests to synods for a Normal School, and for the Protestant Reformed seminary to give some instruction for the teachers. Synods reacted positively to those requests. Yet, the movement to organize an institution to provide teacher training came to nothing. That may well be due in large part to the realization that a Normal School is not the work of the church institute. Rather, just as the schools are the responsibility of the parents, so also providing teachers for these schools is a parental calling.
However, although the attempts to establish a Normal School did not result in any institution being formed, the desire for teacher training did not die. Teachers themselves, as well as ministers and other church members, recognized the crying need for adequate training for the teachers. This editorial will recount some of the efforts to equip teachers for their high calling in Protestant Reformed schools.
In the 1950s the professors of the seminary demonstrated a keen interest in the cause of teacher training. The Theological School Committee reported in the 1950 Acts of Synod (Art. 26) that if a course was organized for such instruction, Rev. George Ophoff was willing to teach it. In fact, the TSC added, Rev. Ophoff was already deeply involved, for “two years ago a Teachers’ Club was organized in Grand Rapids which has been meeting once per week ever since, with Rev. Ophoff giving them instruction.” Busy college students and busier teachers (teaching in multiple grade classrooms) met once per week! The other professor, Rev. Herman Hoeksema, was just as willing to provide courses for teachers. He drew up a “Normal Course for Elementary Education.”1 In it he outlined four areas needed for such a course. Specifically:
- Psychology and Pedagogy.
- History of Education.
- Principles of Education.
- Methods of Teaching.
It is obvious from the outline that this course should equip teachers for giving solid Protestant Reformed instruction. Under “History of Education,” for instance, is this comment: “It stands to reason that this must be a critical study in the light of Christian, more specifically, in the light of Protestant Reformed Principles.” The section on “Principles of Education” begins, “What, in the light of Scripture and according to our Protestant Reformed Principles, is the purpose of Education?” Suggestions for “Methods” include “how to teach, from a biblical viewpoint, the art of reading, of arithmetic, of geography, of writing, of music, of history, etc.” At the same time, Rev. Hoeksema reminded everyone that more was needed to be a teacher, namely, a broad education, “including some mathematics, history, two or three foreign languages, etc.” But the teacher in the Protestant Reformed school must have training, Protestant Reformed training.
How long Rev. Ophoff’s weekly meetings with the “Teacher Club” continued is not known. Nonetheless what is known is that teachers continued to seek growth in their knowledge of and ability to give distinctive Protestant Reformed teaching. In March of 1956, the boards and faculties of Adams Street Christian School and Hope Protestant Reformed Christian School met in order to discuss the possibility of an organization for teachers. The outcome of this meeting was the birth of the Protestant Reformed Teachers’ Institute.2 Previously, many of these teachers attended the conventions of an association for teachers in the National Union of Christian Schools. But they wanted a professional group that would equip them for teaching in Protestant Reformed schools. The teachers hoped to meet monthly to discuss various papers, and they determined to hold an annual convention. In April of 1956, the first PRTI convention was held from early afternoon into the evening. And the PRTI never stopped meeting. Eight to thirteen teachers attended those early meetings, along with prospective teachers. Ministers spoke; teachers wrote papers. They were laying the foundations, setting forth the principles, and discussing proper methods of Protestant Reformed education. The course laid out by Rev. Hoeksema was the guide.
Eventually, the PRTI started publishing their own magazine for the development of Protestant Reformed education—Perspectives in Covenant Education. That was in 1975. The magazine is still being published today.
The original Constitution of the PRTI indicates the teachers’ desire to be equipped to be Protestant Reformed teachers. This is clear from the Basis of the organization, which is “the Word of God as interpreted by the Three Forms of Unity and as these are applied in the educational principles of the Protestant Reformed Schools” (emphasis added). It is even more evident in the three proposals stated in Article 3 (emphasis added):
1. To study materials related to the field of education in conjunction with the Word of God in order that we teachers may be better qualified to teach from a Protestant Reformed viewpoint.
2. To create a medium through which we may produce materials of a specific Protestant Reformed nature to be used in our own schools and thereby to making our schools more distinctive.
3. To create a means through which we teachers may work towards more unity and understanding between our Protestant Reformed Schools.
That same desire in the hearts of the parents came into expression in the formation of the Federation of Protestant Reformed Christian Schools later in 1956. Over the years, this organization has supported study projects by Protestant Reformed teachers, the printing of the fruits of these studies, and educational seminars. Agatha Lubbers points out that both the Federation and the Teachers’ Institute were formed by individuals who “saw the need for the development and further preparation of the teachers in the specific instruction that teachers and parents were called to give students and covenant children in the Protestant Reformed Christian schools.”3
From my experience, the profit from all these endeavors can scarcely be measured. As a senior in college, I was shaped by the seminar on Reformed education led by the (then) Rev. David J. Engelsma (published as Reformed Education: by the FPRCS in 1977; later by the RFPA). As a teacher, I cheerfully made the 730-mile trek to Grand Rapids for the conference held every Fall. The meetings provided fellowship, encouragement, sympathy, enrichment, and spiritual and educational development. We returned home eager to teach—feeling a wee bit more prepared to teach!
The point is, all through the history of Protestant Reformed schools an acute awareness of the need for training of Protestant Reformed teachers has existed. Teachers desired it, parents saw the need, and boards united to help provide it. Men with vision and a love for the schools urged action. A brief history of the PRTI relates, for example, how
(a)t a mid-year session of the teachers’ institute in early 1980, Mr. Jon Huisken made a presentation on Protestant Reformed teacher training. He suggested that we initiate a training program of our own, possibly beginning with a single course such as philosophy of education. A year and one-half later…a panel of three men gave presentations on teacher training. Rev. D. Engelsma spoke on the importance of establishing a training school for our teachers. He pointed out that the present system of teacher training was unsatisfactory.4
Over the years, numerous calls have been issued for the establishment of a Reformed college, or at the least, an institution that would work together with other colleges but give training to Protestant Reformed teachers.5
That brings us to today. Where are we today, almost 70 years since the initial requests for synod to get involved in teacher training? Almost 70 years since Rev. Hoeksema drew up the “Normal Course” and Rev. Ophoff met weekly with the “Teachers’ Club”? The need for teacher training has been recognized all through these years. The desire to be equipped for distinctive, Protestant Reformed teaching has motived men and women to spend untold hours writing, presenting, and discussing papers on a host of educational topics. It is time to provide more than these helter-skelter topics and sectionals, as profitable as they can be. Our teachers need a formal and complete course of instruction that will cover the necessary material systematically. As parents and grandparents, we have demanded from our teachers distinctive Protestant Reformed instruction, but have not provided the training they need to give the high level of excellence that is required of them. We have neglected in our duties for too long. It is time to proceed.
1 The date that Herman Hoeksema wrote this document is not known. It is included in notebooks that I inherited containing papers for teacher seminars. The earliest date found is 1957.
2 This history is recounted in several articles in Perspectives in Covenant Education, Vol. 30, #1 (Fall, 2004). The entire issue is profitable reading.
3 “The Protestant Reformed Teachers’ Institute and the Federation of Protestant Reformed Christian Schools: Their History and Relationship,” Perspectives in Covenant Education, Vol. 30, #1 (Fall, 2004), 16.
4 Tom DeVries and Jon VanOverloop, “Moments of the Protestant Reformed Teachers’ Institute,” in Perspectives in Covenant Education, Vol. 30, #1 (Fall, 2004), 9.
5 The most explicit and informed came in “An Open Letter Concerning Reformed Higher Education,” Standard Bearer, Vol. 59, #21, (Sept. 15, 1983), 496-498.