Previous article in this series: November 15, 2016, p. 76.
These editorials on schools and teachers are, of necessity, somewhat provincial because the focus is on the schools that are maintained by members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. I am very much aware that many readers of this magazine are not directly affected by these schools or their concerns, since these readers are not Protestant Reformed and have no connection (children or grandchildren) to the schools. However, I do not apologize for these articles.
First, throughout its history the SB has been a staunch supporter of Christian education in general, and Protestant Reformed schools in particular. Second, the cause is still worthy of support, and these articles are intended to lend full support to the schools. For those not directly affected, I hope you can gain an appreciation for the hearty commitment to the schools on the part of parents, members at large, and teachers, and especially the latter. With an understanding of the importance, as well as of the struggles, you will be able to pray for this kingdom cause, which prayers we sincerely covet.
Secondly, I will use the term “Protestant Reformed schools” to refer to the grade schools and high schools maintained by members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Readers should be aware that these schools are parental, not parochial. There is no official connection between the denomination of churches and the schools. Nonetheless, the fuller description of “schools maintained by parents and members of the PRC” is a bit clumsy. Hence the shorter expression will be used most often.
In the last issue we (re)started a series on the need for teacher training for the Protestant Reformed schools. In this series our intent is to make a case that it is vitally important for these schools that they provide training for teachers. However, before we go too deeply into that subject, as important as it is, a related issue must be addressed that is not only important, but even more pressing, namely, the need for teachers. I say “more pressing” because while a teacher-training program is of tremendous value, having teachers to fill the classrooms is the pressing and immediate need for all the schools. The reality is, these schools are dealing with a serious shortage of teachers.
Members of the PRC maintain fourteen grade schools and four high schools. In the current school year, 2,189 students are enrolled in these schools. The schools have contracted with 159 full-time teachers, 18 part-time, and a number of aides. These schools have tremendous support from the churches. The members of the PRC will raise over $12 million to run the schools just for this school year. Where Protestant Reformed schools exist, the percentage of children in Protestant Reformed churches who attend these schools is about 97%. Under the blessing of God, the schools as a whole are growing—some with very large increases. Schools have added on to their existing buildings or are proposing to do so in the future. More students necessitates hiring more teachers.
The negative side of this is that—right now—there are not enough teachers to fill the available positions. When we contacted the schools, every school representative spoke of struggles obtaining an adequate supply of teachers. If you read the last issue of the magazine Perspectives in Covenant Education,1 you know that one very experienced teacher (so experienced that she taught me in the third grade) decided that 45 years was enough. It was time for a teacher of a younger generation to fill her position. She packed up, turned in her key, and left with her memories. Very shortly thereafter, the school board approached this experienced teacher with an earnest plea, “Will you please return and teach another year?” Now, let it be said, that in her case, parents were delighted to have her back. Not all, shall we say, “really experienced” teachers would be so welcome. Teachers can lose some of their energy, zeal, and resourcefulness even before they reach retirement.
That is but one case, which illustrates the serious issue that the schools face—a teacher shortage. This shortage has caused significant trouble for the schools struggling to fill open positions in the last few years. One school had to plead (successfully) with two college students to cut short their college education in order to fill empty classrooms. Mothers have been called out of their homes to teach. Grandmothers, who would prefer to be more involved with their growing grandchildren, are teaching full time instead. Men and women have been drawn into the classroom without good preparation—the regular course of teacher education in a college, and sometimes without a college degree. Schools are being forced to hire multiple part-time teachers to fill in the gaps. Aides are hired to help with larger classes—some of whom are actually teaching. Schools in need of teachers will seek the help of retired teachers—and they have responded in significant numbers—delaying or even coming out of retirement for the sake of the schools. High schools are forced to delay a class or two because no teacher is available to teach them. These are some of the solutions to the shortage.
This problem will not go away. The schools are growing. In research that I did in 2013, the total number of youth enrolled in Protestant Reformed schools was about 1,900. Notice that there has been an increase of nearly 300 students in three years! Some of this is due to a new grade school opening (in Wingham) and years being added for high school instruction. Even so, growth is substantial. Covenant Christian High School in Grand Rapids has made some enrollment projections. A simple counting of the students in the feeder schools indicates that CCHS could grow from the current 372 students to 496 in the 2025-26 school year! The schools in Randolph and Redlands are making plans to add high school instruction. In another year Wingham will need two teachers to replace their temporary help. The need for teachers will only expand if these trends continue.
Meanwhile, already in November, schools are advertising in the church bulletins for the next school year because they did not get the teachers they needed for the current one. Some of our schools advertise in vain—they get no applicants. It is no exaggeration to say that these shortages threaten to put some of the smaller, “outlying” schools out of existence.
This situation is cause for serious concern. My concern is not merely for the school boards and administrators who work long hours to obtain teachers, but too often need to cobble something together for “another year,” though I do sympathize with them. Nor is my main concern those mothers and grandmothers who would love to remain home but for the sake of the students go back to teach “another year,” though I am convinced that is neither good nor right. My concern is the covenant seed, and the quality of their education.
My purpose in all this is not, you understand, to set up teachers for criticism. Far from it. Many of these men and women sacrifice much to help the schools in their hour of need. I applaud their enthusiasm and their gargantuan efforts. In the great majority of the classrooms the students are receiving excellent instruction. But the question remains, is this shortage good for the schools and is it good for the students? Ordinarily not.
The danger is real that individuals are hired as teachers who are not qualified to teach, much less in a Protestant Reformed school. The danger is real that when a shortage of teachers exists, school boards are tempted to turn a blind eye to faults in a teacher. Serious faults. Everything from inability to teach effectively, to an ignorance of subject material, to a failure to grasp Protestant Reformed doctrine, to serious weaknesses in classroom control. And we have not entered the area of some kind of mistreatment of individual students. If a school board has advertised for applicants for a position, but received none, it is a rather risky business to release a poor teacher. Do you see the significance of the problem?
There is more reason for concern. About 10% of the current teachers are 60 years or older. That is not a large number, but it points to the reality that the schools need many new teachers. They need to replace retiring teachers, female teachers who marry and have children, and teachers who opt out of the profession for one reason or another. And the schools need many more than that to take care of the growth in the schools and the plans to expand into high school instruction.
We need to address the situation. Parents must set this before the minds of their children and impress on them the importance of the calling. Teachers, administrators, and school boards should be looking for good potential candidates for teaching, and encouraging them. Ministers need to be praying in their public prayers, and all of us in our private prayers, that God will provide teachers.
Perhaps we could start by setting before our youth this word from Luther on the importance of teachers.
I wish nobody would be chosen preacher unless he had first kept school…. In a city as much depends on a schoolmaster as on a minister. We can get along without burgomasters, princes, and noblemen, but we cannot do without schools, for they must rule the world…. If I were not a preacher I know no position on earth I’d rather fill (than that of schoolmaster). But one must not consider how the world esteems and rewards it but how God thinks of it and how he will praise it on the day of judgment.2
Next time, we plan to be more positive, and encourage our youth seriously to consider the calling of teacher by setting forth some requirements of a good, Protestant Reformed teacher.
1 Published quarterly by the PR Teachers’ Institute, vol. 41:4, www.prti.org.
2 Luther, “Table Talk,” No. 5247, Luther’s Works, vol. 54, ed. and trans. by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 403-404.