In his book To Know as we Are Known: A Spirituality of Education, Parker Palmer describes a deep pain that exists in education.
“I call the pain that permeates education “the pain of disconnection.” Everywhere I go, I meet faculty who feel disconnected from their colleagues, from their students, and from their own hearts.” –Parker Palmer
This book has had a formative influence on Pam Marissen in her teaching career, but has really opened her eyes in the last few years. Three years ago she went from teaching at a local Christian school to being associate faculty at a local Christian university working primarily in student teacher supervision. This move has exposed her to different people and contexts than she is used to, and God has used this time to help her grow significantly.
Pam came to see me at the church to talk about her work, and how she sees God in it. Normally I go and visit the person at their workplace, but since Pam spends so much of her time in different schools it was fitting for her to come to me.
“I have twelve student teachers at five different schools, mostly in Langley, one in Surrey. And basically I observe them. I go to their classrooms, watch them teach, then we debrief for a while afterwards, and I write an evaluation for the program."
Pam has wanted to be a teacher ever since Grade 3 but that doesn’t mean her career has been static.
“As I look back on my own teaching career, every four to six years I had to make some sort of change or do something to at least shake things up a bit. So, I taught six years in Ontario, and then I moved out here. Then six years after that I took a sabbatical for a third of a year and travelled. Then I went to Australia and taught there about four years after that. Then about four years after that I started my Master’s. Then about four years after that I went to Trinity Western to do this job.”
Her work is centred around evaluation and coaching. Aside from writing up reports for the University, she helps the students learn how to reflect on their own experience of teaching, and think about ways to get better. This was actually quite difficult for her at the beginning.
“My first year, coaching was a real vulnerable area for me. At that time I had about twenty years of experience, but it’s not easy to say, ’Try this, do this, because this is right and that’s wrong. Because they are different from me. Their backgrounds are different, and our own experiences shape how we teach.”
Now that she has been doing this for three years, she finds it quite a bit easier. Some of this comes from confidence in her own ability as she does it more and works with a number of different students. Most of the ease she is experiencing now comes from a different reason.
“A big part of it is being comfortable in the schools that I am visiting.”
Like many of us who are a part of the Christian Reformed Church, Pam’s entire education was done in Christian schools and Universities.
“From grade one, up until three years ago, my entire educational experience was with Christian schools. Christian university, everything. And so three years ago I am asked to go into these public schools and work with the supervising teachers there. That was a stretch for me, because I had to completely change my perspective on public schools.”
This stretch came as a surprise to Pam. She had not seen herself as someone who looked down on the public school system, but realised as she was entering it there were many assumptions she made about the system, and the people involved, that were simply untrue.
“I always thought that the kids are way worse, everything is more lax and it’s just so far from the truth. And that there are no Christian people in these schools, and that is just so, so, wrong.”
Moving into these public schools and working with the teachers there helped to open Pam’s eyes to the ways God is at work in these places. To how God brings love and joy into the lives of these children, even though the people who were doing that work may not follow Jesus.
“That was probably one of the biggest areas I grew in the last three years, is just recognising how great some of these public schools are because of the love that the teachers have put into these kids whether they are Christian or not.”
She sees this love as giving witness to God’s care for these children, especially when she reflects on a Bible passage that has shaped the way she has read the Bible and lived her life ever since she was in ‘Calvinettes’: Micah 6:8.
“I feel this just fits the role of a teacher perfectly; to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And that can be anywhere, and that’s what God wants us to do for these kids.”
Pam has also noticed the ways in which the school itself has become a place of community support and care for people who don’t have other places to find that support.
“A lot of the schools I am at are centres for community. Where I’ve grown up, the church has been such a huge support, but now the schools often become the centre for so many; where people find their friends for example, and that becomes a real focus of their lives.”
It is amazing how God is creating spaces of care and support for people who don’t have that kind of support elsewhere.
“I have seen some leaders who are really intentional about making sure their schools are open for parents and teachers who are always inviting the parents in, and it becomes really family based. A real hub of connection for so many people.”
While it was amazing to see the ways God is at work in the people and schools Pam interacts with, it was even more amazing to see what God has been doing in her own life.
“I feel like, personally I have grown so much over the past three years, that I feel like those relationships outside of Church and the Christian school have been so life giving.”
Being involved in these schools has caused Pam to look past assumptions she makes about people to see them as individuals.
“I have no idea if they’re Christian, or Sikh, or whatever their faith may be or if there isn’t any, and to still be able to build those relationships where all these years, all my life, Christian faith has been the foundation and you just make so many assumptions because of that. I can’t make those assumptions now, so I have to build these relationships on a different foundation.”
Her work has caused her to become someone who is much more open to the stories of others, and is much more able to see the image of God in everyone she meets.
“This job has made me think about people’s stories more, and not assume the surface is going to tell me everything about them. It’s made me think more about, ‘I wonder what the reason for that is?’ or ‘I wonder what’s going on in their life that makes them react this way?’"
I think it is safe to say that God is working in, through, and around Pam to help eliminate “the pain of disconnection” identified by Parker Palmer.