To Those who Teach

It's Winter Break in the Denker House this weekend. My two boys are off from Pre-K and preschool (Josh just goes twice a week). They're only in school for three hours a day, four days a week (Jacob) and two days a week (Josh), but it's incredible how much we rely on the structure of school to organize our house.

Teachers are off school this week, too. Growing up, my mom taught elementary school, moving amongst the primary grades and finishing as a literacy coach.

I took for granted her job and the ability it gave our family to have her home in the summers, and many days when we came home from school.

I also took for granted the way she naturally taught me: prizing the library and even informal instruction.

My mother-in-law is a teacher too, beginning in the elementary school and finishing as a technology educator. And my younger brother, Kevin, is a middle school principal in Chicago.

Teachers have given so much to me, and to my family, and yet - I find even myself taking their selfless guidance for granted at times.

I knew having two grandmas and an uncle who are all teachers would be a huge benefit to my kids. I realized just how much today when Jacob, 5, said to me - unprompted: "Mom, I just LOVE learning."

He has a zest for life, a wonder for the world, honed yes by his parents, but also from his exposure to teachers - both inside our family and those he has worked with at preschool and Pre-K.

Loving learning with Daddy

That zest - that joy - that desire to learn - is the beginning of education, encouraged by the teachers among us.


This Winter Break time - the week between Christmas and New Year's - is best spent as a time of reflection. I've been reading Best of 2017 lists: movies, books, TV, etc., and I've been trying to spend a few moments collecting myself as 2018 is about to begin.

Last week I shared the news about my book deal with Fortress Press. The project begins in earnest in January, and I have 85,000 words due in January 2019.

This afternoon I took the boys to Lifetime Fitness, and I got about 25 minutes to swim laps while they went to play in the Child Center. Sometimes, especially in busy seasons, I find I have to move my body in order to free my mind to think deeply. About 1/4 mile in, I started to think about the book ahead; the year of dynamic and sometimes terrifying change. Last Christmas Eve at 4 p.m. I preached to 800 people in Orange County; this Christmas Eve at 4 p.m. I bundled up my boys and we went to church with my parents at the church where I grew up. I was a face in the crowd. That evening, Josh got the stomach flu and threw up in his crib; right at the time where a year before I was leading a candlelight service. In that moment Josh very much needed his mom, and I was so glad I was there. But whew, what a change.

I thought about this book ahead, the way it melds together my pastor's heart and writer/journalist's mind, and I thought about what it had taken to get there. I think initially I thought about the immediate connections, articles, work of the past few years.

While I swam today, I thought further back. The college journalism professors at the Missouri School of Journalism. My high school newspaper advisor and AP English teacher. My third grade teacher, who taught us poetry. My fourth grade teacher, who gave us technology and freedom.

These teachers took a quirky kid who loved to write and didn't always pay attention in class, and they embraced my strengths and believed in me; showing me ways to believe in myself. I'd like to tell you about them, and as I do, I hope you think about the teachers in your life, who did the same for you.

In doing this, I was inspired by Paul's letter to the Galatians, and this verse about teachers and students:
Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher
- Galatians 6:6

The Teachers who taught me to Write

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but those who came to me today, in chronological order.

Nancy Zerr, 3rd Grade, Cedar Island Elementary: I had a bit of a rocky start in school. In kindergarten I didn't like to sit still. In first grade I was frustrated by the pace of our reading instruction, so I took to breaking pencils and fighting with Andy, my frenemy. 

I was a major tomboy and dying to play football at recess, but the boys didn't always want a girl to join, and the girls rightly thought I was kind of weird.

Ms. Zerr embraced and loved my weirdness. She had our class do a Creative Day of sorts outside, and I remember I got to read my poem while doing the monkey bars. It was about my grandpa who had died that year. She showed me that all the creativity inside of me could be written down and made into something that was beautiful, or humorous, or interesting. She read us from The Hobbit and excited our imaginations.

Michelene Radulovich, 4th Grade, Cedar Island Elementary: Mrs. Radulovich was sort of a glamourous teacher at our elementary school. From her melodious name to her stylish dressing, we all kind of thought she was cool. Rather than deciding my exuberance should be squashed, Mrs. Radulovich found ways to harness it. She let me miss class to work with the music teacher, Mrs. Bright, to compose a piece for our school's recorder concert. The opening lines: Goodbye Lake Superior, your shores make me glad ... it was totally cheesy and ridiculous but also an unforgettable experience. Mrs. Radulovich also let me and two other kids leave class to go to the library and work on Hyperstudio projects, sort of a precursor to PowerPoint. That freedom was enticing, and she trusted us to use our time to learn rather than goof off. I blossomed under Mrs. Radulovich, and I even stopped wearing my baseball hat to school on occasion.

Mary-Beth Wells-Chapman, 5th Grade, Cedar Island Elementary: OK, so this is a weird choice. Mrs. Wells-Chapman and I butted heads. I asked way too many questions and was a thorn in her side. I think in that year she was going through a rough personal time as well (hyphenated names for teachers were new, and I don't know if she was getting remarried or divorced). Nonetheless, she was cruel to me. I had made fast friends with some new girls in school, but they rapidly turned on me, and the blossoming of fourth grade turned to the bullying of fifth grade. I turned inward. It was a hard year. But I include her on this list because, intentionally or not, she saw the power of my writing. And she made me see it could be dangerous. 

In the midst of the bullying, I wrote out a long note (?) about what was happening. My teacher showed it to everyone and I saw the way it made clear what was going on in class. My words were powerful. Nobody did much to stop it at the time, and my parents felt powerless, but I remember one thing my teacher said: "This is the way Angie expresses herself, by writing," she said. 

And I had been deemed a writer.

Around this time, I won runner-up in the local library short story contest. An omen! haha

I won't mention all my sixth grade teachers here, but after the bullying of fifth grade, the four of them (we switched classrooms during the day) united and brought me back to loving school once again. I had been scarred but healed. And I continued to write.

Mrs. Bartels, 9th Grade English, Maple Grove Junior High: Mrs. Bartels was in the Ms. Zerr vein of teachers, a quirky woman herself who embraced the quirky students in her class. I was at the time trying to be cool but also still uniquely myself: with a little helping of nerd. Mrs. Bartels had us read All Quiet on the Western Front, and I loved every bit of it. I learned how to use my reading to enhance my writing. I challenged myself with more difficult books. And then it was time for high school ...

Mrs. Terry Caruso, 11th and 12th Grade Journalism Advisor; 12th Grade AP English, Maple Grove Senior High: Mrs. Caruso could make you very afraid. She was super smart, and she demanded a lot from her students. I still had the first-grade habit of tending to get bored in class, to goof off or even doze off. Mrs. Caruso didn't appreciate that. I tried to get out of it with various excuses. My friend Tina always reminds me of the time I told the class I'd dropped my book in the bathtub.

But Mrs. Caruso, while holding me accountable, also saw my potential. She pushed me and challenged me. I got to be an editor for the newspaper (sports, of course) as a junior, and I served as editor-in-chief my senior year. She loved teaching newspaper and gave us lots of trust to run the paper ourselves. I took it for granted at the time, but she gave us the freedom that creative people need like oxygen. We did whatever we wanted during class, once we'd earned her trust. We'd go to the library to edit videos. We'd interview people during lunch. We had so much fun during editing parties at Baker's Square. 

In English class, Mrs. Caruso introduced us to Faulkner. I wrote a literary analysis paper on the Sound and the Fury and the nature of time. She made me hunger for more: more philosophy, more symbolism, more layered writing. She had us read Metamorphosis and challenged my overly concrete thinking. No, Gregor was not a bug really. It blew my mind.

For one hour a day, our class - made up of average high school students - left our world of cliques and drama - and we focused on books and ideas. I made friends in that class I still have today, and I wonder at how she created an environment free for intellectual discussion. We felt safe to be ourselves in her orbit, and in high school, that's a very hard task indeed.

Mr. Todd Martin, Chemistry, Maple Grove Senior High: I was a nerd in high school but also trying to be cool, so I refused to take all honors classes. Chemistry was one I opted out of. I was terrible at chemistry, and I also wanted to meet some different kids than were in all my other HP (high-performance, haha) classes. Enter Mr. Martin's chemistry class. 

Mr. Martin "got" me. He saw that my joking and occasional dozing wasn't meant as disrespectful, but was the natural outpouring of confined creativity, launched by a person who just could not sit still in class and listen for too many hours of a day. Mr. Martin was a "cool" teacher at school; all the students wanted to befriend him, but he had a way of calling everyone out. In his classroom, people had to respect each other. Cliques didn't matter. And if you thought you were cool or you thought you were smart, Mr. Martin would figure out a way to knock you down to size.

In my case, he saw my ambitious kindness and my desire to create harmony amongst my classmates. He saw that teaching wasn't only about subject matter - I was, like I said, terrible at chemistry and didn't care for it either - but also about teaching students how to be compassionate and wise adults. 

Prof. Charles Davis, Principles of American Journalism, University of Missouri - Columbia: When I went to Mizzou, I went there for its journalism school. And I went there a bit with my tail between my legs. I'd wanted to go to Duke, but I didn't get in (and I couldn't afford it either, but that's beside the point). You couldn't take J-School courses at Mizzou until second semester, and the first one I had was with Dr. Davis. 

I wish every American could take Principles of American Journalism from Dr. Davis. He's a big Southern guy. No BS. Super duper smart but down to earth, too. Open to talk to anyone, on any level. Cares deeply for his students, as I found out five years later when he helped my brother through a hard time.

What I remember most from Dr. Davis is that he made it noble. Journalism wasn't all about scoops and readership and "media." He made us feel like as journalists we were there to safeguard our democracy. That America wouldn't be America without the free press. That we had a duty to the people of our nation to be honest and truthful and scrupulous and diligent. That yes we would work for little pay and horrible hours because democracy relied on us. That feeling about journalism never left me, and it's why writing about truth led for me into telling God's story, the greatest Truth of all.

Prof. Steven Weinberg, Intermediate Magazine Writing (I think?), University of Missouri - Columbia:

Prof. Weinberg was the first real Writer I had the privilege of studying with. He'd headed up the journalism group Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and was deeply involved with investigating wrongful convictions. He'd been published all over, was deeply connected in journalism, and had that quirky personality of creatives and writers, sometimes drifting off in thought mid-conversation. 

Prof. Weinberg always said what he thought. He was deeply honest, and he made me feel proud of my writing. He treated me like a colleague, and he encouraged me to reach as high as I could in journalism. Over the years as we stayed in touch, he has always been an encourager and someone who've I've always trusted really cares - both about me and about my writing.

Dr. Peter Markie, Intro to Ethics and Early Modern World, University of Missouri - Columbia:

Dr. Markie taught me a new way to think. I drank from his philosophy course as though I was gulping from a hose, wanting more and more and more. I think for my final paper in his class I attempted to create a new philosophical school, naming it something _____ Kantian ____ ... I can't remember, but I know it was ridiculously audacious. But I remember actually doing the reading for his courses, which was rare for me in college, and I remember his brilliance, calling me forth to make my mind exercise, stretch, and do gymnastics - because my mind loved it.

Prof. Mary Kay Blakely, Advanced Magazine Writing, University of Missouri - Columbia:

As you see, many of my mentors and teachers at college were men. Going into sportswriting, many of my colleagues were men as well. This made Prof. Blakely especially valuable to me. She was a renowned writer for New York magazines, a feminist, and a terrific writing teacher and coach. We met as a tiny group of students each week; it was one of only a few chances I ever had to really work on the craft of writing. Prof. Blakely was patient with me, and she encouraged me in my final capstone project, an article about a Mizzou football player who opened up about athletes and academics at the school. Prof. Blakely even encouraged me after graduation, and eventually I got a version of the piece published in Sports Illustrated.

Years later, I got to see Prof. Blakely (and Prof. Weinberg) again, in May 2016, when Prof. Blakely invited me to Mizzou to serve on a panel with two ESPN writers: Wright Thompson and Seth Wickersham, to talk about sexual violence in athletics. She championed me, a lowly pastor and not a "star" like the other two writers, to share the stage with them, and make me feel as though I belonged. Her gift to me was to remind me to put myself in places, even when I feel I am not good enough. She understood that as women we sometimes need more encouragement to put ourselves forward. She did this for me at that moment, and it was an invaluable experience.


As I write this I realize there are many, many more teachers I could name - their faces and positions and impact rushing back at me like a flood. I haven't even listed my seminary professors here, men and women who again taught me to stretch my brain and challenge myself to think deeper and in new ways. But I wanted to focus here on the story of me as a writer, and the teachers who saw my uniqueness and instead of squelching my creativity or unusual ideas, they embraced them and gave me a chance to be here today preparing to write a book.


If you teach, whatever you teach, whoever you teach - know that it matters deeply to the ones you instruct. You make us who we are. 


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