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Dennis Vander Plaats receives John Calvin Award

By Heather S. Riblet

Dr. Dennis Vander Plaats, recipient of the 2006 John Calvin Award at Dordt College, was overwhelmed by God’s power during the end-of-year faculty dinner, where he was presented with the award.

Dr. Dennis Vander Plaats

Dr. Dennis Vander Plaats

“The award just confirmed my calling to teach,” he says. “It told me that this is what I was supposed to do–God called me to be a teacher.” Vander Plaats is certain of this now, but forty years ago he would never have made that statement.

Asked when he’d first decided to teach, he says, “I didn’t. I actually hated school. I didn’t even want to go to college.”

The ’70s were approaching, however, and he was left with a choice: stay eligible for the Vietnam draft or head to college.

Four years later, after receiving his education degree from nearby Dordt College, he still doubted the career choice. It wasn’t until he took a position at Sioux Falls Calvin Christian School that he warmed up to teaching.

“I fell in love with it,” he says, still amazed by God’s calling. “Once I became the decision-maker in my classroom, I could make school engaging for my students–and for myself.”

Throughout the years, Vander Plaats has taught in Christian schools at every grade level, K-12, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Orange City, Iowa; McBain, Michigan; and now at Dordt College. He credits his commitment to Christian education to his childhood upbringing.

“I was given this perspective that all life is claimed by Christ. Therefore, education also is claimed by Christ. It just made sense to me that Christian schools were the place I could go to teach that truth. In order for me to tell it like it is, I thought Christian schools were the place I needed to teach.”

Vander Plaats says the education department places a strong emphasis on teaching with a Christian perspective. Professors challenge their students to view their future careers as opportunities to work towards shalom in God’s kingdom.

Dordt’s education professors, he says, are highly dedicated to this standard of teaching. They’re enthusiastic; they interact with students; and they “have a zest for living and learning.”

He also feels that all teachers need to “have unconditional love for the students. For me, I disliked school,” he says. “So, I identified with my students who disliked school, too. If you don’t have that unconditional love, the ‘burnouts’ fade away and can be lost.”

Since coming to Dordt in 1992, Vander Plaats has enjoyed watching his students grow as future leaders. He looks forward to classes, and he’s learned that his gifts are not from himself–he is the tool, he says, and God is the master.

That is one reason that the John Calvin Award holds deep meaning for Vander Plaats. The second reason is closely related.

In the summer of 2005, his four-year-old grandson was swept down Willow Creek, three miles east of Alton, Iowa. “We never found him,” he says, pausing. “That really hit me hard. Life is a whole lot more than just working. My focus changed from teaching to spending time with my family and making sure that we did what we could to support each other. Teaching took a low place on my list of priorities.”

The death of his grandson shook his world, and, he admits, he was reluctant to begin teaching that fall–but he did.

“Going back into the classroom was great therapy for me, because it made me focus on the needs of others rather than on my own,” he says. “Getting The John Calvin Award at the end of last year was so meaningful because it told me that teaching is what I am supposed to do. God called me to be a teacher.”

Through his thirty-eight years of teaching experience, Vander Plaats has watched his students grow into successful teachers, in turn affecting the lives of younger generations. “What I want them to take with them most is a vision for being change-agents in schools–a vision for expecting the best that can be achieved,” he says. Paraphrasing a comment by his pastor, he adds, “God isn’t finished with teaching and learning yet. His Spirit provides us with a spirit of renewal so that we will not be satisfied until the process of education is re-created as God intended it to be.”