The Voice: Summer 2002

The Voice

B.J. Haan Conference draws its largest group yet

By Sally Jongsma

Teachers from more than thirty schools gathered at Dordt for the B.J.Haan Education Conference this spring.More than a hundred elementary and high school teachers put themselves in their students’ shoes in April, coming to Dordt’s campus to learn—in this case about the Christian school as a faith-nurturing institution. The two-day event was a combination of presentations and work sessions during which conferees wrestled with how the Bible infuses everything that happens in a classroom and how to nurture the faith life of students. According to Dr. John Van Dyk, director of Dordt’s Center for Educational Services and the coordinator of the event, it was possibly the most successful conference yet in the nearly two decades he has been organizing these events.

Dr. Sydney Hielema, who teaches theology at Dordt, was the primary resource person for the conference, leading an opening worship time on Wednesday evening and talking about “Biblical Foundations for Faith Nurture in an Institutional Setting” on Thursday morning.

Hielema began the discussion of how Christian teachers can help their students see God in the classroom. He observed that there are ways to measure whether growth in faith is occurring, pointing out several indicators that teachers can test or observe: whether a student can articulate a Christian worldview, lives a moral life, understands Christian doctrine, knows the Bible. But Hielema also pointed out that students can articulate a Christian worldview, live morally, know their Bible, and serve others without really knowing God. And faith nurture is ultimately leading children into the presence of God, Hielema says.

Schools must be places of grace, Hielema says, adding, “Grace should be like oxygen in the air, breathed in so that it becomes part of us.” Grace is how God lives among his people.

Hielema used a temple image to help teachers see how God lives among his people. Temples, he notes, are places where God’s presence is most clearly seen on earth and where people meet God. If teachers and schools can be God’s temples filled with God’s presence and grace, then in some mysterious way those who meet there are meeting God, Hielema says.

Upon that foundation, teachers spent the rest of the conference thinking about, discussing, looking to Scripture, sharing stories, and spelling out how seeing teachers and schools as temples of God’s grace will affect how schools operate.

Sessions on school climate and sectionals divided by grade level looked at how being immersed in grace might change the school environment. Using ideas gleaned in plenary and small group sessions, teachers gathered on Friday as school teams. Their assignment was to create an action plan, outlining strategies to take back to their school and improve the way they nurture faith in their students.

An important part of the conference was pairing teams from two different schools so they could discuss their plans with each other and schedule a check-in with each other during the next school year to see how effective their strategies were.

Van Dyk wasn’t the only one who considered the conference a success. Participants expressed appreciation for the stories shared and the things they learned from each other; for the time to reflect, evaluate, and dream; for the comfortable and productive format; for time to worship in their work. Most found that they were struggling with the same issues, and they lauded the visionary and practical focus of the conference.

One team wrote, “We felt that the conference provided us with many good practical ideas to implement some of the concepts we were already trying to put in place.” Another group wrote, “ It gave us time to evaluate, dream, and re-evaluate.” And still another wrote, “It allowed us to focus on what’s important, what our Christian school is all about. We hope it has a great impact on our school.”

The B.J. Haan Education Conference was originally set up by the Dordt College board of trustees to honor former President B.J. Haan’s lifelong commitment to Christian education. Van Dyk has led the planning team since its inception, but notes that the conference format has changed significantly over the years. Early meetings were primarily public lectures and small group meetings with educational experts brought in for the conference. They focused on the distinctives of Christian education, especially teaching. While very valuable—in fact Van Dyk credits the wrestling with ideas that came from these sessions for much of the inspiration for his two books on education, Letters to Lisa and The Craft of Christian Teaching
—The emphasis now is on school improvement. Schools are encouraged to send a team of teachers that can work together on action steps for their institution. Some schools send a team of two to eight teachers every year. Some smaller schools send their whole staff as a professional development opportunity. Individual teachers are always welcome and also find the time fruitful. This year’s participants came from Ontario, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Alberta and several other states.

One conferee summed up the sessions succinctly, “Right on target collectively. Individually life-changing.”