Education: Heather O’Neil and Brad Alles

What makes a good educator? Does Christian education matter? What is the future of education?

Joined by two professors from the School of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin, these questions and more are what we’re discussing on this episode of Living Uncommon.

Guest Appearances

Heather O’Neil is an education professor at Concordia, teaching literacy and social studies within the elementary childhood department. Prior to Concordia, O’Neil served in several different educational settings including public, private, and faith-based ones. She’s been a high school teacher, a district reading specialist, and a literacy coach. She discovered a love for adult learners while working as an adjunct professor for Concordia, which eventually led to a full-time role.

Brad Alles is also an education professor at Concordia, teaching courses like foundations of education and teaching the faith. Prior to Concordia, he worked in private Lutheran schools for 28 years, including one in Texas as well as Milwaukee Lutheran High School. Alles also worked as an adjunct professor here at Concordia for several years before accepting a full-time position.

Key Topics

  • Christian Education: What do we mean when we say “Christian education?” Throughout the episode, we discuss what benefit Christian education provides to students and a few of the nuances that make Lutheran Christian education unique.
  • Boundaries of Educators: Educators often serve as central figures for students, providing more than just academic instruction. But how far should that relationship go? How can educators set up appropriate boundaries to respect the child/parent relationship and avoid overstepping?
  • Educational Formats: What’s the ideal format for education? Public? Private? Neither? Hear our guests take on both.
    • During this conversation, you’ll hear references made to MPS, which is the Milwaukee Public Schools.
    • You’ll also hear one guest’s take on the Private School Choice Programs, a controversial program where eligible students can receive vouchers to attend the private school of their choice, often in lieu of a public school. It was launched in 1990 for students in the city of Milwaukee and later expanded to include a separate program for the city of Racine (2011) and an additional one for the rest of Wisconsin (2013).  
  • Disputes in the Classroom: How should educators facilitate discourse in the classroom? Our guests share their strategies for helping students see others’ points of view and how to defuse hostile conversations.  

What are your thoughts? Should education be public or privatized? What’s the role of an educator? What are your hopes for education in the future? Join us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to share your thoughts.

Episode transcript

Heather O’Neil:  I really see the classroom as a microcosm of society. I feel, that as educators, we have such a great opportunity to use a classroom setting to teach kids how to have civil discourse with each other. We can have mock debates on different topics, so, we can teach them how to agree or to respectfully disagree with one another. We can introduce controversial issues and have them take a side. So, I feel, if we start that at kindergarten and work with kids all the way through 12th grade and into college on how to communicate respectfully with one another and to value each other’s opinions, that will change things. I don’t know where that’s broken down.

Angelina: Hi, this is Angelina. Welcome to another episode of the “Living Uncommon” podcast. I’m here with Michael and Tim, and we’re super excited to be back in the studio for another episode. Right, guys?

Michael: I haven’t heard that intro for awhile. We just did another show. I don’t meant to spoil it for people, but sometimes we record more than one of these things.

Angelina: Yeah. So, in two weeks, you’re gonna hear that exact same intro.

Michael: We might hear it twice. How’s everyone doing?

Angelina: You know, pretty good.

Michael: Does anyone have a life anecdote you can share with the audience?

Angelina: Well, exciting things happening in my neck of the woods. Wow, that was a really midwestern thing to say… My husband and I just got Y memberships. To the YMCA. Which feels like a huge step into adulthood.

Michael: What are you gonna use it for?

Angelina: We’re swimming! We both used to swim competitively, and we need to do something to stay active. We thought, ‘What can we do that requires the most minimal amount of effort?’ So, we’re swimming!

We run sometimes, but we both kind of hate running. But, we know we need to do cardio, so, we’re like, ‘what’s an easier option?’ Just get in the pool and pretend that we’re not sweating for a half hour.

Michael: See, my health club is my basement. I have Youtube exercise videos. Youtube resistance band training…that’s good! You can build muscles that way. I’ve done kickboxing.

Angelina: We have too, yeah!

Michael: But, my wife laughs at me because it’s all women, it’s all people clapping and cheering going “woo!”, and phrases. I’m not that kind of guy that gets into group excitement if it’s not in front of me and it’s just on the screen.

Angelina: You should check out the fitness blender.

Michael: I’ve done the fitness blender.

Angelina: Yeah!?

Michael: Yoga with Adrienne? There’s one called, “Psychetruth.” It’s a little weird for me. But, they do yoga and fitness stuff too.

Angelina: There’s so much on there! We’re not sponsored by them…we’re just super excited about free things.

Michael: Are you gonna do anything besides swim?

Angelina: Probably. We’re trying to set a base level and work up to being able to swim 4,000 yards. Then, once we get there, we’ll start adding other stuff in.

Michael: Have you seen those things, TRX, I think it’s called? It’s like you’re floating. It’s those bands that you pull yourself up on. You’re suspended in the air, and you life…I don’t know, it looks crazy. I’ve always been curious…

Angelina: They have a ton of aquatic stuff that you can do. There’s aquatic cycling and aquatic zumba. And, the other night when we went swimming, there was this huge group of people wearing scuba masks and flippers…We didn’t know what they were doing. They had little sticks in their hands. And, one girl swam over to us, and she was like, “You look like two people who want to play underwater hockey.”

Michael: Wow.

Angelina: We’re like, “We’re gonna take a pass.” They would swim out to the middle of the pool, dive underwater, and then they would move the puck around.

Michael: Tim, you’re a pretty buff dude. What’s your workout regime?

Tim: Chasing my small children. Lifting them up. That’s about most of it. Being a parent. I feel like that gets my heart rate up enough, as much as cardio. At least, that’s what my fitbit tells me.

Angelina: Keepin’ ya young.

Tim: I don’t do any Youtube workouts.

Michael: My favorite thing to do…I think this is in my bio on the website, maybe… I like to watch 90s music videos and run on an elliptical rider. And, I’m singing at the top of my lungs, and my family comes down, and I’m singing these terrible 90s alternative hits, just running. It’s great! Time flys. I can do that for an hour and not even notice it.

Tim: We’re going to have a new Youtube channel coming for anyone who wants to see Michael doing this.

Michael: That’s on our patreon.

Tim: You have to subscribe at least 50 dollars a month to see Michael’s special workout channel.

Michael: It’s my face, beet red, just sweating, watching… whatever. Alright, well, we have a very interesting conversation today about education. About what education means to our society right now, about what it means to be a Christian educator. We have a couple of professors from Concordia on talking about it. One thing I want to quickly set up, not everyone listening to this lives in the Milwaukee Metro area, Southeastern Wisconsin, which is where the Concordia University Wisconsin campus is located. So, they talk about MPS. That stands for the Milwaukee Public School System. That’s later on towards the end of the podcast. Just a quick note, people might not understand, they also talk about vouchers, they talk about money issues in the public schools. So, just a quick recap of what that means so you understand where they’re coming from.

In Wisconsin, there is a system, where, if you don’t want to go to a public school, you can have a voucher to go to a private school, and there is also a host of charter schools that are available. So, that voucher acts as cash that you can utilize to go to a school that would normally charge you. And, that’s a very very controversial idea. Because, on one hand, people like it because it’s freedom of choice. It certainly is good for religious schools because they have more students going to them. It’s just a philosophy. If you believe in the free market, limited government, and you fall of that side of the political spectrum, you probably like the voucher system.

On the other side of the spectrum, that means that the public schools and a lot of those that would attend public schools, particularly those on the lower end of the poverty scale, the areas that are more impoverished, especially in Milwaukee, there’s not a lot of money because people are being siphoned out of the public school system and into the private school system. And, not everyone gets to go. You can get a voucher, but there are only so many spots. So, those that are left, there’s challenges with the education, and to have enough funding in order to do a good job with it. So, that’s the background. If you guys hear that, and, of course, one of guests falls on one end, and one of our guests perhaps falls on the other end. So, you guys can make your own judgments about it after hearing the conversation, and maybe researching more about it. A little bit of context…

Angelina: Let’s listen in.

Angelina: Welcome back to the living uncommon podcast. We’re in the studio today with two special guests, Brad Alles and Heather O’Neil. They’re both professors at Concordia in education. So, welcome to the show guys.

Brad: Thank you very much.

Heather: Thank you.

Angelina: So, why don’t we start with you guys just introducing yourselves. Maybe just start with your professional background.

Heather: Hi. I’m Heather O’Neil. I’m currently a professor in the School of Education, and I teach in the elementary childhood department, and I teach mostly literacy and social studies. Before that, I started my career as a high school teacher. I taught US history and psychology, and that was a long time ago. Then, I became a reading specialist, and I was a district reading specialist for many years, and I was a literacy coach in a large public school district. I started adjunct at Concordia and realized how much I loved working with adult learners, and that has led me to where I am now.

Brad: I’m entering my 31st year of Education. I’m a dinosaur! I taught for 28 years in two Lutheran High School’s. One in the Tomball area of Texas, just north of Houston, and for 25 years at Milwaukee Lutheran High School. The last three years have been full time here at Concordia University Wisconsin. I was an adjunct before that for three years. So, at Concordia, I teach the foundations of education class as well as the teaching the faith class.

Michael: So, we’re also curious about, with every guest, what your religious background is. So, how did you arrive at your current faith walk today? So, if you could kind of take us back through your personal faith journey. Let’s start with Heather.

Heather: I’m Catholic, and so it’s been an interesting experience to be in a Lutheran institution. I’ve learned a lot. I really, really like being in a Christian University. I did do some high school teaching at a Catholic High School, and I also attended a lot of parochial schools in my life. So, I’m happy to be back in a Christian education setting to be able to express my faith more freely. When I was in public school settings, you have to kind of limit your expression of your faith. I still lived as a Christian, and showed my faith in my actions, but you didn’t really talk about it. So, it’s been a journey to be more comfortable talking about my faith, and I really am enjoying that. I love being able to go to Chapel each day. I think that’s wonderful, and I like being able to share my faith experiences with my students. I think, when you’re able to do that, they have a deeper connection with you through your faith. So, that’s been something I have found a lot of joy in, and it’s helped me grow as a Christian.

Brad: Well, I grew up in Christian faith, raised by Christian parents, baptized, and went to Elm Grove Lutheran grade school, Milwaukee Lutheran High School, and then graduated from Concordia Teachers College in Seward, Nebraska. So, I’ve been in the in the faith my whole life. I can teach you the Lutheran handshake later. Secret! Heather can’t know it, but maybe soon!

Michael: So, why are you educators? What drew you to this field?

Brad: I always loved learning. My mom and dad said after the first day of kindergarten, I came home and said, “I love school!” So, I’ve always loved school. I’ve always loved learning, and so it’s just been part of my life. So, as I was growing up, I got my first comic book in fifth grade. It was called, “The Amazing Spider-Man, Number 158, Hammerhead is Out.” I think we all remember the issue, okay, spider-man’s fighting Doctor Octopus, and they accidentally bring hammerhead back to life. So, now, Spidey’s fighting two bad guys. Well, I bought that comic book, and that changed my life. I knew from fifth grade on what I was going to do. I was gonna draw Spider-Man for Marvel Comics. And then, I’m sitting in a senior religion class years later, and I would always love reading the Bible, again, learning, and this thought came into my head. ‘What about being a teacher?’ I thought, ‘that’s a stupid idea, who’d want to do that?’ Well, 31 years later, I have been doing that. I love it. I always tell people as I speak around the country, I have the greatest job in the world because I spend it with young people. I just love sharing what I know and helping them grow.

Heather: I would concur. I had always wanted to be a teacher. I used to try to teach my sisters. We had a school set up in our basement, and I was making worksheets, and probably not the best way to teach now. So, I too am a passionate learner. The fact that I get to continue learning every single day is just wonderful. I love my job. As I move through high school, I had teachers who really influenced me. I remember certain social studies and English teachers who really inspired me, and that made me want to pursue a degree in education. I attended St. Norbert College, and had great professors there. I always thought in the back of my mind, ‘I’d love to be a professor,’ but I didn’t think I was smart enough. I loved literacy. I am very passionate about sharing the ability to read and write, especially in the day and age we’re in, being able to communicate is so important, and being able to help children acquire literacy, and it goes to equity, it goes to so many things that make kids successful in the world. So, being able to share that with them has been something I’ve really been passionate about, and so now that I get to teach teachers how to teach children to read and write is wonderful. I really am passionate about what I do. I’m always learning new things that I get to share with my students, and so that’s been great.

Angelina: So, you both have a wide array of experience. Can you share with us, perhaps, what the most, or, one of the most powerful moments that you have had in your career as an educator?

Heather: I have to say, when I was at my first job, I taught in an urban setting in Milwaukee, and I had students who really struggled with everything. Just coming to school was a struggle because they lacked basic resources, and it was a really rough year. I had a student named Nicole who was really challenging. She challenged me daily, and some days I’m like, ‘I can’t do this.’ Then, one day, something just clicked with her and I, and she completely reversed her attitude with me. We made so much progress, and she started coming to school more, and that made me realize that I can make a difference in kids lives. That really has just always stuck with me that I can’t give up on them even though they’re really… and I think I always look at kids who are challenging me and look at them and think, ‘That’s a child of God as well. They’re not doing this to me. It’s just that they have so many things going on in their life, and I need to remember that.’ Even though, at that moment, it maybe very frustrating and challenging. I always look at that as a really eye-opening experience for me. Then, as I got married and became a parent, then that also changes your perspective. But, that was a moment. I’ve never forgotten Nicole. She’s always a student that even though she’s probably like in her 40s…

Brad: It’s interesting because I also had a student named Nicole. Not the same person, right? I’ll never forget her, right? I was teaching down in Texas, and when I was down there, it was a little Lutheran High School, only a hundred kids. It had only been in existence for three years. I had to start the art program and teach three art classes, but I also had to teach three religion classes. So, here’s Nicole. Nicole’s a sophomore, alright, if you can imagine Celine Dion as a sophomore with braces, wearing tons of jewelry, and just funky and having fun with a smile. It just lit up the place. Nicole was coming from a home that was abusive. There was drugs going on. It was not a good scene. So, she came to this Lutheran High School, hopefully looking for answers. So, as I was teaching art classes, I had her in there, but I was teaching her sophomore religion class as well. We’d covered life of Christ, and so she was new to all this. I remember one day, she raised her hand, and I called on her. She said, “I don’t believe this. I don’t believe any of this.” And, there was nothing in my teacher training that prepared me for that moment, and all I could say was, “Well the Lord’s gonna be working on you.” I remember I went back to my apartment that night and I just wept. But, here’s the great thing. As you teach, as you work with kids, they can grow in body, and mind, and in spirit. And, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Nicole eventually came to faith, and it was amazing to listen to her testimony. Her countenance changed, her attitude and actions changed, it was just incredible. I remember, at the end of the year, she smiled continually, but it wasn’t just because she was funky Nicole whose braces arrived three days before she did. It was because she knew her Lord and Savior. It wasn’t due to me. It was because of God and the Holy Spirit.

Michael: That was a great example, I think, of the power of a Christian education. What is a Christian education?

Heather: Well, as a Christian educator, I think, first, I just I need to love all my students. Like, truly love them, even when they’re being difficult. I think I also need to share my own humility and struggles, and I think that makes me real, and it shows my students that they’re gonna have those struggles and that I rely in my faith to get through them. I also think sharing my career is not a career, it’s a vocation, and the fact that I’m called to be a teacher, and I truly believe that. I believe God has called me to be a teacher, and I think my students see the passion, the care I have for them, the relationships I build with them. To me, that really embodies a Christian education as well as sharing my faith with them, encouraging them to grow, and to expect excellence in them, not perfection, because no one can be perfect. Getting kids to strive for that excellence, not only in what they’re doing in my classroom, but also excellence in God’s eyes. So, I think those, to me, are what is a strong Christian education.

Michael: So, you’ve taught in a variety of settings. Unsecular settings, faith-based settings. How do you bring that Christian side of you into settings that aren’t necessarily Christian?

Heather: I guess, I truly am myself. And, if I am myself, I’m living my faith, and it’s really through my actions and how I treat people. I know, sometimes, we have cliches like, ‘treat your neighbor as yourself,’ or, ‘how you would want to be treated,’ and I really believe in giving my students as much as I possibly can and sometimes more. So, that, I think, is how I show my faith. I may not be able to connect it to a bible scripture in a public setting, but I think it’s really through the actions and the fact that I’m a caring, and kind, and empathetic person, and that goes back to my faith. Those are the choices I make as a person living in this world. I want to be the best person because we have so many challenges, so much negativity, and hatred, and just being that positive example for my students is a way to show that in non-christian or secular settings.

Michael: What is a Christian education?

Brad: That’s a great question. When I think of what a Christian education is, I think of it as your teaching from a biblical perspective, a biblical worldview, and to give that to kids…Now, again, not all students, like Heather knows, will believe, and I saw that with Nicole, as I mentioned earlier. But, also, at Milwaukee Lutheran, for 25 years, as we had more and more students come to the school, many were coming, and they were not from a church background. If you look at the stats and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, about a quarter of students across the country are coming from unchurched backgrounds. So, to expose them to biblical thinking in a biblical worldview, and then to help them navigate through life using God’s Word.. For me, that’s what I think is different about Christian education. Now, when you come to a Lutheran school, dangling modifiers are not right, okay, but, so, that doesn’t change. But, we’re adding this other element, again, developing the total person in Jesus Christ body, and mind, and spirit.

Michael: What is distinctive about a Lutheran education as opposed to a Christian education? So, what are the aspects of Lutheran theology that haven’t changed and give nuances to it?

Brad: For example, as people work in a Lutheran school, they hopefully will understand these are the Lutheran confessions that we subscribe to. So, when it comes to, for example, do we believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant word of God? Yes, we do, all right? Do we believe that there’s salvation by grace through faith and it’s not by works? Yes. All right, when it comes to word and sacrament, these are the means of grace. So, our Lutheran theology helps us teach what our content is. And, as we incorporate that into all the different disciplines, teachers have to know this is what I believe. So, I’m gonna embed it in the coursework. If you don’t subscribe to that, you gotta understand, well, this is what our schools were set up for. It all goes back to the Great Commission, What did Jesus say? Make disciples. That’s command. It’s by three things. By going, by baptizing, and by teaching everything I’ve commanded you. So, that’s why Lutheran schools have been around forever. As we take that Great Commission and put it into practice in early childhood, elementary, high schools, and colleges, we want to make sure that everybody’s teaching from that Lutheran perspective.

Angelina: This last question, you both kind of hit on this a little bit, but I’d like for you to expand upon what is the purpose of an education? You know, we hear things like preparing for a career, or preparing them to be contributing members of society, and what does that mean? So in your experience, what, or even your own personal philosophy as you think about yourself as an educator? What is the purpose of an education?

Heather: This comes from my, I think, my social studies and my literacy background. I really feel that education is preparing students today to navigate an ever-changing world, to be critical thinkers, to be critical consumers of information. Also, I strongly believe that education should encourage our students to leave our schools to be civic minded and community minded in a democratic society. I mean, that’s when you look at how our public schools were started, you know, back in the 1800s. To promote our democratic beliefs as a society is why we started public education. And, I still believe in service to others, and that’s really important to me. That’s something I do with my own students as we do service learning through our courses. I also believe that I have a duty to make sure my students are literate to be able to communicate in multiple modalities through text, through speaking, listening, writing. Education has changed a lot and the expectations for students is constantly changing. So, I feel like I have a really large responsibility to make sure they’re prepared to be problem solvers, flexible thinkers, to be able to take feedback and use that feedback to improve. So, that’s really what I think it means to educate students at the elementary, secondary, and higher education level.

Brad: What Heather said is so true. And, when you listen to educational theories, there’s different schools. And, so, Heather was expounding on one. But, what’s fascinating about the word “educator,” is that it means to lead. So, where are you leading these kids? In what direction? When you talk about 21st century learning, you’ll hear people talking about the four C’s, right? You need to produce kids who are going to be able to communicate, and collaborate, be critical thinkers, and to be creative. And, so, when you listen to people who are focusing on what the future holds, they say half of the jobs that these kids are gonna have in twenty, thirty years, they don’t even exist now. So, what can you teach them? How can you lead them? You’re gonna have to give them the information that we’ve gotten through the centuries, but, also, help them to have those four C’s so they are able to be flexible and able to deal with different situations that inevitably will arise, because change is always occurring.

Michael: You both touched on the importance of really making well-rounded human beings. Is this changing? Is there any changes in education that’s pushing less about this holistic approach of developing a well-rounded human being and driving more towards just pure, ‘give them the skills to go out there and get a job.’ Is there a tension, a dynamic, are there changes that you’ve noticed at all?

Heather: I mean, I definitely think that’s happening in higher ed. Unfortunately, the competition, it’s expensive to get a liberal arts education when I can go in two years, and have my degree, and start working. Where, I mean, I hope as a parent, all my children are able to attend a four-year and have that liberal arts degree, because I do feel that the learning I’ve done throughout my life has made me a more educated, or critical, consumer. And, I think we’re limiting kids when we’re like, ‘this is all you need is a skill,’ because, I think what we do at Concordia is that whole mind, body, and spirit. It makes me worry sometimes about what does the future hold if we are just having students come in and focus on what they want to do.

Sometimes, when you have opportunities to explore different ideas, and explore different thinking, it changes your direction, and that’s certainly been true of my own career. Every time I’ve kind of learned something new, I’ve ended up on a new path.

Brad: When you think about it, we could do the three hours, right, reading, writing, arithmetic, and we’re done. That’s all you need. And, so, you can get out, and you start working. So, we could do that. But, as Heather said, do you want these well-rounded people with a liberal arts education? And, that goes back to the Roman Empire, with this idea of what should a free, what should a liberal person have? They should have this knowledge in these various areas, and, again, the idea to contribute to society. So, I think you are seeing trends in schools where they say, you know, ‘we push everybody to go to college.’ And, then, you realize, well, maybe not everyone would thrive in college. Are there different ways we can send people to vocational schools and tap into the abilities that they have, use those strengths? There’s nothing wrong with that either. We need all sorts of people to contribute to society. And, again, with the idea of a vocation, you’re serving others with that job, and God is using you in that capacity.

Michael: Both of you are parents, correct? So, there’s been kind of a change. Also, probably, in recent history, where educators are taking on more of a parental role too. There can oftentimes, potentially, be conflict between the parents and educators. Or, maybe, just the fact that there’s not parenting going on. You have to fill a vacuum. Can you talk about just the relationship between parent and teacher, and the roles of parent and teacher, and how that’s possibly evolved in recent practice?

Heather: Well, I definitely feel that as a teacher, I have my responsibilities, and I definitely want to be very respectful of the relationship a parent has with their child. I think of my own children, and there are certain things I want to be responsible for teaching them. And, so, as a teacher, I’m very sensitive to sharing lots of ideas, but not promoting an idea that may conflict with a parent’s point of view. So, I think it’s good to expose kids to lots of different ways of thinking, but, not say, “This is how you have to think.” Because, as a parent, I don’t want a teacher telling my child, “You have to believe in this.” I think there’s this fine line, but, I do agree that there is a definite vacuum, and the expectation of educators has gone from just knowing your content and teaching that to children, to, you know… Some kids come in and we have to teach them life skills, we have to teach them etiquette, we have to teach them, you know, how to ask for things. I mean, I don’t know if even I was prepared for that going into the profession, the needs my students would have. So, to me, it’s a delicate balance. You know, you take a step forward and you take a step back, making sure you’re not trampling on the rights of a parent.

Brad: I agree with that. The parent, their job is to raise that child. We’re teaching, we’re leading, but we’re not replacing them. So, there’s gonna be opportunities to minister, and, as you said, to expose them to different ideas, but, also, understand the authority of the parents is key. And, so, this is their child and they’re raising their child. And, as you teach, you’re gonna have kids who are coming from homes that are struggling because of trauma. So, when we teach our students about the trauma sensitive classroom, and how these children are coming with emotional deficits, and you’re gonna have to fill a void in their life, and now we’re not just talking about content. It’s, as Heather said, to teach proper behavior in this culture, but also to satisfy a need for acceptance and love.

I’ll never forget one student I had at Milwaukee Lutheran. She would talk to me after school often and just tell me what was going on in her life. And, she did this for days, and days, and days. After school one day, she said, “Mr. Alles, can I call you Papa Alles?” I said, “You know what? Let’s do it like this, when we’re in school, I’m Mr. Alles. After school, when we’re in the classroom here, and if you want to talk to me and you want to call me papa Alles, you go right ahead and do that.” So, to fill that void in her life of a father or grandfather figure, all right, did anybody train you for that in teacher ed? I don’t think so. But, you take the love of God, and you give it to people. Again, that’s why you can’t put a price tag on being a teacher. There are so many wonderful benefits besides being able to help kids but to also form relationships with them.

Angelina: If you think back to the beginning of your career, has that change, that expectation, or even the need that’s there, has that changed over time, or has it kind of always been there?

Heather: I think it’s changed. I definitely feel kids are seeking things, and I don’t know if it’s the fact that technology infiltrates their lives that they don’t have close relationships, maybe, with their peers, with even their parents. I feel like there’s more dysfunction in families. I mean, when I think of my years as a reading specialist in a high poverty school district, I had a lot of students who needed you beyond being a teacher, and I don’t mind giving that, but it does take a lot out of you at times because you have your own family. You wake up in the middle of the night thinking about these kids, and it’s tough. But, the fact that you can offer them some sort of love, I think, is a really wonderful thing.

Michael: You can only get so close, you can only get so involved. Where have you guys found that the line gets drawn in that regard?

Brad: What I’ve found is, I always had to take them back to Scripture. Saying, that’s something because you’re under your parent’s authority, you’ve got to talk to them. So, I’m telling you this, but you need to understand, you’re under your parent’s authority. And, to be submissive to that, to understand here’s God’s will for your life, sometimes it would be funny. Kids would write you a note and say you’re my friend. All right, well, really, we’re not. We don’t hang out after school, or come over and eat your munchies, and watch TV together, it’s not like that. But, that’s the way they look at you. You’ve formed a bond. That’s so vital, and learning can really happen in a great way when there is that interpersonal connection. But, you’re right, there’s got to be that distance, and to understand that is key. And, again, going back to that biblical model, your parents are the people and authority over you. I need to keep supporting that, and helping them.

Heather: Yes, I would agree, you have to maintain appropriate boundaries with students. Sometimes, it’s like, I’m not going to accept your friend request on, you know, Facebook or, you know, that doesn’t make me comfortable. Or, you know, I need to go home. You can hang out in my classroom for a half hour, or something like that, but there has to be respect of you as a separate person. And, you have to really respect them. Sometimes, when they’re assuming they’re little, they don’t understand those boundaries. You have to be careful about some of that stuff. I didn’t think about that when I first started my career, but you really do have to. I always tell my students, don’t be alone in a classroom with students, those kinds of things. You just have to. It’s unfortunate, but you do have to be careful about those things.

Michael: So, the theme in this podcast is really talking about how are Christians to live in a really divided world, in a world that’s changing, that’s getting less Christian. There’s deep divides in this country because some of these changes. How can educators play a role in that and healing some of those divides and uniting people? Or, should they?

Brad: That’s a great question. I love in the book of James, chapter one. It says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” So, when we understand that, what’s God calling us to do? Listen to people. You got two years, one mouth. Use them in that proportion. And, so, if we listen to one another, I think that can be the start of this civility, or a return to civility, that’s so important. What I would teach kids right away when I was at Milwaukee Lutheran and senior religion was, when you’re engaging in conversation, here’s three basic questions to ask. Number one, what do you mean by that? People use expressions, they use terms, what do you mean by that? Just so we’re on the same page. Number two, how do you know that? What’s your source of authority? Is it just what you think, or have you done research on it, or just find it on the Internet? And that’s never wrong… Or, have you sought God’s Word out? Have you talked to parents, authorities? Then, finally, what if you’re wrong? So, three great questions to ask people. What do you mean? How do you know? What if you’re wrong? Just to engage in conversations. I think there’s a lot of people that want to share, and so, listen to them. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry. And, so, as they share, then you’ll have your turn, and you can share a biblical perspective.

Heather: I really see the classroom as a microcosm of society. I feel, that as educators, we have such a great opportunity to use a classroom setting to teach kids how to have civil discourse with each other. We can have mock debates on different topics, so, we can teach them how to agree or to respectfully disagree with one another. We can introduce controversial issues and have them take a side. So, I feel, if we start that at kindergarten and work with kids all the way through 12th grade and into college on how to communicate respectfully with one another and to value each other’s opinions, that will change things. I don’t know where that’s broken down. I feel like, you know, a lot of the classrooms, I mean, I get to visit teachers who are really good about teaching kids how to have those, what we call, collaborative conversations, where they work together and they support one another even though they may not always agree. So, I don’t know where that breakdown is occurring, but I still think there is an really important place for that to be happening. I think, too, I’m gonna get on my soapbox. The fact that we’re in elementary schools really limiting the amount of time to teach social studies is, I think, really detrimental to our democratic society down the road. Because, if we’re waiting to middle school to really spend that time, it’s too late.We have to build this, and there’s so much you can do with little kids. Even just developing classroom rules and norms is a way to get kids to understand that as a society, to get along with one another, we have to have these rules. We have to obey them, and we all have a say in that. So, I’ll get off my soapbox, but we do need more social studies.

Angelina: So, kind of going back to the parent/educator relationship, you know, thinking about that as you’re trying to teach civility in your classrooms. What do you do when a kid comes to school and says, “My mom says this, or my dad says this,” or they’re repeating things that they’re hanging in the home that might be offensive or aggressive? How do you handle that in a respectful manner where you’re not tearing down the parent, but you’re also creating a safe space in your classroom?

Heather: I’ve been in situations like that, especially during election years where you have kids coming in and they’re just parroting mom and dad’s political views, and you can sense other kids are like, ‘I’m not comfortable with this.’ And, so, I think you have to open up that dialogue. One, I think, you have to expose them to lots of ideas and say, “Okay, that’s great your mom and dad think that way, but other people might think this way.” In sharing ways to learn other avenues of finding out information is an important thing, and also letting kids kind of talk through, and maybe just asking, “Well why do you think your mom and dad might think that? What do you really think?” So, giving kids an opportunity to think, or writing might be a really great way to do that because, sometimes, when we speak, we don’t have time to always think. Like you were saying earlier. And, so, when we allow kids to write, that thought process slows down. I think, then, our judgment kind of kicks back in. So, allowing kids to write about those opinions might make them more willing to be more open-minded.

Brad: And, having them argue the other side. So, here’s a different tactic. “So, here’s what you heard at home. Take the contrary position. What would be the arguments you’d use against that?” Again, help everybody understand, in a democratic society, you have this freedom of speech. Your gonna exchange these ideas, and that’s what happens in the marketplace of ideas. Eventually, you’ll win the day when you can see this makes sense. I think this is a good course of action to help kids come to their own conclusion.

Michael: So, I’m gonna ask you guys to do something a little uncomfortable. What is the ideal political environment that you guys think where education can really thrive and accomplish its mission of making well-rounded people?

Heather: That’s a great question, and it’s so important right now. I feel like there needs to be a balance as a taxpayer. I, you know, want responsible use of government money to pay for schools. But, as an educator, and having been in schools where I have seen kids who have a disability and are not getting the treatment they need, they’re not getting the support they need, because the way schools are funded in Wisconsin is very unequal.

You have some districts that have just a ton of  money, and I’ve worked in a lot of schools that are rural poverty and those districts really struggle. I know they’ve talked about this. How we fund public education, I think, needs to change. I have worked in a charter school as well. So, I mean, I’ve worked private, charter, public, as long as they are being fiscally responsible and doing the best they can to educate children effectively. Then, I think the money should go to those schools. To me, MPS needs to change. You know, we need to do something because what we’re doing right now is not working. I don’t have the answer. I think, if someone had the answer, they’d be superintendent. I feel like there just needs to be a little bit more balance and maybe less people who don’t know what it means to be an educator, making a little bit of equality with the different districts.

Brad: I understand what your saying, and I agree with you, and I think the voucher, or school choice, that we have here in the state of Wisconsin is a blessing. Because, here’s this money, use it, parents, where you will. I think that’s the way it should be for everybody in the state to have that capability because you can make the choice for your children. This would be the best education. So, as far as the the idea of giving parents the right to choose, I think we should continue to do that.

Angelina: So, kind of circling back around, where do you think, specifically, christian education is heading? And, do Christians need Christian education?

Brad: I talked to Terry Schmidt a number of years ago. He was the head of Lutheran schools for the LCMS, a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and I asked him, “What is the future of Lutheran education?” I was at Milwaukee Lutheran at the time, and he said, “You are living it. Lutheran’s are not having enough babies. Develop the schools like they used to.” So, what are you seeing in the schools? You’re seeing a dwindling percentage of Lutherans. You still have Christian kids there, but you’re seeing more and more unchurched. So, that’s the future. My passion, why I left the high school setting to get into teacher ed, is to prepare the next generation of teachers to understand, this is what America is moving into, a postmodern, post Christian culture. Then, specifically, equipping those Lutheran educators. This is what you’re going to encounter in classes, how to answer kids basic questions who have no concept of what you’re talking about.

So, just to give you an illustration, our daughters go to a Lutheran grade school in the Milwaukee area here. So, with choice, students come to our Lutheran grade school. When Noah and the flood is brought up, there were some students who had no idea what the story was, had no frame of reference. So, when you think about the biblical basics, David and Goliath, Adam and Eve, we can throw these terms around, these names, and everyone will understand it. You’re seeing an increased population who don’t. So, all these things that you take for granted, or just what everybody understands as part of the culture, they don’t.

But, then, the other things that you teach in the Christian school, the Lutheran school. I’ll never forget teaching seniors, as we dealt with the book of Ephesians, that we were talking about husbands and wives and work and employees and employers. There were senior girls who were asking questions, asking things like this, “So, you’re saying, from a biblical perspective, we should get married and then have our children?” Yes, that’s God’s design. So, from a biblical perspective, another student asked, “So, we should go to work, and work is God’s plan for us?” Yes, that’s good. It goes back to the Garden of Eden. Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Work is good. It’s not a four-letter word. So, to be a contributing member of society, what sounded like alien concepts is something that they had not heard. To understand what’s the future, this is the future. Teaching that biblical worldview to people who are gonna find the whole concept very strange.

Michael: Do you think that those questions, that kind of surprising lack of knowledge about both Bible stories and then also just societal bedrocks, do you think that comes from, what you had alluded to earlier, is that there is a focus on stem? The ability to identify the literary impact of Bible stories, for instance, and pull that out of literature, be able to look for that in literature might not be there, or yet, again, how it relates to society and then the societal laws and agreements we have with each other and all that Bible has often been an underpinning of that. Do you think that’s another reason why? That we’re not educating people in those areas early enough?

Heather: I think that may be part of it. I mean, I feel as though, you know, so many people have turned their back on Christian faith. I went to Catholic grade schools through eighth grade, and I’m amazed at how many people I went to school with are no longer Catholic. I mean, they’ve left the church for many, some valid, reasons, but it’s hard for me to understand living a life without faith. I think, for some people, I feel like we live in a world where people want to do what’s easy, and living your faith isn’t easy. I think a lot of people take the easy path and don’t want to, you know, challenge other people, challenge themselves. I mean you have to challenge yourself to be a good Christian because it’s much easier to just do what you want.

I think that’s the society we live in. I think we live in a very self-centered society. I don’t know how we’ve gotten here. Sometimes, I wake up and I’m like, “Oh, it wasn’t like this when I was growing up.” You know? I’m one of those people now. I think part of it goes to technology. I think there’s a need to be constantly entertained. You know, going to church, and listening to someone else, and spending time quietly with God is hard for people. Making some people really struggle to… I mean, they can’t be alone for five seconds or without a device. So, such as a union, you go to restaurants and you see everyone looking at their phones, and I’m like, I bet they don’t pray because you don’t look at any devices when you pray. It’s you and God. That’s kind of hard.

Angelina: Any little bits of advice you want to share with us?

Brad: Develop a rhino hide because it’s tough. Yeah, it’s tough.My dad gave me a picture, and it had a saying on it. I put it in my closet. So, every day when I would hang up my coat when I got to school, I saw this picture of Jesus’s face, and it said this, “I didn’t say it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” So, yeah, you got a develop a Rhino hide. It’s gonna be tough, all right, and there’s a lot of work, and there’s a lot of hours. I remember when I got out of college and started teaching. I was working 70 hours a week. A couple years later, I got it down to 55, and it was just normal. So, a 40 hour week, I didn’t live that. I lived 55 on average. So, develop a rhino hide. Understand you’ll put a lot of hours in, but it’s the greatest job in the world. Helping kids develop body, mind, and spirit.

Heather: I would totally agree with you. You’re gonna work really, really hard, but the rewards are amazing. To see that light shining in the kids eye when they get something, or, when your students come back and they’ve had a great teaching experience and they share that with you, and to know you’ve made a difference in kids lives, and they reach out to you when they’re adults and say, “You’re my favorite teacher.” So, yes, it’s hard work, but it’s definitely worth it.

Angelina: Well, thank you so much for being here. We’ve enjoyed this conversation, and we’re so glad that we got to talk to you guys.

Brad and Heather: Thank you.

Tim: So, that was a really interesting conversation that we just heard with these two professors from Concordia talking about education. I think one takeaway from this podcast is that when it comes to education, and the role of teachers and parents, it’s a really complicated issue, and there’s not really a one-size-fits-all solution. I think that was my biggest takeaway. There’s so many things to think about. Just teachers, like, how do they relate to their students, how do you relate to the parents, administration, if you’re at a Christian school, or if you’re a Christian teaching at a public school? There’s just so many layers, that when we approach, at least for me, when I think about different debates going on, like locally, about our education system, you know, to be a little bit more circumspect in making comments, and not just being like well, obviously, this is the best way we should approach education. But just thinking through that there are other consequences. People who are coming from a different perspective might have valid reasons why they have this opinion. So, I thought this was just really enlightening just having raised a lot of these different issues, just how detailed it is.

Michael: We’re curious to hear from you about what you think about these issues, or about any of the topics that we have. Tim, tell me a little bit about our social media.

Tim: We are on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All those are linked on our website. If you have feedback, if you feel really strongly about a topic and you want to explore it a little bit more online, we’re happy to engage you in discussion. If you have a great idea for an upcoming show topic, if there is a really hot topic or something you’re really struggling with and would love to get your opinions on, we’d love to hear from you.

Michael: So, with that, just a reminder that we are sponsored by Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor and their online programs. So, go to online.cuw.edu. And, if you are interested in education, there are a host of educational programs to get you started in that field. There are different licensure options or endorsements, depending upon the state that you live in, but, check it out at online.cuw.edu. Thank you for listening.

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