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I won’t forget that first week of remote teaching during the early days of the pandemic. Behind closed doors, I spoke into my laptop from the front of an empty classroom. My students were stitched into a virtual quilt of 24 screen squares, lit in varying shades of light to dark; they were sitting on couches, lounging in recliners, snuggling sideways on just-made beds. One munched on toast at the kitchen table, mom at the stove behind him; another kept pace on a treadmill, one hand holding open Pride and Prejudice, as I tried to spark a discussion about character flaws.  The new normal looked like anything but school.

Still, I stood at my podium and looked straight into the camera. No matter the silence, I was fully animated, using voice and hands to lure them out of their little squares and through the towering arch of great literature “whose margin fades/ for ever and for ever” when we read, all the while careful not to stray beyond my camera’s narrow margins. Occasionally I’d ask a student to tilt his laptop so I could see his face, or I’d catch a smile pass from one square to another in a not-so-secret virtual chat. Like teachers everywhere, I had to use every trick I had to do what I’d always taken for granted.

Thanks to Parker Palmer, whose educational philosophy in The Courage to Teach shaped my teaching more than anyone, I had a metaphor to describe my task: “my gift as a teacher is the ability to dance with my students, to co-create with them.” Although my wife knows I hate to dance because, well, I can’t, I’d come to love dancing in my classroom around a Dickinson lyric or an O’Connor story or a passage from Huck or Hamlet. I’d measure successful semesters by the number of “critical moments” I’d enabled, which Palmer says, are when “a learning opportunity for students will open up, or shut down—depending, in part, on how the teacher handles it.” I had come to cherish such moments because of the way they changed the classroom climate: together over a poem or a story we’d dance to some powerful truth and know it, feel it. The bell would still ring, but for those few moments we forgot we were in school. Because all truth is God’s truth, I believe they were holy moments, and they were why I taught for almost forty years, why I sacrificed countless nights and weekends and vacations prepping and creating, grading and encouraging.  With Palmer I believe that “to teach” is “to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.” Each critical moment wove us together as a class into a closer community where truth—personal, communal, divine—could be shared. I cherished those moments, and I believe my students did too. 

But this new reality of remote teaching was not conducive to critical moments or, for that matter, to community. After almost forty years, I was more frustrated than I’d ever been.

So I was thrilled when we returned to face-to-face teaching. In order to be safe and as a concession to my family (who lovingly reminded me I was now the oldest person in the building), I taught from behind a plexiglass shield my young colleague in the wood shop graciously built for me. I also wore a mask, which steamed my glasses to the point where reading aloud with any expression meant removing them and stumbling over the blurred text. But the awful squares were gone. My beloved students were back—for real.

Yet something was still different, something still missing from past classes with these same pieces of literature that were like old friends to me.  My passion for engaging and listening to students was strong as ever, but they were more reluctant than usual to speak. Discussions stalled. Interest flagged. Lamenting aloud at lunch with my colleagues, they talked of similar experiences. One young colleague wisely said that it would take time for students to relearn that real school requires active engagement, not the passive pretending of most virtual learning.

But there was something else, too.

Now, one summer into retirement after forty years of teaching I’d like to name that difference, hoping that it will help other teachers and school communities. While I can only speak with confidence from my own limited experience, I suspect other teachers in other schools—public, charter, or Christian like my own—can relate to the new reality that, although our students are no longer surrounded by those impenetrable virtual squares, there is another barrier with which teachers must contend: home-made boxes.

To be fair, students have always come to school in metaphorical boxes of one sort or another, containing the values with which they were raised. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and my parents sent us eight kids to Christian school with values based on my dad’s odd mixture of deep Christian-Reformed faith and fierce Democratic-Party loyalty, as well as my mom’s unflagging devotion to Billy Graham (her green and white counselor badge from “The Greater Chicago 1962 Billy Graham Crusade” is framed in my study). The difference, I think, was that parents like mine trusted teachers to expand the values in their kids’ boxes and weren’t afraid that some of those values might be challenged or altered or, ultimately, rejected by what their teachers taught.  Moreover, for the first thirty, or so, years of my career, this was largely true of the parents whose children I taught.

But sometime during the last decade, more and more students began coming into my class with a kind of box I wasn’t used to. As in the past, the box was lovingly packed at home by parents who wanted what they thought was best for their child. However, these new boxes were cushioned by layers of bubble wrap, containing whatever contents of religious, political, and cultural perspectives their “family values” had come to mean. What’s more, they came with unwritten, though unmistakable, labels like “Fragile,” “Do not shake,” “Contents breakable.” The message to me was clear: teach them their English, but leave their values alone. Teach them to put the commas in the right place and why it’s important to read poems and stories that reinforce the view of God and America we’ve told them about—but, teacher, don’t challenge them to think for themselves. Don’t challenge our family’s values. 

Granted, English, like social studies, has always been a target for some parents who feared their family’s values or politics were being challenged. More than once in my career I sat at parent-teacher conferences and was criticized for my political views.  The difference then was that they were sitting across the table from me, speaking directly to me about their concerns and were willing to listen to me explain how a lesson I taught might have seemed political but was really, I could gently argue, biblical. Those were reasonable conversations that, more often than not, ended with a new understanding and appreciation of what I was trying to do. We would likely still disagree, but that was okay. Nor were they trying to change my or my school’s curriculum, recognizing as they did that their child was only one among many seeking an education in our school.  They accepted that though their voice mattered, so did the voices of other parents.

What became evident about these new parents is that they did want to change the curriculum, and though they were still a minority, their influence on school curriculum and policy was having greater impact than their numbers warranted. More vocal, more organized, and more social-media savvy, these new-kind-of parents wanted to reshape the school according to the values of their home. 

This change was slowly gaining influence during the last decade or so in schools across America, but the pandemic exacerbated it, with its raucous debates about masks and quarantines and the ever-widening political chasm in America.  The trust I as a teacher had always enjoyed that allowed me to lead students into those critical moments of learning, was diminishing among the parents and, consequently, among my students.

For the first time in my career, I knew it wasn’t safe to let great literature work its magic in my classroom. Without trust I wouldn’t be able to do what a teacher at a Reformed Christian school is called to do: help students grow into Jesus-following, socially-conscious, critical-thinking young men and women who want to transform the world.

All of which still makes me sad.

Although I could offer several examples of parents pressuring my colleagues and me about books or lessons we taught, this shrinking trust was brought home to me during that first full semester of in-person school. I was teaching C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, a book students love because of all the psychological and spiritual truths they encounter—“The Law of Undulation,” “The Pressure of the Ordinary,” “The Role of Deepest Likings”—truths through which Lewis, in his inimitable way, stretches and deepens their understanding of themselves and God.

I don’t claim to know or want to know, for that matter, as much as Lewis does about the devil. But while teaching The Screwtape Letters during the pandemic, one thing struck me: Satan loves COVID. Not primarily because of all the tragic death and suffering it caused, but because of all the isolation and division it sowed among us. People died in ICU’s, far from the touch of family. Quarantines and school closures made cases of depression soar. Communities fought over mask mandates. Administrators and school board members were screamed at. Doctors and nurses and health care workers were vilified. Dr. Fauci was downright demonized. Even churches divided into masked and unmasked services. Truth became the stranger whose stare we fled. Worse than a virus, Satan infected everything that held us together in community.

I felt compelled to make Lewis’s truth on this issue relevant so that my students, at least, wouldn’t be deceived. We were discussing Chapter 25, where Lewis describes the truth behind “The Horror of the Same Old Thing.” He explains that humans are wired to love both permanence and change, but that problems arise when we desire change too much and demand “absolute novelty.” Screwtape can then “distract the attention of men [and women] from their real dangers” and “have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already gunwale under.”  In other words, we can be deceived to look to the wrong source for help in a crisis. I paused to ask who knew the latest death statistics due to COVID. Several students spoke up. I wrote the numbers on the board, knowing that even this simple truth was doubted by some students and their parents. Then, I made two lists for them to consider. The first consisted of QAnon and other conspiracy theories; the second of doctors, nurses, scientists, and public health officials. Then I asked, “If Lewis had set this during our pandemic, which list of authorities would Screwtape be tempting Christians to disregard?”

The critical moment had arrived, and, as always, I welcomed it.  The class grew cemetery still. They were thinking, connecting, and we were together co-creating meaning for ourselves around a profound truth. Just as I had hoped, and almost to a person, the students pointed or nodded to the list of sensible responses to the pandemic, meaning Screwtape would rather we listened to the QAnon crowd. The comments that followed made it clear that most of them could see how Lewis’s truth applied.  Pleased, I wrapped up the discussion with something like, “This is how Screwtape operates, folks. His goal, as brother Lewis says, is to ‘fuddle’ our thinking. And right now, he’s having fun fuddling half of America.” Not long after, the bell rang and the class was over. Though I knew that our discussion would have been controversial in other settings, I went home that day thinking that though it was a risky truth to face, it was a necessary one—and what’s more, the discussion had brought us closer together in a community of truth.

Or so I thought.

Three students told my principal that my class had made them feel they were following the devil if they disagreed with my politics. One was in tears, I was told, and all three wished to remain anonymous. My principal, someone I still respect and admire, handled it with grace, but the point was clear: I had challenged the family values of these three students, and they and their parents wanted me to know that was unacceptable.

In trying to help them think critically, I knew that I had violated an expectation of this new kind of parent: I had tampered with the contents of their child’s carefully-packed box by challenging their family values and, most likely, their politics. Moreover, though there were only three students out of total of seventy-five seniors to whom the lesson had been taught, it was becoming clearer every day that I, like my colleagues, was expected to be far more mindful of not offending the family values of this vocal minority of parents.  

I was frustrated and sad that after almost forty years of doing so, I could no longer welcome those critical moments when they came knocking at my classroom door.

Some perspective on what had been happening in my school and, I am fairly sure, in schools all over the country, came to me from a widely-read recent essay by Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic entitled, “Why the Past Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.Haidt argues that as a result of what happened with social media around 2012, we have been living in a post-Babel culture. For Haidt, “Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community.”  We no longer share the same stories, he argues, and, as a result, trust has been shattered. He attributes this to the way platforms like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter evolved: although in their early iterations they mostly just connected us to people with whom we might otherwise have lost touch, they quickly devolved into platforms on which we shared our passionate likes and dislikes about things both trivial and vital in hope of scoring a big response. In time, we did this only with a very select group who shared our views. Thus, instead of uniting, social media platforms began dividing us, leading us to distrust not only other people but also institutions in general. Haidt argues that “when people lose trust in institutions, they lose trust in the stories told by those institutions,” which is “particularly true of the institutions entrusted with the education of children. Facebook and Twitter make it possible for parents to become outraged every day over a new snippet from their children’s history lessons—and math lessons and literature selections.”  And, as any educator today can attest, “The motives of teachers and administrators come into question.”

Fragmented as school communities are, it’s no wonder there’s distrust between teachers and parents. Had the parents from my Lewis lesson spoken to me directly, things might have turned out differently. I would have listened to their concerns, trying to understand what they and their child were feeling.  I also would have tried to help them understand that what they thought was motivated by my politics was actually motivated by my faith and my long-held belief as a teacher that Christians, of all people, need to respect truth and to champion truth-telling. I would have also explained to them that some of my students have family members who are doctors and nurses and that they, too, were being harassed for the sacrifices they made on our behalf or that, just as important, several of them planned to be doctors and nurses themselves, and I didn’t want them discouraged from such a calling by the lies being spread. I’ve had such parental discussions before, and while we may still have disagreed, in the end we wouldn’t see the other as our foe. Most importantly, we’d likely trust each other a little more. Sadly, such a meeting never happened with these anonymous students and parents, and the distrust remained, leaving me, and teachers like me all over the country, frustrated, sad, and wondering what’s still safe to teach.

I am especially worried about my former colleagues and fellow teachers as this new school year approaches. After all, this summer Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law kicked into effect, as did the Christian Reformed Church’s decision to condemn same-sex relationships. As another election cycle approaches, this fall will only bring more fear into classrooms everywhere, today’s teachers being all too aware of the growing list of verbal prohibitions in the classroom.  “Don’t say Gay” leads the pack, of course. But then there’s “Don’t say abortion” or “climate change” or “institutional racism” or “C.R.T.” or “evolution” or “gun control” or “insurrection” or “Black Lives Matter” or “politics” or, even, “social justice.” I’m sure other teachers could add prohibitions to my list.

No wonder teachers are afraid to teach.

But it is the students who will suffer most: a classroom without trust is a classroom without community, and without community the truths about life that underlie all these divisive issues won’t be discussed honestly. As a result, students won’t be equipped to think critically about them, to develop their own perspective, to contribute their own voice to the great conversation.  How can their high school history teacher discuss the truth about racism and slavery without being accused of promoting “C.R.T.”? How can their science teacher discuss the truth about climate change or evolution without being accused of being political or heretical? I know, of course, how such distrust will increasingly change English classes, where on any given day, a piece of literature can raise a question on just about any aspect of life, because “Literature touches on life at more points, and more powerfully at more points than other knowledges,” as the late Henry Zylstra of Calvin College so wisely wrote. That’s why critical moments are so frequent in English classes and why it’s so critical for students that they occur.

Protecting or restoring trust in teachers will not be easy, but it is vital. One of the pieces my seniors read early in my course was John Donne’s “Meditation 17,” where he famously states that “No man is an island, entire of itself, but a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Because most of them inhabit a world where they feel increasingly isolated from each other, it is a truth with which they easily resonate and yearn to make reality. A companion piece they read is Frederick Buechner’s “Pontifex,” where he expands on Donne’s truth, claiming that “there is another truth, a sister of this one, and it is that every man is an island.” This truth resonates even more strongly with students because Buechner tells them about the masks we each wear, in spite of the fact that “inside the mask…there is a person who both longs to be known and fears to be known.” This paradox leads, Buechner argues, to our isolation and loneliness. “In this sense,” he reasons, “every man is an island separated from every other man by fathoms of distrust and duplicity.”

The reflections they write after discussing these two great meditations are revealing. They hate the masks they wear. They each feel lonely, to some degree. They long for honest connection. Dare I suggest here that we adults living in our post-Babel culture of fragmentation might feel the same way? Beneath all our divisiveness and debate and our cheery Facebook posts, might it be true that we adults, too, long for more honest connection?  If so, Buechner says the solution lies with pontifex, Latin for “bridge-builder love.” Today, more than ever, I think, we need an emphasis on pontifex love in all our relationships.

Finally, as a retired Christian-school teacher from a small town in Michigan, I want to also suggest that this immensely-important love is best cultivated within the classrooms across this country; for that to happen, however, school communities need to nurture more trust in their teachers. To that end I’d like to suggest two ideas that might help restore that trust, hoping they might yield not only healthy discussion but also more ideas. 

First, administrators and school boards need to be far more deliberate in communicating to teachers the trust they have in them. Too often a simple “thanks” at the annual Christmas buffet is all teachers get. “Thanks” is nice, but an assurance of trust from the women and men who hired them is far more encouraging for teachers entering classrooms these days. This trust in teachers should be promoted in the community through school publications and annual meetings. Publish teacher profiles. Make it a point to tell a story about a teacher at each board meeting. Furthermore, teachers, administrators, and school-board members need to get together more often to get to know each other better. For example, I know little about the challenges an administrator or board member faces today, but I would like to know, so I could better understand and trust them. I would like to hear, for instance, whether they think it’s a good idea that parents no longer contact teachers directly when they have a concern about a class. I suspect social media or maybe quarantining is in part responsible for the shift I’ve seen: instead of talking directly to the teacher they have an issue with, as was once the norm, parents talk to administrators about their concerns—or, in the worst cases, rage about them on Facebook—and then the administrator talks to the teacher.  This may be a good way to “control the message” to parents and may seem like a good way to protect the teacher, but it’s a bad way to build trust between teachers and parents—and between teachers and administrators. It saddens me that too often teachers, upper administrators, and school board members relate to each other like three points that used to form a sturdy triangle: we share common ground and common cause, but we rarely communicate. That needs to change. 

Second, teachers have to do their part as well. They must be worthy of the trust placed in them by the school and by the parents and avoid being openly partisan when it comes to divisive issues. I’ve made this mistake more than once during my career, and sometimes, back when our national discourse was less volatile, I did so as a way of enlivening a discussion, but today it’s more important than ever to be careful not to inject personal partisan views.  It only creates more division. Besides, we want to give our students the skills to think critically, not necessarily to think as we do. Moreover, we need to welcome those face-to-face conferences with parents who are concerned about something we’ve taught. We need to empathize, to really listen: these are their children, after all. We also need to communicate clearly our motives for teaching what we do and for the way we do: again, administrators could help here by finding more ways for teachers to do this and by encouraging them to do so openly and honestly—and by supporting them when a parent might object.

There’s more, of course, as better minds than mine will make clear. But about this I am certain: we must do something, because trusting teachers and nurturing trust in the classroom is vital to the survival of real education. This is especially critical in Christian communities, where our concerns for building bridges of love between people is our godly calling. To quote Buechner’s “Pontifex,” again, “Island calls to island across the silence, and once, in trust, the real words come, a bridge is built and love is done—not sentimental, emotional love, but love that is pontifex, bridge builder. Love which speaks the holy and healing word which is: God be with you stranger who are no stranger. I wish you well. The islands become an archipelago, a continent, become a kingdom whose name is the Kingdom of God.”

A communal commitment to such a holy, healing infrastructure project would help restore trust in teachers and, just as important, restore in teachers the courage to teach.

Mark Hiskes

Mark Hiskes is a retired high school English teacher from Holland, Michigan, who devotes his time to a number of things: two delightful grandchildren, Sylvie and Paige; his wonderful wife, Cindy, with whom he rebuilds and refurbishes old furniture for sale in her antique booth; reading ever more great books, ancient, old, and new; and doing his best to write poetry, stories, and essays that might, God willing, tell some manner of truth.


  • Ruth says:

    Thank you for this truth so sensitively and thoughtfully written and for your years of service to students.

  • Karen DeVries says:

    Thank you, Mr. Hiskes, from one who benefited from your teaching and expansive worldview nearly 40 years ago.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    This is a major beneficial essay to promote civil discourse in our Post-Covid environment.
    You have argued cogently for working to regain lost trust.
    There was a time when we all listened to Walter Cronkite and agreed. Now, it’s either Fox or the mainstream media, passing ships in the night of our discontent.
    Thanks again.

  • David Schelhaas says:

    An absolutely brilliant analysis, Mark. It ought to be required reading for every Christian teacher—and perhaps more importantly—every Christian school administrator.
    —Dave Schelhaas

  • Marybeth says:

    Wonderful, thoughtful article. Thank you for articulating the fear teachers have so very well. As a retired educator I have seen this lack of trust happen just as you have descibed. I wish all school boards, administrators, teachers, and parents could read this article.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Excellent!! The Donne and Buechner quotes tied it together so well. May this be the opposite of the rotten apple in the barrel: the one apple of truth that brings out the flavor of the rest in the barrel.

  • Karen S. says:

    Amen…and thank you! So well articulated. I’ll be rereading this, especially the last two paragraphs!

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    I’m likely older than you, also retired, and provided mental health services for many years. Knowing what I have learned from life and my career, I would have benefited from being a student in your class. Thank you for truth written here.

  • David Hoekema says:

    A powerful and heartfelt call to restore networks of trust that have been ripped to shreds by political vandalism. Undermining trust in teachers to advance parents’ prejudices is poisoning the soil in which a new generation of citizens — and church members — are planted. Principals and school boards, please make this essay a topic of discussion at your next in-service workshop.

  • Jim Schaap says:

    In every way, Mark, this gift is a great blessing.

  • Caleb Lagerwey says:

    Wise and important words as always, Mark, especially bemoaning the decline in using Matthew 18 for conflict resolution. While I miss gleaning your wisdom from across the hall, I am glad you took the time to impart some in these (digital) pages.

  • Grace Veldheer says:

    Thank you Mark. I’m hoping many parents will read this article to get a perspective that’s so important for our future.
    When parents have been immersed in social media culture and don’t seek out the truth things get totally slanted.
    Hopefully with your article people who read this will get truth instead of lies to infect society, to the good of critical thinking again.

    Thanks again Mark!

  • Jack Ridl says:

    As our daughter begins today her umteenth year teaching at Holland Christian High School, she carries with her your soulful wisdom, fierce compassion, gentle strength, welcoming love. Do I fear for her? Every day.

    When she misses you, you will return to her heart.

  • Betsy Meester says:

    Always thankful that you and Dan labored together for a time. Perhaps a visit to Rehoboth now that you’ve retired? You and Cindy are always welcome.

  • CB says:

    Thank you Mark for making the point that good things can happen when people remember to talk and listen to each other, rather than social media. Your students were fortunate to have you as a teacher.

  • George Kraft says:

    Deeply troubling. I do not know Mark Hiskes, but if his analysis of the current state of education in schools and particularly Christian Schools ( both at the secondary and college level) is anywhere “near the mark'” it is deeply disturbing.

    George Kraft

    • H. C. says:

      I do not know him either but I can attest to the truth of what he says, at least in our Christian school where a small group of parents has gone to war against perceived threats to their child’s views and perspectives so carefully inculcated by the family. It has become anathema to even mention certain terms in the classroom let alone discuss them or even touch on biblical truths that may lead to them. I appreciate the writer’s courage in facing these head-on. For the first time in my 38 years of teaching I dropped a book simply because I don’t want to face the anonymous attacks that I know will come. This essay renews my courage and next year I will bring it back.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Thanks, Mark, for your presence in the Christian educator community at large for 40 years; I gladly remember the first decade teaching with you in Illinois. I’m sure it was you who introduced me to the writings of Frederick Buechner—for a time, I used his _Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC_ for first-period devotions with h.s. students, most often receiving a cocked-head/raised-eyebrow response from students, and definitely engendering discussion :?)
    You describe accurately our cultural problem, from church congregations to school communities to politics local/regional/national, that our institutions, for good or bad, are held in contempt or distrust or doubt at best; the individual needs or perspective diminishes the needs of the community or corporate group’s vision. Thinking back to my young naively idealistic teacher days, we had our book challenges—who knew Chaim Potok was New Age, or that Madeleine L’Engle was a heretic?—all a good decade before J.K. Rowling blew up middle school; yet, the fear and mistrust was limited to a small round-the-bend group or to individuals, and they were generally shut down by a majority of folk, conservative and liberal, who trusted the schools, the teachers and the colleges that trained them, and the admin who hired them.
    What you describe of the past half-dozen years is not a new thing: but fear and mistrust and doubt are opportunistic, and when encouraged by cynical forces, became worse than the accompanying plague.
    May we be able to recover and recoup that trust which was lost, that goodness within institutions which can promote good and growth—

    All the best, Mark, in your retirement; please keep writing!

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      Chaim Potok was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid. As a semi-pious Dutch kid in the South Suburbs of Chicago, I could relate to the otherness and separateness that his characters felt.

      Nowadays, I work extensively with Orthodox Jews on the Northside of Chicago and Lincolnwood. I enjoy talking to them about their culture and things of that nature. I invariably ask them about Chaim Potok, and if they know of him. I have not had anyone, and I’ve asked many (a Rabbi included), who knew who Potok was.

      Could it be that all us Dutch people have been bamboozled by an imaginary author? That Chaim Potok was a creation of some publisher who had his or her hand on the pulse of the CSI community? A conspiracy worth considering…

      • Jeff Carpenter says:

        Hardly imaginary, as I heard him speak on two different occasions at Calvin’s Festival of Faith & Writing—and then later at the president’s house at a reception including leaders of the Grand Rapids Jewish community, hardly CSI folks.
        Perhaps his being from New York estranged him from the Chicago Orthodox crowd; would a Brooklynite recognize Saul Bellow? Does either group (does anyone) read Bernard Malamud?Worthy of comparative research.

        • Marty Wondaal says:

          So your saying this Potok guy regularly shows up at Calvin College to talk about his books and such? Hmmm. I was kind of joking about my conspiracy, but maybe I’ve stumbled onto something.

          Is anyone thinking what I’m thinking?

          (Note: don’t answer that. I fully realize that nobody here EVER thinks what I’m thinking).

          • Jack Ridl says:

            He visited my wife me. As far as we could tell, he was real. Took showers.

          • Marty Wondaal says:


            But still…

            I’m not saying there wasn’t SOMEBODY who claimed to be Chaim Potok. “He” could have been a hologram, although that would have made a shower improbable.

            My theory: He was simply some guy from the Dutch Reformed community, who had the same experiences as many of us. He decided to put a spin on his story by making it from the viewpoint of an exotic Orthodox Jew. He knew we would all bite…

            After all, nobody would buy a book called “My Name is Joe VanderKnabben”

            Incidentally, I wish no harm on anybody around hear. I would only like, for starters, a little more self-awareness.

  • Dan Voetberg says:

    This is exactly why I always made it a point to seek out any presentation you ever made at CEA. I appreciate (and miss) your wisdom and thoughtfulness. Thank you for continuing to be willing to share the truths you have uncovered with the rest of us.

  • Steve Tuit says:

    Thanks, brother. While my context has been a little different, the same elements are at play, and you’ve articulated the issues honestly, succinctly, and graciously.

    I could not have had a better mentor teacher. I still strive to live up to the standard you exhibited.

  • Deb Toering says:

    So powerful Mark. Your analysis seems spot on to me but you went further. You gave suggestions for positive steps to greater understanding and trust. Your students were so fortunate to experience your love for God and truth and the possibilities for greater understand of each other and the world they live in. Thankyou,

  • Courtney Ridout says:

    As a former student of the illustrious Mr. Hiskes as well as a current classroom educator (10 years in!) – I would like to attest to having encountered the same growing reality – may we all choose the course of courage and community care – our flourishing depends on it.
    Grateful for this essay – it was balm to read.

  • Dan Meester says:

    I’m imagining a skulk of foxes at play out the window and cherished conversation in the Hiskes family room. So good to hear your voice again through these words, my friend. Well done, good and faithful servant. Your dedication and insights inspired me as an early English teacher and later helped cement my commitments and perspective as a leader. Blessings to you this day!

  • Greg Warsen says:

    Mr. Hiskes,
    As a former English teacher and school/district administrator in the public schools, your article, so well penned, resonates in that sphere as well. I now work with those who aspire to leadership positions in schools, and that number is shrinking. I believe part of the issue is the dynamic you describe with eloquence. As a fan of both C.S. Lewis and F. Buechner, I agree that their insights are as relevant as ever. Perhaps your best point, however, and one I’ll continue to underline with those who hope to lead, is the value of direct communication. I would question a parent who’s not willing to approach a teacher to resolve what either perceive to be an issue, and leadership practices that would enable this kind of anonymity. I experienced the pressures of all three roles, but staying separated from each other is not the answer. Honest connection is.
    I am pleased to infer that your thousands of students were so well served over four decades. And I suspect that the trust you did earn was well deserved.

  • Renee Aukeman says:

    Mr. Hiskes! Thank you for the gift of these words–and the safe, challenging classroom you created for me all those years ago. I experience some of this in the college writing classroom as well. Thanks for articulating it–and happy retirement!!!

  • Rachel says:

    I’m so very thankful you no longer teach my boys at their private Christian school. You lost our respect with the chapel that you led, I’m sure you are well aware of which one I’m talking about.

    • Keith Frens says:

      Rachel, I have no idea what was said in the chapel you are referring to but what does your post accomplish?

      • Rachel says:

        This article is a joke and completely one sided. It does not represent what is happening in the schools. As a former student of his and now have kids in the school system, I can attest He is not the teacher he was 10+ years ago, he teaches with a political agenda and it became evident when the parents could listen to what he was teaching during Covid. He has lost the respect of many many people. My post represents the other side of things. Not sure you really even have a voice in my response as you have no idea what I’m talking about and he does.

        • Randy Buist says:

          Rachel, so how can we have dialogue/conversation with better outcomes it the common denominator ends up being name calling without basis? If we believe, in the reformed tradition, that God is sovereign, why all the fear?

        • Richard says:

          Thank you for verifying the point of Mark’s article. Every reader who responded positively recognized you as the very problem Mark has identified and is trying to help other teachers, parents, and students overcome.

    • George Westra says:

      Rachel, your comment was both incredibly rude and ridiculously unfounded. How dare you dismiss Mark’s enormous skill and devotion with such libelous nonsense. (The fact that you only put your first name on your comment shows that you know this, thus refusing to put your full, identifying name behind your unkind words) Mark never pushed a political agenda; any appearance of partisanship during COVID was simply because of his refusal to spread misinformation or conspiracy theories (something both right and left should thank him for). Attacks on his integrity as a classroom educator or as a Christian only tar the ignorant complainant.

      What evidence do you have of this alleged “political agenda?” (Did he expose your boys to a diversity of opinions? Did he cause your boys to think critically about their engagement with their neighbors? To wonder what following Jesus really looks like when one doesn’t have an idol of Trump at the center?) What insidious things were said during this mysterious chapel you refuse to describe?

      • Rachel says:

        Oh George, all chapels are published online. You can easily look it up. Have you sat in on his teachings? This is a private Christian school and I expect partnership with the teachers. In fact, prior to enrolling our kids there, we went through an interview process in which we were told that we need to partner with the school. He, along with some other teachers at the school (some of whom have commented on this article), are no longer partnering with the parents. How dare I? I can say whatever I want, I don’t answer to you. And my last name is not published because my kids have some of these teachers right now, I would never want them to be targeted by them.

        • George Westra says:

          While the HC Chapel archive seems to be down for now (see

          Did you ever talk to Mark directly about your concerns? Have you talked to other teachers about your concerns that they no longer partner with you in the ways you want? Part of partnering with them is having the decency to talk to them directly instead of complaining online or to board members etc. before talking to them directly. Part of partnering with teachers is respecting their professionalism enough to know that they wouldn’t retaliate against your children for your online comments. (You are right in that you may say whatever you want; whether you *should* or not is another question.) “Partnering with parents” isn’t the same thing as yielding to your personal brand of politics in the classroom. Partnering with teachers DOES mean having constructive dialogues with your children and teachers when your version of politics isn’t the same as theirs–even though you share the same common, Christian faith–to model unity in the body of Christ.

          • Rachel says:

            George, there has been conversation after conversation with teachers, admin, the board and the superintendent. I can not continue this conversation with you, you have no idea what is happening in these classrooms.

  • Carol Brink says:

    Well said Mark. I pray people will read and then act on these wise words. Thank you for your years of teaching.

  • Becky Seah says:

    Thank you Mr. Hisses! Thank-you does not quite seem right. You were one if my most inspirational teachers I ever had!! You got me to think, to read and to enjoy writing, to feel better about something that made me feel insecure about myself. You have inspired so many people! Having served on a school board for the past 5 years, I completely appreciate your thoughts, words and teaching. We need that bridge building love in the class room and in the world around us! Blessings in your retirement, and I hope we are able to read more of your works and hear more from you!

  • Kevin Koeman says:

    Brother, thanks so much for your words. When asked what I teach, I often say, “I teach Mark Hiskes with a Koeman flare.” You are the reason I am a teacher today. I miss you daily but am so glad to have had you as my mentor for so many years.

    Blessings friend.

    • Brad Zylstra says:

      Well said Kevin! Many of our graduating class of 1998 list Mr Hiskes as one of if not our favorite teachers!

  • Paul Kortenhoven says:

    Thanks for this excellent piece. I grew up in Chicago during the 40’s and 50’s and we had teachers like you. They made everyday worthwhile and I absolutely loved to go to school. Never knew what I might learn that next day but always looked forward to learning it. In HS most of my teachers became friends as well as educators. We had a dinky little building on 71st and May St. There were no frills, but we didn’t care. We had just plain good teachers….I wish I could do it all over again and that’s quite a good measure for a successful education. All of my teachers are gone now but their names and personalities will remain with me till I die and maybe after….Hooker, Kooy, Slager, Huizinga, Dekker, Buikema, Prince, Bos… blessings all.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Mr. Hiskes,

    Based on your CS Lewis class discussion, and the tone of your essay, I wouldn’t trust you with my kids if I were a parent at your school. If you, and the vast majority of others who are reading RJ, can’t see the high-handedness and offensiveness (paragraph 25 paraphrased: it’s not politics, it’s just truth) of your arguments from other’s perspectives, you have a “culpable blindness” issue.

    Your contention that only three(?) students objected to your classroom hypothetical is questionable. Is it possible that many others felt the same way but were hesitant to speak out because you, as the teacher, were in a real position of power and privilege?

    Now, you may be a great and dedicated teacher, eager to inculcate truth into young people. Parents still want that. You may have political and cultural beliefs that are anathema to the families that have employed you to teach. Of course, you may believe anything you like, but have some grace. Parents don’t want your displayed worldview to conflict with what they believe. To insist, on your part, to believe otherwise is a mistake. Parents will object, or they will simply find another means of education.

    • Rachel says:


    • George Westra says:

      I wonder if some would consider it “highhanded” and “offensive” for teachers to teach that the world is not flat or that the sun is at the center of the universe? If Mark can’t condemn QAnon or COVID conspiracies in class, then Christian schools have truly lost the plot.

      Also, even at a private, Christian school, parents have a variety of views on politics and faith application. Thus, to say that Mark can’t have a “displayed worldview” that conflicts with (some) parents would be impossible. Partnering with parents means respecting each other’s Christian commitment highly enough to dialogue with children at home and at school when opinions differ. Some parents need to have that conversation with their students after having Mark; others, with another teacher. All together they can model unity with diversity within the body of Christ.

  • Randy Buist says:

    I’ve kept the tab to this article open for the past three days & finally read it tonight. Insightful, wise, and so much more. I applaud every bit of this.

    Yet, I do want to ask a question or two. Is it possible that the past 30+ years of attempting to undermine teachers & public education has come to roost in all schools, regardless if they are private or public institutions?

  • Grace Brashears says:

    Mr. Hiskes,
    This is such a beautiful article and a great take on what is happening in teaching today. As a student of yours during Covid, I can say that the truth you spoke in class and the lessons I learned that year has positively impacted me every day after leaving that classroom. I still have my exact marked-up copy of Screwtape up on my shelf in my dorm and reference it often. I, along with many of my classmates, looked forward to your class every day because we were able to trust that you would be able to help us learn about ourselves without any bias from our teacher. You will always be one of the people I look up to the most and someone who has forever made a lasting impact on me. Thank you so much for sharing this but more importantly thank you for all of the good and positivity you have and continue to pour out to all those around you.

  • Glenda Buteyn says:

    Mark, a wonderful article. I am a former teacher and recently have become aware of the fact that a school I once taught at has closed its enrollment because so many people are enrolling their students in this Christian school because they don’t like what they think is being forced upon their children in public schools. Our Christian schools cannot be looked upon as places where controversial ideas are never addressed in order to be “safe” havens. It is our duty as teachers to confront, discuss, work through differences and teach students to act with a Christ-like attitude and mentality. We are not called to run from culture but to be engaged. That also means that parents talk directly to teachers and seek to learn along with their children. I would think that parents would have benefited from your classes too!

  • So good Mark. Both of my daughters grew in imagination and hope through your teaching. I feel some of these shifts in the seminary setting too, and my heart settles a bit reading your reflections. -Chuck DeGroat

  • Mark,

    From one educator to another. Thank you. As a writer, the greatest compliment I ever get is, “me too.” And I want to say to you: “me too, me too, me too.”

  • Carrie Traver says:

    Mark, Thank you for teaching, impacting and giving my daughter the gift of thinking and questioning. My only regret is that you aren’t still there to teach our other 3 children. Your article gives me hope that maybe the dance in the classroom will someday return.

  • David VanDoorne says:

    I have loved reading these responses, although, I must admit, some comments have made me cringe a bit. I am so impressed by the many beautiful responses. And, Rachel, I am impressed by how articulately you have expressed your fears. But, as the scriptures remind us, “fear not”. When I was attending a Christian high school (long ago) I had a teacher who taught us how to think, and question, and wonder. He posed very piercing questions about the Viet Nam war. We thought and debated. Some of us changed our perspectives, but most of us wrestled with the ideas. Many of our parents would not have agreed with him on all points but they trusted him. I also had extremely conservative teachers, and I learned valuable things from them as well. I now count my old progressive teacher as one of my dearest old friends, and a treasured Christian soul. I have also served on consistory with one of my very conservative and treasured former teachers. A true joy. When I attended Calvin College, I was privileged to have Dr. Don Wilson for a class and he had the audacity to propose that God perhaps used evolution as a tool! You may recall, he was nearly fired and was accused by many of heresy. My point is this Rachel, fear not! Trust your nearly adult children. Trust these committed, absolutely stellar teachers like Mark Hiskes. These wonderful, open minded, thoughtful, very Christian teachers (who probably won’t think exactly as you do) will give your children the wonderful gift of God given discernment. I hope and pray my granddaughter, now at HC Middle Christian School will be fortunate enough to have one of Mark’s protégés when she arrives to learn how to think.

  • Phil Tucker says:

    Where do I even begin? I will start and end with just his title. It clarifies the intent of the entire article and reveals a much broader problem facing our nation.

    It’s clear from the “Afraid to Teach” title that Mr. Hiskes sees himself as a victim. He is the arbiter of truth and parents just don’t get it!

    Is it possible, on the other hand, that Mr. Hiskes is the one not fully embracing critical thinking? A critical thinker would start by investigating why his or her world view is not aligned with many parents. They would be eager to dive into the data/sources parents are using to draw their conclusions. “Trust me” would not be in their vocabulary. Their point of view should hold up to intense scrutiny using sound sources and reasoning.

    What we are seeing from Mr. Hiskes is a very common reaction in America today. If we can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas, it’s our (and my) nature to play the victim, blame others and/or shame (or even cancel) opponents. We all have a sense of what we think is “truth” and a desire to shut down dissenters.

    As for this article, I encourage Mr. Hiskes to truly engage in critical thinking. There is nothing to be afraid of when you value those around you.

  • A wonderfully thoughtful essay, Mark. This engages both the teaching and the reasons we teach, to open truths to students and support their exploration and growth. Thank you for your many years of generous service to the youth of Michigan.

  • Barbara Saunier says:

    A few respondents to Mark Hiskes’s essay have undertaken to disparage his character and to ascribe to him a pernicious intent in the classroom; to call into question his devotion to principle and his devotion to his God. (—who is also their God, yes?) Alas, these respondents —you— have neglected to provide a solution to the problem you meant to articulate.

    I wonder, then, what you would prefer teachers whom you consider to be your representatives in the classroom — what would you have them do, if not what Mark Hiskes did for forty years? It’s all very well to talk about “Christian values,” but the phrase doesn’t convey a means by which to produce results. In a humanities class, what is the actual work that shoulders your faith? (Cf. James 2:14-26)

    To grapple with an expanse of human experience, human community, human complexity, and human heart beyond one’s own experience, community, complexity, and heart is pretty much why literature exists. Why writers write and why readers read.

    As nascent adults, high school students are poised to meet this breadth of humanity and this expanding awareness of possibilities one way or another, and it is surely the hope of a dedicated teacher to prepare them. Examining literature in a well run classroom is a means by which students get to practice the business of being fully human.

    In such a classroom, students are more or less safe to practice making connections, to practice discerning legitimacy from convenience, practice employing evidence rather than wishful thinking — in short, to practice their humanity without dire repercussions while they’re working out the kinks.

    Once launched, they can face an expanding experience with this practice under their belts, or they can sally forth, blithely or timidly, without it. They can get familiar with their ranging priorities and practice their emerging values where someone cares about them, or they can shuffle off and hope nothing ever rattles that box.

    So I ask again: To prepare your child for the business of being human, what is your idea to accomplish as much? What would you have a teacher do?

  • Thank you Mark for sharing your wisdom and insight. As a former educator with children who are currently teaching, I have struggled to name the difference between then and now. I have shared this with anyone I know in education. That anyone would still go into education is something of a miracle to me. These are people who choose to believe in the future despite the tension of frustration or worse and hope. I was blessed by your writing. Marlene Boonstra