As an educator and a parent, Lisa Dekker does a lot of teaching, and she’s convinced that learning is a life-long process. Her experience at Calvin College shaped that perspective. As a student, Lisa worked in the Service-Learning Center as the liaison to the Education department, facilitating student placements in local schools, as well as pursuing a Special Education major. Like her classes, the position came with homework—readings about current events, justice issues, and Christian discipleship. “Having this job was like taking another class,” she says, and though she didn’t appreciate S-LC reading assignments so much as a student, looking back, “it was good learning, influential learning,” that shaped the way she approached her career and her personal life.
Post-college, she and her husband moved to South Bend, Indiana, and Lisa made the conscious decision to forgo private school teaching in favor of special education in South Bend’s inner city classrooms. “It was hard,” she says, with feeling, “but I loved it. And I feel like a lot of that was influenced by the time I spent at the Service-Learning Center just thinking about what different roles we can play in the world, and ways to help promote justice, and promote equality.” While in Indiana, Lisa went on to earn a Master’s degree in Education. A few years later, she landed an instructorship in Calvin College’s own Education department, where her inner city teaching experience shaped the training her students received.
Alongside another professor, Lisa developed the curriculum for Education 202, “The Learner in the Education Context: Development and Diversity.” The class includes a large service-learning component, she says: “ten hours in a local school, so going every week for an hour and getting to know a child well, getting to know a school well, trying to look at the neighborhood environment that it was in, trying to think about context and how that played into the child’s education.” Having encountered poverty, broken families, teen pregnancy, delinquency and all manner of obstacles as a special education teacher, Lisa recognizes the importance of training teachers to ask the right questions. “What impacts how a child takes in information? What types of things are happening long before you ever meet that child that are playing into the interaction you’re going to have with that child, and their family, and their community? And what are these things that you need to constantly be thinking about as an educator to influence how you do what you do so you can be effective? …Education isn’t just about having a skill you need to teach, how to add two plus three. It’s going back even further than that.”
Education 202 continues to form Calvin Education graduates, but Lisa has moved on to working with the Grand Rapids Christian Schools, which is considerably more diverse than she remembers it from childhood. “It’s a good thing,” she says. “I think the more diverse we are, the more again we reflect the body of Christ. This is just reality, this is the world you live in, and embracing all those different levels of diversity helps make everybody better Christians, better people, better community members.” Her specific role as Educational Support Services Coordinator addresses variety in ability, academic and otherwise, and Lisa sees positive changes in the inclusiveness of the school system. “Parents of gen ed students come up to me all the time and say, ‘it was so cool—we were out for ice cream the other day,’ or at Meijer, or who knows where, ‘and there was an individual with a noticeable disability, you know, cognitive or physical, and my child just went up and said hello, and had a conversation.’” She smiles. “And it excites me that there’s this whole generation of children growing up now that are learning to view the world differently.”
Her own children are among them. She and her husband, Mike, grew up in homes in which money was a persistent struggle and neighborhoods in which racial diversity was a matter of course. As adults, they find themselves in a more privileged situation. “We could choose, being middle class, to completely isolate our children. We’ve got those options. We could go to a school where there’s nobody else except those who are middle class and above. We could go to a church where that was the case; we could live in a neighborhood where that was the case,” she says. But the Dekkers strive to expose their children to challenging situations. They volunteer monthly as a family and talk about issues of justice related to the fundraising walks they do and the church they attend. “We’re hoping that we’ve broadened their horizons a bit, and given them a desire to broaden their own horizons when they have the opportunities… we want all of them to be deep thinkers and actors.”
Lisa models this thoughtfulness in her teaching as she advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities, in her parenting as she converses with her kids about justice issues, and in her life as she examines herself and her career in light of her calling. “We desire to live a Christ-like life, and yet, there are certainly going to be certain aspects of it that come more naturally to each and every one of us,” she says. “I think working at the Service-Learning Center helped me identify what were the things that naturally fit for me, and what I need to work on…I’m thankful, because I think the Service-Learning Center instilled a mindset of being reflective with what you do with the rest of your life. And that, of course, is constantly shaping.”
BY KATIE VAN ZANEN