April 26, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

David I. Smith standing behind a podium wearing the Presidential Award medallion.
David I. Smith is the recipient of the 2024 Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching.

“I had no plan on what I was doing after university, the only thing I’d ruled out was teaching,” said David I. Smith.

That was Smith’s mindset in the 1980s during his undergraduate years. Today, if you do a Google search of his name you’ll find a seemingly endless list of books, papers, journals, YouTube videos, and websites that more than suggest a change of heart.

And, on Thursday, April 25, 2024, the latest evidence of that change of heart: Smith being awarded Calvin University’s Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching—the highest teaching honor the university bestows on its faculty.

“I’ve really spent the past 35 years trying to figure out what teaching is and how to do it as a Christian,” said Smith. “And so that’s really what most of my waking hours are devoted to. So, for the award to be focused on that just feels very affirming, not just of what I’ve been personally doing, but of the worth of doing that kind of thing.”

So, what happened during Smith’s undergraduate years in the mid 1980s to shift his perspective on teaching?

A few key moments

During his time at Oxford, Smith became a Christian, “and my mother, who had become a Christian shortly after I did, wrote to me about her concern about something that my sister’s Latin teacher in high school had assigned as part of cultural background about learning about ancient Rome,” said Smith.

The assignment disturbed Smith’s mother, “and I found it a little disturbing too,” said Smith, “and I realized a half hour later I was still praying about it, and I didn’t have a particularly heroic prayer life. And it was a moment when I realized that out of all the things that are wrong in the world and all the things that need someone to put energy into—and there are many of those that are all important—the one that gets me going more than any of the others is stuff that happens to kids in classrooms.”

So during Smith’s last year of college, “I spent time praying and fasting about what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life, and I heard a call to teach.”

That calling was crystallized over the next several years as Smith experienced teaching in a range of very different schools.

Dreaming bigger

“I just have this sense that teaching could be more beautiful, it could be more delightful, it could reflect God more, it could reflect grace more. And once you start asking that question, it’s an inexhaustible question because each day you’re in a classroom with a new set of students, with a new set of content,” said Smith. “They are mortal creatures, and they have to give you an hour of their life, so what are you going to do with this hour of their life is a huge thing. So, you start thinking about that and not let it become crushing but allow it to become endlessly fascinating—what are the good things that I can do with this hour of 20 other people’s lives?”

That question has led Smith on quite a journey of discovery—one that’s resulted in dozens of books, articles in peer-reviewed journals, hundreds of presentations, numerous grant-funded projects, and the creation of countless online resources—all helping to shape the way Christian teachers approach their craft, at the K-12 and college level, in private and public settings, in the United States and all over the world.

A home base

“So right now from my office I am in regular conversation with Christian teachers in a dozen countries, because this is a global conversation. And yet, Calvin University is a great base for that because of the level of thinking that goes on here,” said Smith.

Calvin has been Smith’s home base for the past 24 years, and what initially attracted him to move from England to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2000 is what has kept him here since.

“It was kind of exciting that there was this place where you could actually do high-end Christian thinking, high-end research, but have that be connected to service to a wider community, to the classroom, to teaching, and to try and figure out how all that will fit together,” said Smith. “I can’t think of anywhere else whose vision of what God’s doing in the world is richer than the tradition here.”

A lifelong learner

While Smith has devoted much of his life to producing scholarship and creating resources to help teachers learn how faith can and should play a critical role in shaping pedagogy and the learning experience in their classrooms, he’s doing so as a practitioner, who is constantly learning “on the job.”

“I wasn’t a natural teacher when I started teaching, and I think it took me several years to start transitioning from being focused on the details of my own performance—What do I need to say? How much time does this need to go for? Did I say that properly? How long should this bit last? Did it go well? What do you think of me?—to being mostly focused on what’s actually happening to the students—Are they learning right now? How are they processing this? Do I need to change anything?” said Smith. “And it’s a subtle transition, but a very important one in teaching, because teaching is not performing in front of people, teaching is helping people learn. Even the most charismatic performance is a waste of time if people aren’t actually learning anything.”

Smith is still in the learning process, leaving his classroom often thinking “I can do better than this.” And his students see the intentionality and thoughtfulness for which he approaches each class—putting into practice the many things he’s learning along the way.

Raving reviews

“Dr. Smith’s class isn’t just shaped by a Christian perspective, but rather is a beautiful example of Christian education as a whole. He shares his beliefs in every aspect of the class—devotions, lectures, readings, activities, responses, etc. He shapes his class to include times of meditation, deep thinking, and respectful discussion,” wrote a former student.

“Professor Smith was the first teacher that ever showed me ways of teaching Christianly that were both real and practical,” said Grace Bolt, a senior at Calvin. “He used the Bible as a reference for how to teach, instead of just what to teach. He understood that while preservice teachers want to know about the theological underpinnings of our Christian teaching, we also really need practical, on the ground strategies for making lesson plans and shaping our classrooms.”

“His course on curriculum remains to be one of the most influential and formative courses in my educational journey, through which he broadened my perspective in curricular considerations as well as my overall view of what Christian education is. He made the philosophical and theological connections relevant to the daily work of the teacher in their curriculum design, inviting all to the intentional work of Christian teaching,” said Eunsub Cho, who is a former student of Smith’s.

Developing a deeper appreciation

This past fall, Cho moved from student to colleague of Smith’s, helping him co-teach a new course Smith designed on Christian teaching, called “The Christian Teacher.” His appreciation for Smith only grew through this experience.

“Watching his work as a professor up close, I continue to learn from the intentionality with which Dr. Smith designs every aspect of his teaching—from the layout of the furniture in the room, sequencing of activities, to the overall course map—for the most effective meaningful learning experience of the students,” said Cho.

And this includes meeting one-on-one with each of his students at the beginning of the semester to get to know them, something that has not gone unnoticed.

“It was impressive that he made room for one-on-one meetings. I felt that he had compassion to get to know the students,” wrote a former student.

“Professor Smith has demonstrated the most profound care for students in intentional ways that I have experienced. One such way is through meeting with each student individually at the beginning of the semester to learn about their interests and values, enabling him to connect with them throughout the course,” said Jackson Glanzer, a student of Smith’s. “Furthermore, among all professors, he provides the quickest and most thoughtful feedback, even on assignments that may seem miniscule.”

“He was also willing to share stories from his life from his years teaching, which helped me to see him not just as my professor but as a human being,” wrote another student.

An esteemed colleague

And Smith’s not only teaching his students, he’s also modeling this work to his colleagues.

“I have been fortunate to work with colleagues at Calvin who care deeply about teaching and from whom I have learned a lot, but no one has impacted my teaching and my thinking on Christian teaching as deeply as David has in his modeling of thoughtful, wise approaches to Christian teaching,” said Jim Rooks.

“David stands out with his vision, creativity, wisdom, and leadership. He inspires and mobilizes team members and colleagues to implement solutions to identified problems,” said Marj Terpstra, a colleague of Smith’s. “David stands out as a teacher because of his thought-filled instructional choices and his intense care for students.”

The ”why” behind the work

The roots of Smith’s commitment to this work of being an exemplar teacher, author, and scholar, of creating vast resources to improve Christian teaching and learning are deeply rooted in his Christian convictions.

“If the confessions tell us that the way we are supposed to function when we get together in a group of 20 people is to be fundamentally committed to one another’s good and have communion in one another’s gifts and graces, then that’s not supposed to stay up there in the confessions,” said Smith, “that’s how we are supposed to do human interaction. So, then my task is to figure out what does that look like in the classroom?”

Smith’s doing that work and he’s sharing it with his students both on campus and all over the world.

“After hearing him speak and taking his class, I feel prepared to teach Christianly,” said Bolt.

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