This story originally appeared in the September issue of the GēDUNK, Grove City College’s award-winning alumni magazine. Click here to see the entire issue.
There are thousands of Grove City College alumni educators teaching children all over the country and around the world. Whether they were education majors or came to the classroom by some other route, they understand that teaching is about the heart as much as it is the head – maybe more so.
Mastery of a subject – or subjects, since most K-12 teachers don’t enjoy the exclusive redoubts of college and university faculty – and the teaching methods that research and experience prove effective are big parts of the teaching equation. The x-factor is an understanding of the huge responsibility of the work and the rich rewards of doing it well. The stakes are incredibly high in the short- and long-terms: a child’s potential and the future of human existence.
“Teachers have a responsibility to generations yet to come. It is a calling not to just transfer knowledge but to transform individuals so they can go on and transform their communities and the world. That’s a pretty heavy calling – and it’s also a cool opportunity,” Dr. Constance (Nelson ’93) Nichols, chair of the College’s Education Department.
As an undergrad working on her teaching degree, Nichols said she was inspired by a campus visit by American educator Marva Collins. “She said, ’To be an educator is to do God’s miracle on earth and touch the divine.’ And I loved that! The children in our care are made in God’s image, and if we are trying to unlock their potential, we are helping them discover the divine inside them. That’s radically cool,” Nichols said.
“If your job as an educator is to unlock human potential, and you know where that human potential comes from, you know that it is something that is poured into children by the divine, then you’re really bringing out God’s gifts in others,” she said.
Grove City College alumni have been bringing out those gifts in students since the beginning. Founded as Pine Grove Academy, then known as a normal school or teachers college, a job in a classroom was one of the few professions that the earliest graduates were qualified for. Over a century and half, the commitment to training teachers only gained strength and today the College has a reputation for producing educators who are, thanks to the College’s focus on a deeper understanding of the liberal arts and Christian character, more than just math teachers or English teachers or science teachers, but teachers of impact.
They are doing God’s work in every kind of educational setting, from public schools where most alumni teach, to private, Christian, classical and homeschool settings around the country and around the world. They are making an impact on their students, schools, and communities.
Ellie (Stoffer ’15) Matlock
“I became a teacher to be a hope dealer to students, to ignite their passions and show the love of Jesus to students, families, and the community I teach in,” Ellie (Stoffer ’15) Matlock said. She is a 4th grade teacher at the Lebron James Family Foundation’s I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, an innovative public school that serves students who are at risk – academically and socially – and “in danger of falling through the cracks,” according to the foundation.
It’s a different kind of school. The day is a little longer to provide more time for learning and to accommodate working parents.
The curriculum stresses STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – subjects and social-emotional learning and the school provides wraparound services for academic and character-building. With the motto “We are Family,” the I Promise philosophy engages a student’s family with school events and resources to create a supportive environment at home for students. Opened in 2018 for 3rd and 4th graders, the school has expanded to 5th and 6th grades and showed early promise, with student scores improving dramatically.
The school’s approach lines up with Matlock’s vision for teaching, which was developed during her years as a Middle Level Education - Math and Science major. “Grove City College helped shape my teaching philosophy by showing that it is crucial to care for the whole child and that through relationships, high expectations, and immense kindness you can break through barriers to reach students’ needs,” she said. “I love being able to invest in students’ lives, show them consistent care, compassion, love, and help them to grow as individuals. I also love having fun with them and seeing them take risks to learn new things even when it is hard,” Matlock said. “Where kindness and compassion for a student begins, learning can then follow.”
Matlock is one of three Grover grads working at I Promise. Also on staff are Adam Crow ’13, who teaches social studies, and Caity Lavenberg ’19, an intervention specialist.
Adam Crow ’13
Crow came to I Promise after working for seven years in Burlington, N.C., schools, where the Elementary Education major found himself teaching social studies to middle schoolers in an urban setting that was much different from the schools he was exposed to as a student teacher. It was a challenging first teaching job, but he grew into it and worked with students outside the classroom as a football coach.
“I realized pretty quickly that the relationships with students and families and faculty was the absolute most important thing about being successful in an urban district,” he said. I Promise’s commitment to that approach appealed to Crow, who is originally from northeast Ohio. “Their vision for urban education and the way that they care about people, and their students, and their families was something I was passionate about,” he said.
“Grove City College taught me how to be a professional and that caring about your students was paramount above everything else,” Crow said. I Promise confirmed his belief that relationships are the most important thing to accomplishing that. “Not only confirmed but challenged me to care about people more and to do more as a part of this family, to make a change. They challenge me to be a better teacher,” he said.
Caity Lavenberg ’19
Lavenberg started at I Promise straight out of Grove City College, working with students who need special attention in class. For Lavenberg, it’s all about the students. She goes to their ball games and relates to them out in the community. “I absolutely love getting to know the kids and the families that built that kid,” she said, and seeing them make progress. “I love to see that lightbulb – like that oh-my-gosh-I- finally-get-it – moment. I think it is really, really cool to watch.”
Lavenberg said her training at Grove City College prepared her to help students but working with kids who are struggling with more than academics can be challenging. “Some things college can’t teach you and you need to experience to learn them. The faculty prepared me to do my best in handling them.” She cited an incident with a 4th grader with whom she had worked hard to develop a close relationship.
“One day it was just a really bad day for him and I kind of got the brunt of it,” she said. “And another teacher said, ‘He does that to you because he trusts you. He acts out to you because he knowns you’re going to love him the next day no matter what.’ And he had a great year this year – he really rocked out 5th grade – and I’m proud of him.”
The I Promise School is in its infancy. The alumni teachers working there are part of something new, the creation of a model for education, built on community and caring and dedicated to learning and the success of students most in need of some. Matlock, Crow, and Lavenberg all acknowledged the challenging nature of the work but are excited about its potential impact.
“It is not easy to be a part of work that has never been done. There are many days that feel like we are building the plane as we fly it. However, the hope and belief in what we are doing transcends the hardship and we know we are stronger together,” Matlock said.
MISSION FROM GOD
Andrew Stapleton ’06
Andrew Stapleton ’06 was majoring in history and religious thought when he heard a presentation on classical Christian education that opened his eyes to the possibility of teaching. A few years later, after completing his M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary and in need of a job, Stapleton looked for work in pastoral ministry and education. He took a job at Mars Hill Academy, a classical Christian school in Cincinnati.
“Education was my Plan B, but God’s Plan quickly became my Plan A when I got in the classroom and realized the impact I could make on students,” he said. Stapleton is a rhetoric teacher, covering a variety of classes across grades 7 to 12, including literature and composition, ancient humanities, apologetics, and Greek.
Classical Christian schools like Mars Hill emphasize biblical truth in the classroom and embrace a teaching model based on grammar, logic, and rhetoric that was standard across the West until the late 19th century. “It equips students with the most important tools of learning: the ability to read, memorize, understand, think, reason, write persuasively, and speak eloquently,” according to Mars Hill’s website.
“It’s intentionally different,” Stapleton said, and a lot like his experience as an undergraduate. “Grove City College persuaded me that a faith-based education is the best approach. As a public-school graduate, I will always remember how mind-blowing and heart-opening it was to take my first week of classes with Christian professors. They modeled how a complete perspective on truth must include God’s revelation. The fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom.”
For the past decade, Stapleton has been guiding Mars Hill students through many of the same subjects that he tackled at Grove City College. “Most of what I teach is humanities and Bible, so my Grove City College classes in the humanities core and my majors directly prepared me for these subjects,” he said.
Stapleton also supervises the 9th-12th grade Worldview Summit, a Washington, D.C., event sponsored for the past seven years by Grove City College in which students and families meet with movers and shakers in the capital and hear from College faculty about contemporary worldview issues, he said. “This event generates a huge impact throughout our school community and even impacts other national leaders we meet with when we are in Washington, D.C.,” Stapleton said.
“One of my favorite things about my calling is that I get to know and invest in students across six years, grades seven to 12. By the time they graduate, my students become more like family, friends, or co- workers than they are students. Sometimes they tell me the impact I have had on them, but even when they don’t, I am confident that I have given them lessons that they will put to good use in their future endeavors, whether academic or just real life,” Stapleton said.
Stapleton’s educational mission is straightforward, and he said he became convinced of it at Grove City College. “Education is a mission from God to aim the next generation toward His kingdom and His glory,” he said.
GLORY OF KINGS
Mary Kaye (Houk ’90) Hagenbuch
Every year Mary Kaye (Houk ’90) Hagenbuch takes her students on a field trip to Kennedy Space Center, where they learn about the space program and often have a chance to meet astronauts who have spent time in space or are training for the experience.
It’s one of the routine parts of the school year at Jupiter (Fla.) Christian School but a highlight for every class that makes the trip two hours north. Hagenbuch knows how inspiring such meetings can be. When she was a student at Grove City College she met Harrison Schmitt, one of the last men to walk on the moon.
A geologist, Schmitt’s job on the Apollo 17 mission was to collect rocks. While he wasdriving around in the lunar rover looking for specimens, he said he recited a verse from Psalm 121 – “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth” – and discovered a promising pile of rocks just over a ridgeline.
“This was truly a meeting that had an impact on me. He was a respected scientist that gave glory to God for his successful mission,” she said. The message that science and faith aren’t mutually exclusive resonated with her and is central to her work today as a 6th-grade science teacher.
“I teach a hands-on, collaborative learning and Biblically-integrated science class in the scientific method of investigation and discovery,” she said. Hagenbuch initially studied chemical engineering at Grove City College but became an education major soon after she accepted Christ in her freshman year. Now in her 20th year on the job, Hagenbuch still heeds lessons learned at Grove City College. “My professors trained us to put simple objects into the hands of our students to make the lessons memorable,” she said.
In her classes, students learn by watching an egg on a stalk of milkweed grow into a caterpillar and then metamorphize into a butterfly. They incubate eggs and observe as chicks hatch. They see how the world works and the science behind it. “Proverbs 25:2 is a favorite of mine,” she said. “God delights in creating mysteries, it is the glory of kings to uncover them!”
“My job is to lead the children in looking at different aspects of God’s creation and breaking it down into understandable pieces. These facts are collected, sorted, and classified to be used in building solutions, inventions, and beliefs about the value of life, our design, and our purpose,” Hagenbuch said.
“The impact that I hope to have on my students is that by careful observation and inquiry a person can see the evidence of God’s design for life, especially their own … Embracing their own connection to God as creator and discovering their life has value and worth is a message I get to share with love to each class,” she said.
Dr. Andrew M. Jacks ’01
Ashland Elementary School Principal Dr. Andrew M. Jacks ’01 is one the many alumni educators that are routinely recognized with state and national awards for their outstanding work with children.
Named Virginia’s principal of the year in 2018, Jacks began his 20-year career at Prince William (Va.) County Schools as a fifth-grade teacher straight out of Grove City College with a degree in Elementary Education and Early Childhood Development. Jacks took a familiar path for many teachers, moving into administration, earning advanced degrees and taking on different responsibilities. Under his leadership since 2010, Ashland Elementary School is a recognized School of Excellence and one of the top-performing elementary schools in Virginia.
As well as local leadership, he has participated in congressional panels on educational reform, and is a popular speaker on school leadership issues. He shares his views via website, podcast, YouTube channel, and as the author of the forthcoming book Discipline Win: Strategies to Improve Behavior, Increase Ownership, and Give Every Child a Chance. As senior fellow with the Centers for Advancing Leadership, an initiative of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, he’s working on ways to train and inspire elementary and middle school leaders across the country.
If that seems like a lot, Jacks just says that’s what it takes to be successful. “You can’t be a great educator and not put in the work,” Jacks said. His professors at Grove City College provided him with the tools to be a great teacher, he said, but it was the “intangibles” he picked up on campus that helped prepare him to be a professional educator and leader – “work ethic, integrity, and faith in knowing that our work has purpose. We have a moral obligation to help the greater good.”
The College’s rigorous standards were good preparation for a career teaching and leading. “The expectations we had were high and we were forced to rise to them, but in the long run that just helped us be ready for the demands of the actual teaching job. It’s one thing to get the job, but it’s something totally different to do well in it. Grove City College helps teachers thrive instead of just survive.”
At the heart of his educational vision is a belief that educators must make a meaningful connection with every child to draw them into learning and transform their lives. He’s tried to do that throughout his career and says it’s impactful.
“As a teacher and principal, I have had so many critical moments that completely changed the trajectory of a child’s life. I know because families keep finding me years later to tell me. Kids and parents don’t forget those moments even if they seem trivial at the time for us,” Jacks said. “Each child presents us with these unique opportunities. These are gifts to educators that remind us why we started in this field in the first place.”
Read about how the Education Department of Grove City College takes a distinctive approach to train teamers of impact here.