Monday, February 19, 2007

Christians with The Heart of A Servant - Fifth in the Series

Middle School Teacher, St. Louis, MO

Mark and Nancy Pitts

A Teacher with the Heart of A Servant...

Some things never die and a good friendship filled with great memories is one of those things. I first met Mark Pitts when we were students at Johnson Bible College, right at thirty years ago. (Ohh, that hurt just a little to admit) I can say truthfully, that Mark is a man of multi-talents – any JBC student from 1976 to 1979 would be able to
list them with a beaming smile. That statement alone should tell you he harbors a wonderful sense of humor.

Mark and Nancy have four children between them (Nancy has a son and daugther, as does Mark) and they live just outside of St. Louis, where Nancy also works for a law firm. Among Mark's unique ways to impress his students -- is his tie collection. He wears a different tie every day, whether it matches or not. (Now, that's the Mark I remember.) Kids love that sort of thing, and when they see that being a teacher doesn't mean one can't have some fun, then they loosen up just a bit.

Though the years have passed and we’ve actually only physically seen each other three times since college, I can firmly attest that the joys of our friendship are alive and kicking. Like so many, both of us fell to unsuccessful first marriages, however, thanks to the loving grace of Christ, we’ve both been blessed with spouses who far exceed anything either of us felt we deserved. Having said that, we’ll move forward.

From the first teaching position Mark held, in South Carolina (just a few miles from where my husband and I lived), his innovative teaching and unique sense of humor led me to believe he would be nothing less than a wonderful teacher.Without further hesitation, let me introduce you to a dear, dear friend…Mark “The Keeb” Pitts.

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Mark, thanks for finally agreeing to an interview. It took some convincing to finally get you to fall prey to my inquisitive mind. Let’s start by finding out about the kids you teach.
At the present time I teach 6th grade World Geography at West Middle School for the Fort Zumwait School District. This is just outside of St. Louis, MO. It’s a large district with over 20,000 students. We’re building our 4th high school right now. We already have 4 middle schools and 17 elementary buildings.

Where did you begin your teaching career?
I started my career in Williamsburg County, South Carolina in 1981. My first year there, I taught 4th grade. Mid-way through my second year there, I was pulled from my position of remedial reading teacher and moved so I could attempt to handle some 7th and 8th graders who had managed to run off their third teacher that year. Now, that was challenge. My third and final year in South Carolina, I decided I needed to get back to the little ones, so I moved back to the 3rd grade level.

That’s a lot of shuffling for your first three years out. How did you handle such frequent changes?
Teaching in poor conditions for three years really took a toll on me. The pay was poor and my first wife and I had just had our first child. Working through such turmoil had taken the fun out of teaching. Teaching simply wasn’t fun anymore. I decided to either get out of education or find a job teaching elsewhere. Luckily, I had connections in one of the Missouri towns where I had lived as a child. Actually, my connection was a friend from a church my dad had ministered. He knew the man who did the hiring…it was a friend of a friend of friend kind of thing. Ironically, this same man was my Junior High principal – the very one who’d given me two swats for chewing gum in 8th grade. I went to my interview praying that he wouldn’t remember that part!
A few years later, I actually ended up teaching in the same 5th grade classroom where I was taught. Talk about odd feeling. I stayed at Forest Park Elementary for seventeen years.

Wow, seventeen years. Once you found a spot, you settled in for the long haul. So tell us where you’re teaching now.
In 2000, I found my world turning upside down. My marriage of twenty years had just ended and it was time for a change. I found a new home, made some lifestyle changes, and decided – Why not a new job? A new middle school was opening in 2001, so I took the chance and moved up one grade level. This pushed me into the dreaded world of “tweens.” You know…too old to be considered little kids and too young to be called teens – the “tweens.”
As it stood, it was the perfect move. They say middle school is the best kept secret around…I think they were right. I went from making 30 lesson plans a week (six a day), to five a week (one a day). I had a full hour of plan time, no outdoor recess duty, and no lining up 30 kids to walk to the restroom six times a day. Now I focus on just one subject and truly teach it.

Sounds like you found your spot a second time. You’ve been blessed. Tell us what lies ahead?
My immediate plans are to teach another four years and retire after my 30th year in education.

In your years of teaching, you’ve shared the classroom with hundreds of students. What would you say has been the biggest change within the school system since you began your career?

Well, I’ve seen lots of things, some good and some horrible. I remember when I had my interviews in South Carolina the schools were in the process of literally building the walls BACK UP between the classrooms. They were recovering from a failed attempt at the “open classroom” setting.
It seems that every few years a new “educational process” comes around that is labeled the “savior of education,” when in fact it’s simply a fad or another under-funded program that teachers are expected to grasp hold of and fly with. When your resources and funding is limited, the greatest of ideas will fail. After a few years, we figure out it doesn’t work any better than the open classroom.
I, personally, try to stick with what works for me. Call me old fashioned, or even a dinosaur (and I have been accused of just that), I try not to get too worked up about the next “biggest and best” educational idea. Part of my philosophy of education is to create a classroom environment where my students feel safe and comfortable – well, not too comfortable! (smile)

I can imagine it gets difficult. I, for one, believe teachers are the backbone of our country. They groom our children, when they’re allowed to do so, into our future leaders, parents and workers. They’re underpaid and not appreciated. What goals do you set for your classroom and how do you try to impact your students?

Finding a balance isn’t easy, but it’s certainly required. I want my students relaxed enough that I can get the very best from them. World Geography for eleven and twelve year olds is not the most exciting subject, so building a solid rapport with my kids is necessary. Most of my students know I’m more than willing to joke around with them in the hallway and at the beginning of each hour, but they also know when it is time to get down to work and stay busy.
I believe that a student will learn if they have respect for their teacher, when they’re comfortable with that teacher, and when they feel they are respected in return. Simply put, I try to be friendly with the students without being their friend. That seems to work for me.

How tough is teaching these days?
The best thing about teaching is there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. If I have a tough group of students, I know it will only last nine months. (smile) Another group soon follows.
I would have to say that it gets tougher each year. The behavior of children has gotten worse. Many parents defend their child’s behavior and like to blame the schools for their problems, when they refuse to look in their own backyard for the real source.
The legal system ties our hands many times making what we have to do – a nearly impossible task. Classroom sizes are getting larger and larger, while budgets are shrinking. A student with an IQ of 135 may share the same classroom with a student of who has an IQ of 75. We are seeing more and more English Language students enter our area. The list could go on and on. However, just like any other profession, you have to learn how to survive such things, overcome the obstacles, and continue educating the children.

No teacher gets rich in dollars and cents, doing this. You have to love the art of teaching, love the children, and have the drive to make a difference in the field of education.

I know you are a PK (preacher’s kid). What prompted your decision to attend Bible College to get your undergraduate degree, and then move to Milligan College for your teaching degree?
Oh yeah, the preacher kid thing…branded for life! I spent years trying to hide the fact that my dad was a preacher. I knew I didn’t want to preach, so it made perfect sense to head off to Johnson Bible College?!?
The fact is I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated from high school. I had no plan. My brother, Scott, went to JBC the year before and seemed to like it, so I decided to follow and see what happened. As it stood, I made friends quickly, joined the basketball team, and made very average grades. After a year, I decided that I would enjoy teaching. JBC didn’t have a teacher’s program at that time. However, Milligan College and JBC had worked out a “3-2 program” where students attended Johnson for three years and Milligan for two. I was able to graduate from JBC with a degree in Bible and also from Milligan with my teaching degree. I graduated from both schools in 1981.

I have to ask. Did you feel pressured as a preacher’s kid to attend Bible College?

Nope…not at all. In fact, my parents told me after I graduated, that they were very surprised I went to college. I was a very average student all the way through high school, and really didn’t like school at all. Imagine that…I ended up a teacher and love it.
Personally, I believe I probably had ADD as a child. I never knew where we were in the book when it was my turn to read out loud. I continued to make average grades through those first few years of college, and then finally got serious the last two and a half years.

Mom and dad never tried to force me into any career. They always told me to do my best in whatever I chose to do and, of course, to be a good Christian.

I’m glad you mentioned your Christianity. I know as a Christian you are in the minority in our school systems these days. Tell us how you try to exemplify your beliefs without stepping “over the line.”
Actually, I find that a lot of public school teachers are Christians. Some stronger than others, and, of course, many different faiths are represented. We do, however, have many teachers that are not believers.
As for the classroom, we’re pretty strapped down with what and how we can say things about religion. In my curriculum, part of my job is to discuss the different religions of the different areas and cultures. So, it isn’t strange to hear some religious words in my class. I can talk about Jesus when we talk about Christianity. Many times the kids will raise questions about why we have so many different churches and faiths, and what is the difference between Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims. That does open the door for some discussion.
The kids are usually pretty open to talking about religion. They usually have no problem talking about where they go to church, and many times they ask me where I attend. However, as much as I would like to go deeper into these discussions, I am bound by laws that do not allow me to “teach” a particular faith.

I have to rely on my actions and words, in and around my students. I have to be the example of my Christian views.

Well, you know what they say, “Actions speak louder than words.” For you, it has to be a very practiced art. What would you say has been your greatest reward in teaching?
Without a doubt, there is no greater feeling than when a past student comes back to visit or in some way acknowledges that you had an impact on them. Over the years, I’ve been shocked by what they say and what they remember. It certainly isn't that great lesson on subjects and verbs I taught. They come back and say how grateful they were on the day they first got their braces on (when braces weren’t cool) and how I told them that it would only be a few years before they had a great smile. Then, years later, they came back to see me the day they had the braces removed to show me that smile! I don’t remember telling them that because I was just trying to be supportive and help them get through that first day. But it made an impact. And of course, my ties. They remain a great subject for debate with my students. They frequently tell me "Mr. Pitts, what were you thinking when you put that tie on?" Or they're constantly reminding me that the tie doesn't match. It opens the door for conversation and trust building. They enjoy it and I've gained over 300 ties as a result.
I have had two high school students show up at my classroom door with huge smiles. I’ve had letters written to me telling me that I was a father to them. Just last week I went to the high school to watch a past student, now a senior, play basketball. After the game she ran across the gym and literally ran into me to give me a big hug. Those are the priceless gifts of teaching.

God has blessed you with the gift of teaching, set you aside to shape our little ones. What a wonderful reward for your time and aggravation with the system, to have them share such wonderful parts of their lives. It must be a wonderful feeling to know you’ve made a difference in a life that may not have otherwise, had a guiding hand.

I know you and your wife, Nancy, work faithfully in your home church. Tell us what your calling is into the service of this congregation.

Nancy and I are the ministry leaders of the Greeting Team at Wentzville Christian Church, Wentzville, MO. We are set to enter a brand new building in a couple of weeks and we’re excited about the growth we’ve witnessed since joining two and a half years ago - - just after we were married. We organize the greeting schedule and make sure that both members and visitors are given a warm welcome. We offer any help to the visitors that they may need.
After my divorce, I spent a couple of years going to different churches and I was shocked at how many churches I entered, where not one person spoke to me. It was clear that I wasn’t a member. Sometimes I would hang around after services just see if anyone would introduce themselves to me. I attended one church for three months and only had two people talk to me the whole time. Nancy and I have tried to stress to our team that you only get one chance to make a good first impression. We need to offer a warm welcome to every single person who comes to worship.

What a wonderful and important ministry. And you are so right. In the hustle and bustle of the world today, we often seem to busy to sit up and take notice of those who enter the doors of our churches. It’s part of our calling as Christians to “feed the sheep” of Christ. How can we possibly minister to the needs of others when we fail to offer our hand in friendship and love?

I would say, next to the minister, this is probably the next MOST important ministry in the church. Our world is so cold these days, learning to offer a warm hand and a kind heart goes a long way. It truly is a ministry.

Mark, thanks so much for sharing with us. You’ve shown us that it takes the true heart of a servant to face the obstacles teachers face. You were so modest about doing this interview, saying you weren’t qualified. What a silly thought.

You are very qualified simply by your desire to be an example, and a Christian example at that.

I’m proud and pleased to call Mark Pitts my friend. He is a man of great caliber, who has survived the pits (NO PUN INTENDED – Waaa haaa haaa!)

Seriously, Mark is a quality teacher, one, who like so many other teachers across our country, get little credit for the service they perform. Never let it be said, that God doesn’t place people into the positions which bring His plan into fruition.

Thanks again, Mark. I am proud to call you a friend. (Now, what was that incident about spit-balls in South Carolina?)

Please take time to thank a teacher. They labor hard, against all sorts of disadvantages to educate our children. Who was your favorite teacher?