Dordt College News

Dennis Vander Plaats

May 24, 2013

Leaving the classroom after 44 memorable years, 21 at Dordt College

Dr. Dennis Vander Plaats can relate to students who dislike school.

As a kid, he did everything he could to avoid it. He recalls standing over a stove until his face was flushed and warm to convince his mom that he had a fever and should stay home. He couldn’t wait to get out of high school and work with his hands.

He graduated from high school during the Vietnam War era.

“If you don’t go to college, you’ll go to Vietnam,” he recalls his mother telling him. He remembers thinking that might be better than more school.

His mother must have convinced him, because in the fall of 1965, he applied to Dordt College. He told himself he’d study to be park ranger or something that would get him outside.

Dordt was primarily a teacher education school at that time, and since most of his peers were going into education, he followed the crowd. He changed his major often but graduated in 1969, still lethargic about teaching. It took a late spring call from Calvin Christian School in Sioux Falls to get him into his own fifth/sixth classroom.

“I fell in love with the kids,” he says. By the end of the year he knew he’d found his place. Ironically, that meant he had to go back to school to get elementary certification. Now, finally, after 62 years, he’s leaving school.

Vander Plaats came to Dordt after 24 years in middle grades. He has many good memories, some of them captured in a song framed on his office wall, a song his students wrote and sang to him on the last day of school before he moved to Dordt. The seemingly natural affinity he had for middle school age students and his own struggles as a student helped him “identify with those who couldn’t or wouldn’t play the academic game.”

“I’ve often told education students that you can be too smart as a teacher. You need to know how they think in middle school. I think I actually started to think like a sixth grader,” he adds with a laugh.

Vander Plaats’s middle school experiences shaped him as a college professor. He’s tried to help future teachers catch a passion for teaching as serving, to sense that they have the call, authority, and responsibility to find ways for every student to gain the skills and knowledge they need to be “who God intended them to be.”

“It’s not about power, but about service,” he says. “Achievement doesn’t give worth, being God’s child does.”

Vander Plaats believes that the push to close the achievement gap in education today can focus on the wrong things. He agrees that schools need to help lower achieving students function at a higher level; but, closing the achievement gap can also be done by holding higher achieving students back. If teachers were truly helping all students reach their God-given potential, the achievement gap would likely grow, he believes. He is encouraged by a shifting paradigm that captures many things he’s worked for as a teacher and advocated as a professor.

Instead of having all students progress through a curriculum at the same yearly pace, students should be able to progress as they learn. Such a view is embodied in an approach called competency-based learning, he says.

“It’s something that was good about the old one-room school,” he says. “When you learned what you needed to you moved ahead in the curriculum.” Technology is making this approach to learning easier today.

“Learning is available today to anyone who wants to access it,” he says, adding that teachers play a different role today.

“Teaching, like learning, is a process of growth,” Vander Plaats says. He hopes that students who leave Dordt’s teacher education program never stop wanting to learn and teach effectively.

“When you’re convicted that every square inch of the world belongs to the Lord—teaching tools, curriculum, and pedagogical strategies, even the structure of schooling itself—then you’re always looking for new ways to help your students develop in the fullest way possible,” he says.


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