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Schelhaas's passion lives on

By Sally Jongsma

It’s pretty important that you enjoy your work if you are to stick with one job for your whole career,” says English Professor David Schelhaas. He should know. He has spent his entire professional career teaching, and he has enjoyed it. Schelhaas, who attended Dordt College for two years when it was a junior college, began teaching high school English right out of college and spent the past twenty years teaching English at Dordt College.

David Schelhaas

David Schelhaas

“I like what I teach, and I like people,” says Schelhaas.

Something else made teaching a good match for Schelhaas—his passion for life and learning.

“I’m interested in the world I live in and care quite a lot about what happens in it,” he says, tracing that tendency back to an extended family that thrived on discussion. That propels him to start, join in, and vigorously encourage his students as they discuss issues and ideas in the literature they are reading and that they face in the lives they live.

It’s a trait that former students remember well. Renee Van Groningen wrote, “When I first entered your class of “EnviroEnglish” my freshman year, I had no idea what I was getting into. Little did I know that that class would be the beginning of my life-long quest to seek justice in this world and at the same time find beauty in the art of words.”

“Professor Schelhaas made me the teacher that I am today,” wrote Jill Eerfmeyer. “He made me a lover of words. He gave me the tools I needed to build real relationships with my students and then showed me how to use them by building a relationship with me. He inspired me to create lessons that fill minds and hearts instead of just pages and time. He taught me to teach with passion and conviction because he taught with passion and conviction.”

Schelhaas’s colleagues appreciate the same traits. “Rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t say something unbearably witty. And no matter how outraged he may be, over some kind of injustice, political or otherwise, he is always human when he stops and talks, a wonderful chemistry of passionate outrage, compassion, insight, and wit,” says colleague Dr. Mary Dengler.

But while passion inspires and engages, it alone is not enough to make a good teacher. It needs to be grounded in knowledge that gets students excited about learning and teaching. Schelhaas himself loves learning.

“When I first looked into coming back to Dordt to teach, I occasionally got advice that it would be difficult to teach alongside people who had formerly been my professors,” says Dr. Leah Zuidema. “These well-intentioned advisors didn’t know the Dordt English department, and they clearly didn’t know Dave. A few weeks ago, I was teaching some of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I mentioned to Dave that I was revisiting some of the notes I’d taken the first time I discussed these stories, as a student in his English 200 class. We ended up talking about a paper he had written about “Parker’s Back,” about an article that I’d read about the piece, about why we taught these stories, and about the discussions we would have in each of our English 200 classes in the week ahead. It was a chance to circle back and see what had stuck from years ago, as well as to keep moving together down the teaching road. That’s what I really appreciate about Dave: In his teaching he also continues to be a learner, and he welcomes the rest of us to join him in the fun.”

“Part of the blessing of teaching at Dordt College is to be in an environment where colleagues help you be engaged professionally and where you can publish,” Schelhaas says. He believes that to “stay where you are” is not only a travesty but a poor model for students that leads to poor teaching.

Schelhaas knows he’ll miss the kind of energizing discussions that happen when he opens up literary texts with his students, discussions in which they all learn something about life. While not all of his students caught his passion, many did and for that he’s grateful.

Sharla Derksen Kattenberg remembers the especially beautiful day her teaching methods class studied Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”: “He read the poem to us, then had us go outside and examine all the plants that were, at that very moment, gold. I was shocked to find out there were so many. Every spring, now, I take special note of the multitudes of golden plants and think of Robert Frost’s poem. And I feel regret when the gold, this ‘hardest hue to hold,’ changes rapidly to summer’s green.”

Schelhaas’s years of teaching experience also were passed on to his students. In the retirement tributes by former students solicited by his colleagues, students wrote about how his encouragement had made them more confident teachers, how his advice to befriend troublesome students was some of the best advice they’d received, and how much they still used many of the practical tips he offered.

Wayne Dykstra sums up what many English teachers taught by Schelhaas feel. “David Schelhaas oozed a passion for literature and, I am sure, has propelled and inspired many to go into the trenches and attempt to be the teacher he has been for so many years.”