2001

The Voice: Fall 2001

The Voice

Hielema hopes to inspire passion and commitment


Sally Jongsma

    You can’t separate what you teach from how you teach,” says Dr. Sydney Hielema, the recipient of the 2001 John Calvin Award. The award is presented each year to a faculty member who demonstrates a commitment to teaching from a Calvinistic perspective and to developing and transmitting reformational insight in a discipline. The faculty member is nominated by alumni, fellow faculty members, and selected alumni.
    “Every ten years or so someone says something that makes a light go on for me,” Hielema says. A comment made by a student when Hielema left high school teaching to earn his Ph.D. has become one of those memorable remarks. He was told: “Everyone feels like you accept them.” Even though Hielema says he didn’t realize that comment described how he taught, he’s since been on guard to make sure he doesn’t change.
    He describes his career path as “falling into teaching.” “I didn’t take a teacher education program, but after graduating with a music major I didn’t know what else to do with it.” He was interested in making connections—between himself and students and between what is happening in their lives and what he teaches. Those connections are not only what drew Hielema to teaching but also what keeps him there.
    “I assume a high level of correlation between what I’ve experienced and what students are experiencing,” he says. He tries to teach in a way that draws on his experience—although he says he worries a bit that as he gets older his experiences and theirs will become more different.
    Hielema doesn’t believe that he simply has a body of information to impart. He tries hard to hear what lives in his students, he says. What they write and what they say in class help provide the structure for what he teaches. For majors in upper level theology classes, getting to know them well enough to sense how to focus his teaching is not difficult. In fact, smaller classes and repeat enrollments make this relatively easy. It’s more difficult in the larger freshmen theology classes, though. He requires students in these classes to write a self-identification piece so he has some sense of what he needs to address in the lives of his students as he helps them learn about the Reformed faith.
    His goal for students is to leave his classes with a sense of passion that is based on depth of insight.
    “Students are often passionate, but their passion is not always an informed one. They like to get great grades but tend to put their academic work and passions in separate camps.” Academic work is not a hoop to jump through, he believes, but a tool to better work and serve in areas they feel passionate about.
    And passionate is how Hielema feels about his work.
    “To get paid to study the Bible is phenomenal,” he says. Working with highly motivated students from a range of majors who want to learn more about the Bible is simply a joy for him. It’s a bigger challenge to teach large introductory classes where students try to hide or put in time, he says. But he keeps going back to Ecclesiastes 11:6 when he gets discouraged: “Sow your seed in the morning…for you do not know which will succeed….”
    Hielema feels privileged to be rooted in and teach out of a tradition and a perspective that he believes can open things up as fully and deeply as they can be opened up in this world. And he believes that the breadth and depth of the Reformed tradition allows it to learn from other traditions.

    “The stronger you are the more able you are to be strengthened by others,” he says. That, he believes, is the Reformed tradition at its best. And it is the tradition out of which he teaches.

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