Thanks For the Memories

by Bernie Tonjes

Some time back in December, when I had made it known to those outside of Concordia University Nebraska that I would be retiring at the end of the school year, Jim Pingel contacted me and asked me if I would like to write a piece for the ALSS Journal. I am honored by the request and the task has caused me to do a lot of thinking and a more than a little reminiscing. I think that a little reflection on how things have changed (and not changed…) might be useful for all of us.

I think most of you know, but just in case there is a question, I am a product of Lutheran education. After twelve years in Lutheran schools in Denver and another four years at Concordia Teacher’s College here is Seward, I am now at the far end of 44 years in the teaching ministry. And, the Lord has seen fit to bless me with the ability to continue my teaching on a part-time basis at Lutheran High School of St. Charles County, in St. Peters, MO in the coming years. This is very good!

Looking back to 1974, when I started teaching, ‘starting’ was different. Then we had the synodical placement “process” that put me in my first teaching position at Immanuel First Lutheran Church and School in West Covina, CA. We did not have Bill Schranz (he was still a high school student in those days) but we had Dr. Martin Stork. We always joked that Dr. Stork had his “Holy Spirit Dartboard” where, blindfolded and holding a dart inscribed with a candidate’s name, he would fling it at a map of the USA and there! is where God was putting you. How else could a young man such as myself, looking for a small Lutheran high school in the Midwest, wind up at a large grade school in California? While I remember that time as being stressful, I actually believe there might be more stress involved for our young people as they experience the placement “process” today. I had onedecision: go or not. Turn it down and there were no others. Today in the era of multiple interviews and “designation,” how is a budding young teacher to know if this is the right school, the one God wants you to be at? (For an useful discussion of determining God’s will, I recommend Russ Mould’s The Call and the Will of God. LEA Journal, Feb., 2010. Contact me if you would like a copy.)

By 1974 standards, I was well prepared for the technology I found in my teaching ministry. I had taken an educational “technology” class and had learned how to use dittoes and ditto machines, mimeographs, 16mm sound film projectors, film strip players with auto advance, overhead projectors with a role of acetate and a grease pencil, and the most far-out, a reel-to-reel video tape. When I got to California, we had chalk and chalkboards, a 16 mm projector and lots of old film strips. Never did get to apply those wonderful reel-to-reel skills! Considering the plethora of technology in classrooms we now have available, I find that many mundane jobs have become wonderfully easy, such as the recording and distribution of grades. But grading itself? Still a judgment call, still a point of contact and possible conflict between the grader and the gradee that cannot be resolved by technology.

I kept my records in a paper grade book with tinted, perforated pages, and my grades went out every eight weeks, like clockwork. Parent conferences twice a year, because how else were they to keep up with what their students were doing in school? Are students really better off with 24/7 parent monitoring?

I began with a 5thand 6thgrade homeroom with 37 students. (Small classes, at least at my school, were deemed inefficient!) At the start, I did not own a functional television, so when my 5thand 6thgrade boys started greeting me with “Heyyyy,” two thumbs pointed up and slightly outward, I did not recognize the link to “The Fonz” and Happy Days. (Note that Henry Winkler is still alive and well at age 74, Ron Howard a mere 64 years of age.) Students today have a world of entertainment options for movies, video and music. I’m not sure if there was a social issue focus on Happy Days. Now-a-days I watch a lot of HGTV, DIY, and the like. When I see the variety of “marriage” options commonplace among those who are remodeling homes, I recognize that as a Christian, I am no longer in the dominant majority.

None of the kids had calculators in 1974. I had an adding machine (hand cranked) to help with my grades. I did not have a calculator, yet. At the end of my first year of teaching, my parents spent the outrageous sum of $150 (equal to a month’s rent in Los Angeles in that time) and bought me a four-function LED calculator with memory! Calculators were soon to arrive in the student’s hands, and by the time I left California in 1982, they had sparked a considerable debate about their uses in math class. Remember those arguments? I guess by now, it is safe to say that the world did not crumble when calculators became commonplace in education. But I note that the barista cannot make change for my coffee without the cash register figuring it out for her. But then, cash is on its way out, too, isn’t it?

Spanking was still an option, even in California. We used it, I hope sparingly, but I know it was used somewhat routinely. How well I remember the young man who when told to “Assume the position…” (bent forward with his hands on his knees to make the punishment effective), showed the obvious outline of Luther’s Small Catechism stuffed in the seat of his jeans to serve as a little padding. I can’t think of anything wistful to say about spanking in school. We’re better off for its departure.

We did not use the word “assessment,” but we had them: Teacher made-tests (typed on the ditto) and achievement tests once a year. The federal Department of Education was still five years away (1979, thank you, President Carter!) NLSA was a growing idea and accreditation was something high schools and colleges did every seven years or so. Now, this is a topic I could go on about for a long, long time, but I really can't do that because I have reports to finish for the dean.

I could go on for a long time, and I am sure there are some of my fellow age-mates who are remembering their own early years and how different it seems compared to the present day. But there are also a lot of important things that have continued exactly the same.

Kids are still interested in popular media figures, kids still need to learn and go to school, and kids are still sinful and in need of a loving Savior.

Parents still want to know what their kids are up to, it’s just that now they want to know every day, or maybe even multiple times a day. And parents are still sinful and in need of a Savior.

Teachers and administrators in Lutheran schools are still working day to day to bring the best pedagogical strategies to their classrooms to educate their students even though we can now Skype in a guest visitor from Asia, we can create a learning game with Kahoot, and all of our grades have to be entered into Schoology, e-Backpack, or some other Learning Management System. And teachers and administrators are still sinful and in need of a Savior. Oh, and Lutheran teachers and administrators remain passionate about planting the seeds of faith, showing the light that leads the way to the eternal Lord and Savior that we all need.

The older I have gotten, the more I have learned that my life is a clear demonstration of all of the wonderful ways in which God has led me through the maze that has been my career in education. The more I have changed, the more I have recognized the importance that God is unchanging. The longer my personal narrative gets, the more I have the opportunity to praise God for all he has done for me.

I like to challenge my current students, mostly college freshmen, to think about what their classrooms will look like then they are at the end of 44 years of teaching as I am. (Let’s see, that takes them to around 2066. I’ll be 114 then…) They laugh because they all realize that they can’t know. But they also have trouble grasping that the smartphone, iPad or the Chromebook of today will be the reel-to-reel video tape player of the future. People will think differently in 2066. There will be new pedagogical strategies, society’s values will change. Yes, a lot will be different. But kids, parents, teachers and administrators will still be sinful and in need of a Savior. And God willing, the teachers and administrators in Lutheran schools will still be planting seeds, showing the Light and prayerfully leading the way to the unchanging, eternal Savior.

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Bernie Tonjes is Professor of Education and Director of Field Experiences/Dual Credit for CUNE. He can be reached at