Educator of the Year Lisa Moller on Teaching and Adventist Education’s Future

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Published:
December 2, 2022

Columbia Union Educator of the Year Lisa Moller, an English teacher at Ohio’s Spring Valley Academy, reflects on her years in the classroom: the way today’s students are different from previous generations, how her theories of teaching have evolved, and what Adventist education is doing right and what it could do better.

Question: Congratulations on being named Columbia Union Conference's Outstanding Educator of the Year (secondary school) this year! How did you feel when you heard you received the award, topping teachers in secondary schools all across the Columbia Union?

Answer: At that point, I had been through two rounds of interview questions, but I was trying to keep my expectations low. I was thrilled; it’s certainly a high point in my teaching career.

In an ordinary year, it would be a major accomplishment, but I felt that it was an even bigger boost to receive this award during the less-than-normal COVID times we had been through.

Question: Did you get to attend a ceremony to receive the award?

Answer: It was a “watch your mail” situation—the Columbia Union informed me that I would receive a certificate, prize money, and an obelisk in the mail. I received the first two during the summer, but I never received the obelisk. I was just wondering how to politely enquire if it had been lost in the mail in August when I was surprised by my conference education superintendent, Rick Bianco, who had waylaid the obelisk so he could present it to me in front of my colleagues in our inservice meetings.

You have been teaching English and communication at Spring Valley Academy in Dayton, Ohio, since 2011. How many students would you say you have taught in those 11 years? What is your favorite class to teach?

I can’t grasp how many students I’ve seen in my 19 total years of teaching; suffice it to say that everyone who passes through Spring Valley Academy will have me as a teacher at least once, if not multiple times! 

My English classes will always be my core responsibility, but I find that I look forward to my dual credit communication class. We partner with Kettering College to offer a few college courses: I teach communication and college writing for dual credit.

I love teaching communication because it is so immediately relevant to students. Everyone could benefit from understanding how to be a clear communicator and active listener, and mastering that skill can improve friendships, relationships, and their future employment. I’ve also been developing a class in media studies that I’m really enthusiastic about.

Give us an idea of the range of abilities in the students you teach. Do you have to prepare materials for students who are only just learning English? Do you see many gifted students? How do you cater to different learning needs?

We are blessed at Spring Valley with some excellent resource teachers, which allows us to serve students with learning and processing differences, students on the autism spectrum, and students for whom English is their second language.

Some years ago, our principal Darren Wilkins noted that we didn’t have students from our local Hispanic churches attending SVA, and he determined that access to Adventist education for all students would be a priority. The year after that, he became aware of a growing Adventist refugee population from Africa and extended the outreach to those students. In turn, we needed to bolster our support for these students, as in many cases they had spent years in refugee camps in Uganda or Tanzania after their families had fled Rwanda, and English was all new to them. We were able to add a dedicated teacher to work with those students for whom English was their second language, with the goal of integrating them back into the mainstream English classroom. I work in partnership with our amazing resource teachers, and we develop plans and work for students together. While I certainly have a hand in finding and creating resources for this particular student population, I am well supported by the team.

We do have a number of high-achieving and gifted students, and I would almost venture to say that these students are more challenging, as they need more stimulation and arduous academics to stay engaged, which can be difficult in a classroom where there are kids with such different needs. That’s where those dual credit and AP courses come in.

How would you say students have changed in the time that you have been teaching, or in the time since you were a student?

Today, students have the virtual world at their fingertips, and it has changed the way they learn and exist in both positive and negative ways. On the positive side, they have access to amazing academic resources and experiences. They can create community and find other young people who make them feel a little less isolated. They have real-world tools to create almost professional-level work.

On the negative side, this stimulus-rich internet environment has left students with little capacity to deal with introspective, quiet time. Their attention spans are shorter. They crave novelty. Relationships may lack depth because while they are constantly connected—everything is in snippets via text, Instagram post, or TikTok. I think there is the impression that young people believe everything they see on the internet; I’ve noticed the opposite—they often believe nothing they see, which can make them cynical or conspiracy-minded.

I also see more students who struggle with mental health issues. COVID certainly didn’t help with feelings of isolation and anxiety in young people. It’s a tough time to be a kid.

What do you try to give your students to prepare them for college?

When I started teaching, I was under the impression that students should have perfect recall of everything I taught because we were building this knowledge base for college. I’ve really shifted my mindset, and I’ve realized that in many ways, secondary education’s purpose is teaching students to learn. It’s less important for them to remember what happened in chapter 3 of Hiroshima than to identify bias and verify information from reliable sources. It’s more important for them to be able to generate robust, well-referenced essays than to dissect the metrical pattern of a sonnet. And while working to deadlines is important, it is more important to learn how to communicate with a teacher when things go wrong and you fall short of a deadline. Communication and critical thinking are skills that will serve students through their academic life and beyond.

Is Spring Valley among the bigger Adventist academies? Do you feel you have the support and the resources you need to do your job?

Spring Valley Academy is a bigger school in the system. Our K-12 enrollment is just over 500 students this year, and we experienced so much growth in the past few years that we ran out of space. We had to convert every space into a classroom; even the mirror-clad weight room was pressed into service as a math classroom! To respond to this growth, we were able to move up a planned construction project and build a whole new high school wing, which opened in August.

We have the support of Kettering Health and Kettering College of Medical Arts and our local churches.

I am extremely blessed because there are so many resources available to me. I know from firsthand experience that this is not the world of many Adventist teachers. Before SVA, I taught in an Adventist school where I had 24 hours to move my entire classroom into a disused dorm because the administration building got condemned, and my average department budget was zero dollars, plus whatever I could pay out of my own pocket.

Of course, professional development, subject knowledge, and creativity serve a teacher well in any circumstance, but I do think it’s easier to be an excellent teacher with unwavering support, both administratively and financially.

How do you think teaching in an Adventist academy is different than teaching English in a local public high school?

I can only speculate because I have been in the Adventist system my entire career, but I can see pros and cons. The Adventist system can be insular; there is a lack of privacy as people you deal with at work are also your faith community. I think it would be very unusual to have students in public school whose parents knew me in college or in academy or were even taught by my parents in the past, whereas in Adventist school, that’s practically commonplace.

I think I would have a difficult time in public school dealing with legislators with no teaching background making decisions on curriculum and standards. Our Adventist education system is administered by educational professionals, and decisions are generally based on best practices rather than cultural or political whims.

Do you think Adventist parents place the same value on Adventist education as they did in the past? Do you feel that Adventist students are less likely to attend Adventist schools than in previous generations?

Enrollment is down from past numbers, without a doubt. There are certainly some parents who prioritize educational choices differently than your typical Adventist parent in the past for whom it was an automatic choice. Students have left for public schools or other private schools because of things like cost, location, enrichment programs, and sports.

Conversely, there are parents who choose to homeschool because they value Adventist education so much. They believe that the Adventist message has become diluted in our schools and that Adventist schools are indoctrinating our kids as much as public schools might. Our church can be as polarized as the wider population is, and our schools tend to appeal to the median.

I believe that students are less likely to attend boarding schools than in the past. Not many parents today are ready for their kids to leave home at 14, which eliminates the possibility of attending Adventist academy for many students who don’t have an Adventist day school near them. However, there is still a draw for many students to Adventist schools, especially if they have a strong network of Adventist friends.

As we continue to contend with enrollment, looking at a nuanced, data-based view of root causes is more productive, in my opinion, than a reductionist headshake on how things just aren’t like they used to be.

What do you think Adventist education is doing right? What do you think Adventist education could do better?

I am genuinely excited about Adventist education because we’re not just public school with a Bible class. Our Valuegenesis studies have shown for years that students who attend Adventist schools have higher academic achievement and that the longer students are in Adventist schools, the more gains they see. Our students receive more individual instruction. We have the ability to shape positive school culture. Community is created, and our schools are also a place to worship and learn about God.

I’m even more excited about what’s on the horizon, as the NAD will be transitioning over to standards-based learning. The focus will be on mastering a number of core skills. It answers the question, “What skills do students have when they graduate?” Instead of a student saying, for instance, “We read Hamlet in Ms. Moller’s class and it was about a depressed prince,” students should be able to say, “We read Hamlet in Ms. Moller’s class and learned how to determine key ideas from context, which helped in college when I read A Tale of Two Cities.” Content-based answers are all online; students need transferable skills that will help them in college and careers.

As for a systemic problem, I am concerned about recruitment and retention of teachers. We are a microcosm of the larger world, and the troubles with teacher satisfaction exist within our system as well. As the profession of teaching loses respect, the battle for student attention intensifies, and salaries stagnate, there is not a lot to draw in potential teachers. Teaching is a hard job, and the responsibilities tend to pile on and never be balanced out. My younger colleagues will tell you that they don’t plan to teach for long. Classroom teaching is a stepping stone to some other ambition. I think the best schools have a mixture of experienced and novice teachers, working together to share enthusiasm and knowledge. What is our future if no one wants to stick with it long enough to be a veteran? What incentive is there when a teacher tops out on the pay scale after six years or so?

What advice would you have for the education departments of your conference and your union?

I happen to think my conference and union education departments are outstanding, but one might accuse me of bias because they gave me an award. Seriously, though, I hope that education departments would consider adding media studies to the curriculum, starting at the elementary level. We need to teach kids to be smart consumers of media and to analyze the messages therein. Just restricting access to phones or the internet is not enough. They need to know how to balance their technology use and to think critically about what is being conveyed.

Additionally, I believe that every school should have on-site access to counselors. Mental health issues in our young people are growing at an alarming rate, and increasing access to mental health professionals will be key to making our schools safe havens for youth.

Where do you see the future of Adventist education in 10 years? Twenty years?

If teaching during COVID taught me anything, it’s that it’s useless to prognosticate. Things could change in a minute. As the Adventist school system is the second largest parochial school system in the world, we will undoubtedly still be around, though it might not look the same. I think the most successful schools will be those with communities willing to nurture them and those who lean in to their strengths, be that STEM, music programs, or project-based learning, to name a few.

What made you want to become a teacher? Do you ever regret your decision? How is it different than you might have expected?

I did not want to be a teacher because my parents were teachers, and when I was a child, it was assumed that I would want to be a teacher. I’ve always been a bit perverse that way; tell me to do something, and I’ll figure out how to do it my way instead. Post-college, I actually worked in healthcare as an administrative assistant for five years before God called me into teaching. It felt like a recognition that teaching suited me and that I could serve him in that capacity. I don’t have enough hubris to claim no regrets ever, but they pale in light of the impact I’ve been able to have on students.

What I never anticipated when I got into teaching was that I would have to train to respond to an armed intruder. Going through the Adventist school system, I always felt like it was the safest place in the world. Now, I assess the spaces I teach in for evacuation points and countering strategies. I engineer conversations about safety and risk with my students. I talk to them about early warning signs for school shooters. And I know that we are not so special that it couldn’t happen here. Our school runs drills for active shooters just like we run fire drills, and we talk through scenarios with students. Inevitably, they will spin these scenarios out into the worst-case scenario: “What if there’s a second shooter outside to pick off the people who are running away?” “What if there’s a shooter at the rally point?” “What if the cops don’t respond in time?” We brainstorm strategies, but the conversation inevitably reaches a point where I have to say, “Your safety is not guaranteed.” It grieves me because death by gun violence is not an acceptable on-the-job risk.

 


Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum

Photo by Hollie Macombe

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