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My Christian life: A teacher retires full of memories

A teacher retires full of memories—including monarch butterflies, baby chicks, and Jesus—after 43 years

Do you have a favorite teacher? One who really understood or motivated you? One who made learning fun? One who shared Jesus with you? This spring 72 WELS teachers retired from ministry in our schools. More than a few retired with 40 or more years of service, concluding their classroom days with the unexpected challenge of virtual teaching in a pandemic.

Betty Bilitz now and when she started teaching at St. Andrew, Chicago, Ill., in 1977.

One of these faithful servants is retiree Betty Bilitz. She shared 43 years of ministry blessings and her cheery smile with me in an interview using her newly acquired Zoom expertise.

Born to be a teacher

Betty’s life began in Burlington, Wis., with her parents and two brothers. Betty remembers she “loved her first-grade teacher.”

But her love for teaching really began when her family moved to New Ulm, Minn., where her father was the food service director at Dr. Martin Luther College (DMLC), our synod’s teacher training school. Not only did many DMLC students visit Betty’s home, but her family also ate dinner with the students nearly every night. Betty remembers, “I was the little kid running around the cafeteria.”

Betty completed second, third, and fourth grade, at St. Paul’s in New Ulm. At the college, Professor Erich Sievert allowed Betty to play in his curriculum room as long as she picked up the flannelgraph pieces and erased the chalkboard.

Then Betty’s family transferred to Kalamazoo, Mich., and Betty attended public school. After just two years, she was back to Lutheran elementary and high school when her father became food service manager at Michigan Lutheran Seminary (MLS). Teacher Doug Stindt at St. Paul’s, Saginaw, made an impression on her. He “had a way with kids and made [teaching] look fun,” recalls Betty.

Betty returned to New Ulm to attend DMLC for college. She entered the classroom for the first time as a student teacher at St. Paul, Appleton, Wis. It was her first interaction with real students, and Betty found the experience overwhelming. She says, “I felt like maybe I couldn’t be a teacher.”

Nevertheless, she returned to DMLC and finished her coursework. At graduation she received her first assignment to St. Andrew, Chicago, Ill., as the first and second grade teacher, assistant organist, girls’ sports coach, youth group leader, and vacation Bible school teacher! It was a difficult assignment at a “racially tense time . . . a huge test of faith for being a teacher,” says Betty. She lived in a converted garage with bars on the windows. For the next three years she met many people and enjoyed teaching and exploring the city.

“You can mess up the math lesson or the reading lesson, but if you tell them how to get to heaven, you’ve done your job.”

In 1980, Betty took a call to teach first, second, and third grade as well as coach and play organ at Star of Bethlehem, New Berlin, Wis. At that time, Star of Bethlehem was three years old with 60 students, and the new school building was “a hole in the ground.” Over the years the school grew, and it now serves 300 students. Betty was blessed to serve within a “very mission-minded congregation” with Mike Wiechmann, a “very positive, encouraging principal” for almost 30 years. For the last 15 years of her ministry in New Berlin, Betty focused on first grade.

Betty shared her knowledge by becoming a supervising teacher and mentoring more than 20 student teachers. Although Betty says it was hard to let go of her class, she says, “I loved having student teachers! I learned more than they did—always learned something from them. Always!”

Reflecting on the years

Some favorite teaching memories through the years include seeing a first grader at a Chicago store who “couldn’t believe I was a regular person who shopped.” She chuckles about the time a student tied two other unsuspecting students’ shoelaces together when they were sitting on the classroom carpet. When everyone got up, the two students fell over. “I couldn’t laugh, but it was hilarious,” she says. Remembering April Fools’ Day jokes like moving a teacher’s desk outside or hiding an entire class from the principal brings a smile. Betty also recalls wonderful moments like playing King of the Hill and building forts in the woods with students.

Other memories she cherishes show how her students grew in their faith and Christian love. She loved hearing parents say that their child mentioned a Bible passage or reminded the family to pray. She also enjoyed “watching the leadership and love the eighth graders showed to the little ones during weekly Color Team activities” at Star of Bethlehem. She always raised monarch butterflies and chicks with her first graders. One student made the connection—“without me telling him”—between the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis and Jesus’ resurrection!

Betty never tired of “watching the kids experience new things,” and over the years she has had her own new experiences as well. She began teaching with filmstrips and mimeographs and ended with the internet. Children’s literature has exploded over the years, and everything from discipline (spanking was allowed at first!) to family involvement (“everyone’s so busy”) to a “push-down curriculum” (kindergartners learning at a first-grade level) has also changed. But, Betty says, “kids are the same, parents want the best for their kids, and first graders still get excited about everything!”

Counting her blessings

Betty is a hands-on teacher. When the pandemic hit and in-person learning came to a halt, she says she felt like a floundering first-year teacher all over again. “I could not fathom how I was going to do this. It was a humbling experience, not how I wanted to go out.”

Recalling the message of her favorite Bible passage—that God will work everything out for our good (Romans 8:28)—Betty learned Zoom and Google Meet, constructed packets, and wrote e-mail messages. She had her first graders sign up for 20 minutes with her and the newly hatched chicks. When she celebrated her birthday during the pandemic, she was blessed with a surprise birthday parade from her students. Ironically, the news of the parade connected Betty through social media to her own first grade teacher, Sharon Mallow Melcher.

Betty says some of the “coolest blessings” are her “grandstudents” (three in her last class) and when former students become pastors or teachers. This year her teacher’s aide was a former student!

But she is quick to point out that “any blessing isn’t my doing. God works through us and in spite of us.” She encourages fellow Christians to consider becoming a teacher. “It’s very difficult, but very rewarding, although you might not see it before heaven.”

In retirement, Betty plans to stay in New Berlin, play organ, and give piano lessons at Star of Bethlehem. She also will continue to mentor new teachers. She looks forward to “reading for fun, organizing, and visiting people whenever I want.”

Each day, Betty excused her students with “I love you, and Jesus loves you!” Every last day of school she promised, “See you in heaven!” Says Betty, “You can mess up the math lesson or the reading lesson, but if you tell them how to get to heaven, you’ve done your job.”

Extra online content

God has blessed our synod with many faithful teachers. Here are more of the blessings recalled in several retirees’ own words.

Patricia Jackson
1977-1982 Ocean Drive, Pompano Beach, Fla.
1982-1988 Trinity, Caledonia, Wis.
1982-2020 Good Shepherd’s, West Allis, Wis.

On becoming a teacher
My oldest memory of wanting to become a teacher was wanting to write on the chalkboard. I also liked telling Bible stories. Attending Michigan Lutheran Seminary also encouraged me to go on to Dr. Martin Luther College.

Favorite memory
My favorite memory was teaching a social studies lesson on different types of music. I was playing a CD of some of the music. I said jokingly that if the students wanted to, they could get up and dance. A little while later a fourth-grade boy asked if they could dance. I said if they had their math done, they could. Immediately, most of the class got up and danced, and it was just a great sight to see them dancing!

What’s changed—and what hasn’t
Since I began teaching, there are more broken families. Technology is so far advanced from when I started with mimeograph machines for worksheets. Now we can teach virtually! Still we are all sinners that desperately need Jesus. Grace is still needed. The need for Jesus stays constant.

Paul Wichmann
1976-1983 7th grade teacher, 5th-8th grade physical education teacher, coach, athletic director, St. Paul’s, New Ulm, Minn.
1983-1988 Social studies teacher, track coach, Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School, New Ulm, Minn.
1988-1996 Principal and instructor, Huron Valley Lutheran High School, Westland, Mich.
1996-2020 Principal and instructor, Luther High School, Onalaska, Wis.

On becoming a teacher
By the grace of God. Well, that says it all. Inspiration to become a teacher was more than “see one, be one.” That is not to say that at every level of my education there were not teachers, who were clearly gifted by God, who were inspired, and who did inspire learning. God used them to share their knowledge and skills and impart Christian values. Reflecting on 44 years of teaching, God’s path for me to become a teacher included those teachers, my parents, life experiences, but most clearly God’s direction through them.

Favorite memory
At the time, the truly cherished memories may seem of lesser consequence. A student walking into my office during a particularly challenging time years ago to ask, “How are you doing?” resonates with me still. Ironically, that same student called only a few weeks ago to express his well wishes in my retirement. Perhaps an equally meaningful, but one more frequently called-to-mind memory was shared with me by a kindergarten teacher. One day at recess one of her students just stopped. When asked if anything was wrong, the student replied, “I just heard a siren. Someone needs a prayer.” Thank God for blessings we can easily miss.

What’s changed—and what hasn’t
From rotary dial phones to cell phones, from blackboards to Chromebooks, from encyclopedias to Wikipedia, things have changed and challenged learning. A world of resources at our fingertips requires discernment and discretion. But those same changes and challenges open doors to greater opportunities to explore, expand, and share. Through it all, the core of Christ-centered education remains unchanged, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Final thoughts
Remember Hur. God provided Hur as a helper to Moses. “Aaron and Hur held [Moses’] hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset” (Exodus 17:12). Among those who served as Hur in support of my teaching ministry are fellow faculty and staff members, parents, volunteers, board and committee members, district and synod administrators. My wife, Beth, was also God’s- provided Hur in support of my opportunities to serve in the teaching ministry.

Reflecting on 44 years of teaching in our WELS elementary schools and area Lutheran high schools, the constant has been “saved to share and serve.” By the grace of God, indeed, that says it all!

Karen Wilsmann
1976-1978 Zion, Rhinelander, Wis.
1978-2020 Manitowoc Lutheran High School, Manitowoc, Wis.

On becoming a teacher
My parents inspired me to become a teacher. My mother was a teacher before she got married, and she always said teaching was her favorite job. My father was always very involved in church work, so teaching Sunday school and vacation Bible school were part of growing up. I really enjoyed working with the younger kids, so it was an easy decision to be a teacher.

Favorite memory
In my earlier years of teaching, I was the varsity coach for all three girls’ varsity sports that we offered at the time. My fondest memories came from working with the athletes and enjoying their successes. Toward the end of my teaching career, I was doing less coaching and spending more time as a learning coordinator. I spent a lot of time after school with students who were struggling. Seeing these students graduating and sharing their joy and their parents’ joy at their graduation has been very gratifying. To have a parent or student say that you made the difference is one of the greatest compliments you can receive as a teacher.

What’s changed—and what hasn’t
Technology has been the biggest change. I began teaching using spirit masters, grade books, plan books, movie projectors, and doing sport stats by hand. Now grading, yearly and daily plans, mapping, YouTube resources by means of a computer are something I wouldn’t have imagined at the start of my teaching career. I was dragged into the technological era even if I wasn’t so sure about it. When my administration started talking about the need to learn to teach online, I was glad I would not have to worry about it. Then came COVID-19. My coworkers and I laughed about how my teaching career ended with me having to teach my classes online. As much as I was afraid of it, I learned that even if you are retirement age, you can still learn new ways of teaching.

Throughout my teaching career, I have been blessed to work with wonderful coworkers who helped and supported me. I have been blessed to have students, parents, and an extended school family who cared about me. The main thing that has stayed the same is that we are a Christian school family who needs to hear and learn about the love our Savior has for us on a daily basis, and we, in turn, need to share this news with others.

Final thoughts
To be a WELS teacher is a wonderful gift and career. In what other job do you have a designated time every day to study God’s Word surrounded by other believers?
Author: Ann Ponath
Volume 107, Number 09
Issue: September 2020

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This entry is part 34 of 53 in the series my christian life

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