In the Spotlight: Mr. Mark TeSlaa, Unity Math Teacher & Coach

Mr. Mark Te Slaa completed his 20th year at Unity in May 2017. Following an intense year-long, review by Unity administrators, fellow teachers and by the Board in 2016/2017, he was declared to be an Outstanding Unity Teacher—“a dynamic Christian, a great teacher and a personal mentor of students.”

In October 2017, I entered the new Unity Office (first checking to see if there was dust on my shoes—there wasn’t) and proceeded to sign in as “Guest 109.” Hanging the green guest lanyard around my neck, I was looking forward to meeting with Mark. Before interviewing him, though, I wanted to get the perspectives of the administrators and the teachers who had unanimously declared Mark an Outstanding Unity Teacher.

Beginning with Principal Mr. Jerry DeGroot, I asked,

What can you tell me about Mark?” Jerry’s eyes lit up as he proudly and emphatically said, “Jack, Mark has a heart for each of his students. He wants the best for each student. He is tenacious seeing that each of his students achieves to their fullest extent possible. In getting the student there, he is relentless looking for the various options to best help that student. He is an outstanding Christian teacher.”

The next person I sought out was Director of Instruction Mr. Bill Postma, asking him the same question. Bill paused, seeking to choose the right descriptors, then said,

“Mark is attentive to his craft. He stops by regularly and shares what he is thinking of doing to best help his students learn. He is hungry for new ideas and best practices. He is always concerned about his students learning and about his students overcoming their math fears. Once he gets them over their fears, he leads them to new levels of learning math. He is a team player and is deeply invested in his colleagues and Unity. He is hungry to have his students learn and to mentor them in their faith. He never seeks any credit for himself; he gives God the glory.”

Mr. Craig Flietstra, Unity math teacher since 1989, was next on my list. Craig has been Mark’s colleague for the last 20 years. He was at his desk checking student tests. When I asked Craig how Mark met peer expectations during the review, he responded with a big smile and twinkling eyes and said (loud enough for the benefit of his students who were coming into his room for their next class), 

“Mark is a dedicated teacher. He really works well in the math team. He is a great collaborator. He is great in give and take. He makes all of us better teachers, and we have fun doing that. He is always helping us determine what is best for the student. He is a Spiritfilled man of God called to teach Unity students. That is evident all the time.”  (It is good for students to hear teachers speak highly of fellow teachers. I saw a good number of them nodding their heads in agreement with Mr. Flietstra’s description.)

I left Craig’s class room and headed across the hall to observe Mark—as I once had done years ago…

Mark’s class was already in session, so I moved to the far corner from the door and inched along the front wall. I watched and listened as Mark moved through his classroom. As he stopped by each student and peered over their shoulders to review the written calculations, he softly probed to hear how the student had processed the math problem, kindly offered suggestions, and did not leave until he was sure the student had learned. While Mark moved from student to student, I moved around the room taking pictures of Mark and students—snapshots of a teacher working his craft with his students superbly.

When satisfied each student “got it,” Mark moved to the white board and collaboratively worked another math problem with the students. Again, he moved around the room to see and hear how well each student had learned. While Mark moved from student to student, I took the opportunity to ask a couple of his students, “What can you tell me about Mr. TeSlaa as a math teacher.”

Eagerly taking time away from their math calculations, here is what two of them had to say, 

“Mr. TeSlaa is fun. He is cool. He is soooo smart. He really takes it slow and makes sure we are all learning. He is really helping us learn ‘making mistakes is ok as long as we get it right at the end!’ He is the best at helping students lose their math fears.”

“I have a younger brother coming to Unity next year. He has math fears. I am going to insist he get Mr. TeSlaa for his math teacher!” (What better student endorsement could there be!)

I left Mark’s class and headed to my favorite interview place—my In the Spotlight booth overlooking the Unity Patrons’ Courtyard—to prepare for my face-to-face talk with Mark. When teachers and I meet in this booth, we imagine the patrons whose names are inscribed on the courtyard bricks listening and being affirmed in their patronage of Unity.

Soon, Mark came—a broad-shouldered, muscular man, six-feet tall and in his early 40s. With the grace of a college athlete, Mark took a seat opposite me. We began reminiscing about the first time we met, in the spring of 1997. As Unity’s principal, I had driven over to Jackson Lumen Christi High School in Jackson (Michigan) to observe Mark as a student teacher. I had observed several classes, and by this time, was thinking, “Wow, what a great addition Mark would be to the Unity staff as teacher and coach.” As I prepared to leave at the end of my observation time, Mark’s supervising teacher caught me on my way out and said, “If you hire Mark, you will get a great teacher and coach. He’s been the best of all my student teachers.” So, I invited Mark to interview at Unity.

With the reminiscing behind us, the interview began: “Mark, tell us about yourself. ‘Who are you? Why you are here.’” 

With that winning TeSlaa smile and bright penetrating eyes, Mark began,

“I am a child of God. I have Christ in me to be the best teacher I can be for my students. My conversations with God include me intentionally asking, ‘How are You going to use me, Lord?’ He has called me to see each student as His creation and I am to care for each of them. I seek His guidance finding a touch-point with each student both in and out of the classroom.”

“I seek a trust relationship with each student; a trust relationship is necessary for me to teach them math and to mentor them in the faith. I am intentionally seeking to have each student feel they belong in their math community. Together, the students and I are intentionally having a collaborative learning community. We sense and acknowledge God’s presence; God is the core of our collaborative math community. Math is a great subject for making God more visible to our students, helping them grow more confident in their faith. For example, while looking at different distributions in FST (Functions, Statistics, Trigonometry) class, I display two box plots in which one plot represents the male Oscar winners throughout the years and the other plot is the female winners. The students analyze the plots and answer questions that pertain to the messages our culture is telling us. Then, I ask them to take a biblical truth that contradicts that lie. I take their reflections and anonymously display their reflections in a PowerPoint presentation.” (Their reflections powerfully demonstrate how our students use math to discern truth.)

“Another faith-increasing example I love to use is when we explore ideas of probability. I have the students find the probabilities of winning the Mega Millions. I set up a scenario in which the students participate in a fun game of “TeSlaattery.” I end by having the students reflect on their findings of winning the lottery and find Bible verses that lay the foundation for making their decision on whether to participate in a lottery.” (Their reflections express forthrightly the biblical view on whether to participate in a lottery.)

“In Geometry, we entertain conversations on infinity. I ask thought-provoking questions about biblical references to everlasting life versus eternal life and how Jesus offers us eternal life.” (Math helps us to determine truth, God’s truth, eternal life through Jesus!)

“I have really loved my twenty years at Unity, and the last years with three of our children attending Unity have been especially enjoyable and rewarding. “I am a Unity teacher and coach. I seek to grow in my relationship with Christ and with others; I seek to grow in love for God and love for others. For me that means continuing to study the Bible, read books about the Jewish culture during the Old and New Testament times and learning what the culture of the Early Church looked like during Paul’s writing. After traveling to Israel with our pastor, my devotions with students and athletes has changed. I can now share “pop-up” pictures as I walked where Jesus walked and invite my students and athletes to join me in my walk with Jesus. This is so exciting—to share my faith with students through familiar Bible stories that provide new and fresh personal perspectives.”

Unity teacher and coach Mark Te Slaa is truly “a dynamic Christian, a great teacher and personal mentor” for each of his students. (And yes, the father with construction dust spilling from his shoes agrees, rejoices and thanks the Lord.)

Thank you, Unity friends, for listening and being loyal in your support and prayers for Unity. Teachers like Mark Te Slaa make it a joy for us to be members of the Unity Community of Faith. We join the Apostle John saying, “I have no greater joy than to know my children walk in truth.” (3 John:4) Amen and Amen!

To God be the Glory,

Jack Postma, Principal Emeritus 2012