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  Finding Ability in Disability
By Phil deHaan '84
Hoeksema looks on...
Here Hoeksema looks on as Natasha Witte, a Calvin special ed major, works in a local school's classroom.

Calvin College professor Tom Hoeksema knew from the time he was in middle school that he someday wanted to be a teacher. But not just any teacher. The young Hoeksema had his sights set on a particular part of the profession. He wanted to work with students who have disabilities.

His inspiration was a neighborhood boy with Down's syndrome, a boy with whom Hoeksema always had a special affinity. Some four decades later Hoeksema can reflect on a career that sees him fulfilling his boyhood dream.

He taught students with mental and emotional impairments for four years after graduating from Calvin in 1968 with an elementary education degree. He then went on to earn a master's degree in mental retardation and a Ph.D. in special education and college teaching from Michigan State before returning to Calvin to begin the school's special education program.

In the 25 years since his return he has been a superb teacher of future special ed teachers. In fact, that quarter of a century has seen 400 or so Calvin graduates depart the Knollcrest campus for careers in special education, taking the Hoeksema affinity for those who have disabilities with them to all corners of the globe.

Hoeksema also has been a teacher outside the Calvin classroom. He has been a key player in Calvin's efforts to make its campus friendlier to students with learning and physical disabilities. Calvin's academic services to students with disabilities are a direct result of his efforts in the 1980s. He also helped start the Grand Rapids-based Christian Learning Center in the late 1970s, an organization that has gone on to be a lynchpin for inclusive education in West Michigan's Christian schools.

And he has worked tirelessly behind the scenes with both the Christian Reformed Church and larger ecumenical bodies to make the church more inclusive for those with disabilities, including service on the CRC's Committee on Disability Concerns, work as a consultant to CRC Publications in the development of its Friendship Series (a curriculum for people with moderate and severe mental impairments) and a stint on the National Council of Churches Task Force on Disabilities. He also serves on the editorial board of the Journal on Religion, Disability and Health and has published a wide range of articles and book chapters on such topics as first amendment rights of people living in group homes to Christian perspectives on disability, vocation and education.

Now Hoeksema also can reflect on becoming the 2001 recipient of Calvin College's prestigious Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, the ninth such honoree dating back to the award's inception in 1993 by then-president Anthony Diekema. The award includes a one-of-a-kind medallion and provides the winner with a significant financial stipend thanks to the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment fund, set up at Calvin by an anonymous donor in honor of George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin Board of Trustees.

"This award has some irony to it," said Hoeksema. "I still wonder if I'm ever going to get it [teaching] right."

Former students of Hoeksema think he's gotten it right for some time. One student, a 1993 Calvin graduate, wrote: "Not only did Dr. Hoeksema teach me how to teach people with disabilities, he taught me how to think differently in my every day life. I am always thinking about how people with disabilities deal with the day-to-day challenges in their lives . . . Dr. Hoeksema takes the extra time to develop the best teachers that Calvin College can offer."

Such comments bring a smile to Hoeksema's face. For in his work as a teacher he has tried to instill in his Calvin students a recognition of the abilities that those with disabilities have.

"The world," he said, "is for me a place that is characterized by interdependence, not independence. And so when, in my classroom, we deal with disability I try to do so in a context that emphasizes that interdependence. I want students to recognize that all of us have needs and gifts. At times we need care and at other times we can give it.

And that includes people with disabilities, who too often are seen only as needy."

Hoeksema has lived out that creed in his own teaching. For several years he co-taught a Calvin Interim course with a Calvin student named Chris Smit (now a graduate student in Iowa). Together the pair designed a course that looked at depictions of people with disabilities in film. What made the course unusual was that Smit has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair. Together he and Hoeksema designed a course that, through such films as Elephant Man, Passion Fish and Marvin's Room, helped Calvin students revisit their view of the disabled.

"I learned a great deal from teaching that course with Chris," said Hoeksema, who continues to collaborate with Smit on projects. "And other team-teaching experiences have been equally valuable. I am convinced that some of the best teaching grows out of the collaboration of people with diverse expertise and personalities in the classroom."

Hoeksema is also a firm believer in classroom community. "As teachers," he said, "we all want to build community in our classes and revel in it when it happens. I have the good fortune to be able to teach students in several classes in their major. I get to spend a lot of time with them. They let me into their lives and they get to know mine. I feel their support and they feel mine. Teaching and learning is relational. It's a place where we can live out the law of love."

That close relationship with his students harks back to Hoeksema's early days on the Calvin faculty, when the new special education endorsement program was designed by Hoeksema and Charles Miller, an academic dean. Hoeksema, for a time, essentially was the special education department. And he had the workload to prove it.

"It was crazy at first," he said of those first years. "There were huge numbers of kids interested in becoming special ed teachers because (K-12) schools had just been required (by federal law) to serve those students and the word was out that special ed teachers were sought after. I remember one year at Calvin when I had 160 advisees who were all interested in special ed. We were graduating 45-50 majors a year for a while there."

That early rush has dissipated a little, but special education remains a popular choice of study at Calvin. And Hoeksema now has a colleague, Dr. Arden Post, who shares advising responsibilities with him. Some 15-20 students depart each year with an education degree and special ed endorsement. As was the case 20 years ago, most find jobs in education. The job placement rate has been close to 100 percent the last several years.

Wherever they end up those grads carry Hoeksema's life lessons with them. Just as he still carries with him the lessons learned 40 years ago thanks to the friendship of a neighborhood boy.

Education Department

Congratulate Tom Hoeksema

Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching
Previous winners

Friendship Series Curriculum

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