'Honoured to teach children of the King'
Gary Duthler preparing for life after Neerlandia Public Christian School
Gary Duthler will be retiring this summer as principal of Neerlandia Public Christian School, a position he has held for five years. Here he reflects on the blessing of being chosen by God to prepare children for life.
Look around Gary Duthler’s office and you gain an immediate sense of the man.
On one wall is a huge portrait of a man in jeans and cowboy hat walking in woodland with a barefoot child. Framed by bright green foliage, they are photographed from behind, so you can’t see their expressions. Yet you discern a familial bond from the linked hands.
When you learn the man is Duthler with grandson, Ryan, then aged two-and-a-half, you are not surprised. Perhaps more surprising is that such a striking, living picture was taken nine years ago. Inevitably you think: that child is now on the cusp of adolescence.
The photo by Duthler’s son-in-law Michael Leenheer has Biblical power – the bare feet on soil, the man’s concern for the child’s wellbeing, and the verdant surroundings. It continually draws the eye.
Ask Duthler about the picture and he provides an off-the-cuff caption: “Walking with God.”
On another wall is an assemblage of small family photographs, almost a montage. You see faces of his five children and grandchildren. One picture is of Duthler with his wife of 45 years, Hendrika, usually shortened to Drika.
Turn your head and you see a notice affixed next to the door. On it is written: “Neerlandia Public Christian School will provide a Christ-centred education so that students are equipped to serve God joyfully in all areas of life.”
This message is reinforced by two books on Duthler’s desk: the Bible, and Donovan L. Graham’s “Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace and Truth Into Your Classroom.”
Graham’s book has become recommended reading for NPCS staff, providing a profound insight into a Biblical view of education and the challenges faced by redeemed people in the exceptional calling to be teachers.
“We are educating children of the King,” says Duthler. “It is such a huge honour to teach royalty, some of whom are going to rule the universe of Christ.
“As teachers we are held to a high standard. Yes we sin, but the biggest thing in life about being a Christian is forgiveness. We are not burdened by sin. We are children of a King who loves us.”
When Duthler starts speaking you gain a deeper layer of understanding about the man who has been NPCS principal for five years and is about to move on to another phase in his life: this is a very kindly person whose concept of family embraces the entire school.
Several times during the interview he ushered passing students through his open door, always using Christian names as he introduced them to the reporter. The principal-student exchanges were easy, open, friendly and respectful.
He is the kind of principal who leaves a lasting impression; he has the fatherly presence of that man in the photo with the barefoot child. Yet you know there are boundaries that should be respected. Principals, like parents, have to establish rules.
One of the boys called into the office was being disciplined for climbing in a forbidden area.
Duthler’s empathy with his students, his understanding of the daily challenges they face, can probably be traced to his own school days. It is surprising to hear of his problems fitting into a disciplined environment.
“I was actually a bit of a troublemaker,” he says. “Going into teaching wasn’t something I originally wanted to do at all. My first thoughts were law and the military.”
Born in the Netherlands in 1946, a member of the first generation of baby boomers, Duthler was raised according to Christian values by John and Sara.
Duthler was ten when he moved with his older brother and four sisters to Canada, his father telling the Dutch consulate: “I want to be free.”
“European culture was seen as very bureaucratic,” he says. “Dad had this dream of being a farmer in Canada. As it turned out, we ended up in the middle of Hamilton, Ontario.”
Duthler was enrolled as a Grade 4 student at Hamilton’s Calvin Christian School, but he had a tough introduction.
Not only didn’t he speak English, but there was also the issue of his name.
“My Dutch name was Gerrit, but back in the 1950s immigrants had to Anglicize their names,” he recalls. “I wanted to be called George after a comic strip character I liked.”
But when he looked at the name options on the board before him, there was no George. So in the end he had to settle for Gary.
Duthler would later teach for two years at Calvin Christian School at the start of his teaching career.
After marrying Drika in 1967, his journey in education included studying at the University of Waterloo, becoming executive director of the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta, and being appointed principal of Rimbey Christian School.
His move to NPCS, he says, was orchestrated by God, although he was slow to read the signs; this included the time his doctor urged him to accept the post. In fact, it was daughter, Selikke, who interpreted God’s message and asked him: “What part of Neerlandia don’t you understand?”
“Once I was here, I knew this was where we had to be,” he says. “I shared exactly the same vision they were looking for.”
That vision, of course, did not include the discontinuation of the Grade 10 program because of declining numbers.
“It was hard for the community to accept,” he says. “It was hard for me to accept, because my belief is that Christian education should continue through to Grade 12, but it is hard to operate a good high school program with a limited number of students.”
So what is his proudest achievement?
“The most exciting thing about the last five years has been growing with the staff and getting a deeper understanding what Christian education is about and how it relates to the other stuff we do,” he says. “We have grown to be more focused, to use the same approaches and the same vocabulary to bring the same message.”
Inclusive learning – the idea that every child possesses God-given gifts – lies at the heart of the NPCS ethos, he says.
Duthler is listening again for God’s guidance as he contemplates his life after WR Frose’s Lisa Gehring replaces him. Habitat for Humanity or mentoring appeal, but he has nothing definite in mind. Of one thing he is certain: his time at NPCS has been a blessing.
“I never had a morning where I woke up and thought ‘I don’t like my job,’” he says. “It has been a really good experience. I am truly blessed.”
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