Out To The Margins: Peggy White

Out To The Margins: Peggy White May 13, 2013

What does living and vibrant faith look like? If I head out to the margins, the places at the edge of things where our messiness and Christ’s forgiveness meet, I find wonderful examples of people who’ve followed Jesus there. You and I may not sign off on each of these friends’ choices or convictions, but I hope their stories will spur you to wander out to the margins yourself. (If you do, let me know who you find there!)

I was introduced to Peggy White by a dear friend at a retreat a couple of years ago. Not long ago, I heard that Peggy retired from her special education teaching position, after earlier stints teaching home economics and working as computer-aided draftsperson. She’d returned to school in order to get her master’s degree in special education, and worked for more than a decade with a multi-grade classroom with students who had a combination of emotional/behavioral disorders, specific learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities and autism. But for Peggy, “Retirement” is another word for “God’s New Teaching Assignment”.

Peggy explained, “It is extremely challenging to do an elementary program of 3 or 4 grade levels with all disability areas. I enjoy a challenge, but at times I felt helpless because I knew how to education each type but didn’t have focused access to each child to do what was best for them. That is why I chose to retire – I felt like I couldn’t meet anyones needs and I have a strong desire to see students succeed and grow.”

That desire led her to pursue certification (at her own expense) in the Wilson Language Training Method. She wanted to focus on doing what she could to close the learning gap for her dyslexic students, and she felt this certification would allow her to do this. Her Level 1 Wilson trainer told the newly-retired teacher it would be almost impossible for someone not connected to a school to have the proper access to students to do that. Peggy was certain that God had called her to this work, and he would provide everything she needed in order to obey him. And he has.

I asked Peggy a few questions about how this new assignment is taking shape in her life:

Q. You’ve told me that when you were interviewed for my public school teaching job in 2000, you were asked what you thought about when you were driving alone in the car, and you replied, “I ponder what is the one thing God has put me on the earth to do that no one else can do and that will go undone unless I do it? I want to leave this world a better place than I found it.” How has your work with special needs students been a way for you to leave the world a better place than you found it?

What we do for the least of us, makes it a better place for all of us. But I don’t think my students are “the least”! They are perfect in God’s eyes. I tell my children that I show compassion, because someday if I find myself in the same circumstance, I hope someone will have pity on me and treat me as if they see Jesus in me.

To open oneself up to be used by God is an amazing thing. Over the past 20 years I have written to 3 prisoners the shortest term 1 year, the longest and ongoing 15 years. This is something I never thought I would do. How does this fit in with special education? 60% of EBD students will end up in jail.

My thrill is that when I teach a student to read, I realize the gift of reading may not have happened for the student unless God brought the two of us together. Their future may be changed because they now know how to read. 

Q. Why did you decide in your “retirement” to pursue this training? You’ve mentioned a desire to be a light in your own community, but the obstacle of not being attached to a school, thus not being able to easily get those training/practicum hours in, would seem to be an insurmountable challenge. Did you have a clear sense that you might be able to work around that obstacle, or did you decide to do this in faith that the connections and finances would be there for you? 

It is a faith thing. Due to our family history, we are able to live on a smaller income than most would like. I spent a lot of money teaching – providing things for my students not covered in budgets. My husband Jim knows me well. He said, “Do whatever you want, but you at least have to break even!” Right now it is all expense. I tell him schooling is a paying out process. Our financial advisor has set me up as a business. I have no idea what kind of money I will make in the future. Guess I’m leaving all that to the future. I’m depending on God to get this certification part done for now.

God began bringing me students so I can complete my practicum hours in a variety of ways – some through my connections through the school system, a home schooling mom and her third grader, a woman I rose the school bus with who is now raising a niece who has been identified with a cognitive disability. This has been a juggling act! The parents are committed to working with me to accomplish what I need to do to get certified. I do this for free because without them, I cannot achieve my hoped-for certification. I have absorbed the cost taking the classes and providing the materials. And the students are making great strides, which is the real goal for me! 

Q. Share a bit about your faith journey: Where do you attend church? How has Christ led you in your work as a teacher? 

I am a baptized member of my congregation. From my great-grandfather to present, my father’s family were Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, known as a strict branch of Lutherans. We went to church every Sunday. I wanted to attend Sunday School at the age of 3 and could sit still and listen, so I was allowed. I really have always had a sense of the ‘realness’ of Jesus.

I pray for my students and seek to make a loving connection with them. That ideas of being ‘Jesus with skin on’ and ‘ I may be the only Bible some people ever read’ and ‘Win people for Christ every way you can – even if you have to use your mouth’ have shaped the way I view my life and vocation. I think it is so true that how people will know we are Christian is by our love. I hope in all people I meet, they will see me as nonjudgmental and willing to encourage them in their walk.

Definitely being in my church body that has strict roles for men and women in the church has impacted my service. I love to teach about prayer – but it cannot be to mixed groups in my church. I keep saying, I wish they’d stop talking about what women can’t do and focus on what women did do in the Bible and were never chastised by Jesus. A woman’s role is more subtle, in the community, in the home, in small acts of service and in private conversation where she can “open the scriptures” to a very thirsty world without being churchy or preachy.

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