Rob Gustafson: Lifelong Learner
The book of Proverbs says learning should be cherished and life-long: "Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life" (Proverbs 4:13). And that is just what Rob Gustafson models as a Christian educator and Master of Divinity student at RTS/Orlando.
For five years the headmaster of Jackson Preparatory School, Mississippi's largest college prep school, in June he returned as headmaster of The Stony Brook School, where he spent his first six years as an educator. The long-established Christian boarding school was started by the Presbyterian Church of Long Island in the early 1900s. There he taught Bible to high schoolers, served as a dorm parent for fifty boys, was chaplain, and coached football and baseball.
After Stony Brook, he taught at some of the country's best schools, spending the next five years at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta and then becoming headmaster of the Dunham School in Baton Rouge. He then moved to Trinity Christian Academy in Dallas for four years before becoming headmaster at the 880-student Jackson Preparatory School, grades 7-12.
So why would Rob pursue a Master of Divinity degree from Reformed Theological Seminary? He certainly doesn't need another degree; he already has a master of arts in New Testament Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston and a master of arts in Educational Administration from Teacher's College at Columbia University in New York.
Rob believes the seminary courses - he's taken four so far - to be wonderfully relevant and vital to his own spiritual life. They also benefit his relationship with his co-workers. "A better understanding of Scripture and of God's character is applied in what I do at school," he notes. "Everything I do in working with junior high and high school students for me is pastoral. I am always in the process of advising, counseling, and helping parents and students understand who they are, where they are headed, and what is going on in their lives at a certain point in time."
Although he is stretched between the job of headmaster and part-time student at RTS, Rob says the seminary classes enrich his life. "I was really too busy this semester to take two courses," he said of his spring RTS course-load. "But how could I do without what I learned?"
A LOVE OF LEARNING
The forty-seven-year old native of Houston became a Christian as a sophomore at the University of Virginia. Initially he was headed to medical school, not necessarily out of love for science, but because he felt obligated to one day take over his dad's medical practice. Even before he became a Christian, he decided to major in religious studies, while minoring in science.
Several role models during this time steered him into education. Foremost among them was a Christian professor named Ken Elzinga, who taught him economics. Very articulate and caring, with substantial intellectual depth, Elzinga had a tremendous impact on Rob. Because of his influence, Rob began to realize that he could have as much of an impact on someone else's life as Elzinga was having on his.
After graduating from UVA, Rob enrolled in a program at Gordon-Conwell for those who were planning to enter professions other than full-time Christian work. "I wanted to have some theological training before I did anything," he says.
At Gordon-Conwell he continued to see that he could have a real impact in the lives of young people through education. Again he looked at his professors as role models. "I wanted to follow in their footsteps," he recalls.
Perhaps it was through the various role models that Rob began to acquire his love for learning. "I love learning because that's what life is all about," he comments. "Everything in life is a learning process; it doesn't just happen in the classroom. Learning happens wherever you are. It is understanding the world you live in and passing that knowledge on to those around you. I have always been a person who does that both formally and informally."
KIDS NEED ROLE MODELS
After twenty-two years in education, Rob has a very hands-on approach to his job. He spends a lot of time in the hallways, managing the students and faculty by walking around. "I have my own little group of students that come to me for advice," he notes. "We talk and pray, and then I send them on their way. I may not see them again for two weeks or a month."
He also tries to hire faculty who will be good role models and encourages them to take advantage of what he calls "the unguarded moment." "The education of the heart often takes place in the unguarded moment, walking off the field at practice, on a field trip, or after school when the student needs extra help," says Rob. "The faculty and staff have to be shown that times like these are valuable teaching moments, recognizing that they may be some of the few adults who have the ear of young people. Significant interaction between teachers and students is an integral part of the life of a school community; no more powerful way exists to affect young people for the future."
Rob believes young people also need role models among youth workers, so he provides the opportunity for that to happen on campus. For example, he invited church youth directors who were working with students from Prep to visit on campus during morning break period or come before and aft er school for Bible studies and visiting. "We were trying to complement the other things that were going on in students' lives by using Christian role models without being an overtly Christian place."
Recently, Rob received a letter from a former student who Rob thought least likely to follow in his footsteps. Grant was a superb athlete, but thought he had all the answers so he failed to reach his potential. He even was suspended from school for an extended amount of time. After returning to school, Grant failed to produce the work he should have done for Rob. Rob spent more than an hour challenging Grant to make the necessary changes in his life to overcome the consequences of bad choices he had made. "I left the meeting wondering if that time was well-spent. In fact, I was not sure Grant had heard a word of what I had said," remembers Rob.
However, this former student is now teaching and coaching at Stratford Academy in Macon, Georgia. In his letter, Grant thanked Rob for being one of the few adults willing to say hard things to him and to challenge him to a higher standard. "He told me that our short time together had changed his life and that many of the principles we talked about then are ones he now passes on to his own students. Little did I know at the time that this hour would make such a difference in his life."
EDUCATION NEEDS CHRISTIANITY
Rob believes that real learning cannot take place unless one has a real sense of the order God has built into the universe. This is very evident in science and math, but also in the humanities, where one studies the nature of humans and how they relate to one another;
"When you separate education from Christianity you end up in a world which has no ultimate meaning," explains Rob. "The minute you separate them you have something less than what education was meant to be, which is an understanding of the world God has created and an assurance that some order and structure exist. It also brings understanding to the pain and suffering with which we live. Without a Christian perspective, one can quickly become very cynical, skeptical, and disillusioned.
"In many ways, I think this is where we are in our country's educational system," he continues. "We see it indirectly in the way people treat each other, the way human life is devalued, and how people use their leisure time. All of these trends are products of an educational system which has as its end goal simply to do a good job and make a little money.
Rob's continuing theological education helps him interpret the daily problems which he encounters as an educator. An RTS course on Calvin's Pastoral Theology last spring was "salvation" for him. "It sounds worlds away from what I do every day" he says, "but much of the course emphasized the providence of God and the fact that God in His goodness certainly is a God in control. We live in a world of great suffering and struggle that is part and parcel of God's will, decree, and providence. God uses the suffering and struggle to build our character, faith, and trust in Him."
The longer Rob is in education, the more he realizes that young people do not so much need to feel good about themselves or to be coddled as they need to experience the hard realities of life, full of disappointment as well as success. Do adults have the vision to allow this to happen, he wonders? Do we have the resolve to speak the truth even when it hurts, to allow the struggles of life to mold the character of our young people?
"Romans 5 teaches us that struggle and suffering are used in our lives to produce character and hope. Could the hopelessness and cynicism of so many young people across the culture today be a signal that we have tried too hard to shield them from the tough experiences of life?
"Each day as I see the people I work with go through difficulties, I am reminded how important it is to remember God's providence, even in pain and suffering," Rob recalls. "But how I share that is different for different people; sometimes I am very subtle and sometimes direct, depending on whom I am working with."
Ever soaking up new knowledge and seeking to perfect that which he already has, Rob will always be one who weds education to life and to the pursuit of God. He will not stop until excellence is achieved. Perhaps that is why he likes this interesting fact about Pablo Picasso. It seems that in his later years, Picasso was not allowed to roam an art gallery unattended, for he had previously been caught trying to improve on one of his old masterpieces.
In the field of education, a lifelong learner like Rob Gustafson would understand exactly how Picasso felt, don't you think?
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 3