Better Teaching Through Painting

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Aaaaah, summer! Spring semester is over, we’ve celebrated graduation, grades are in and the last few faculty meetings are taken care of. Summer vacation begins! What now?

Many of us on faculty have nine-month contracts. So, officially, the summer is ours. That doesn’t mean we won’t ever be called in for meetings, or interviews or emergencies, but officially, it’s our time. We’re paid over 12 months, but we’re paid only for nine of them.

Some of my colleagues just keep going, doing what they’ve done through fall and spring semesters, only at a slower pace. There are always things to catch up on, books to read, syllabi to prepare, committee work to complete. They pretty much donate their summer to FPU. Others use the summer for research and writing. There just isn’t time most of the year, and sabbaticals are not frequent enough to get it all done. I hope most of us build in some down time, vacation with families, rest and recuperation.

I’ve been around long enough to do all the above, but my preferred pattern is to teach one or two courses, take a vacation—a hike up Mount Whitney, a trip to Canada or Costa Rica, a bit of camping—and pursue my second career as a contract painter. I’ve painted houses almost every summer for the past 45 years. When a ladder accident ended my summer in 2012, some people thought I would (or should) quit. But I contend I am now the most careful painter in town, and I have no intention of stopping.

Why do I do it? Lots of people have asked me that. Truth is, I ask myself that too, especially when it is 108 degrees and I am painting trim on a rooftop. I manage not to burn my hands on the extension ladder, I blink away the sweat and dust from my contact lenses and remind myself:

  1. It makes me a better professor. I’ve been asked, “Do you really need a Ph. D. to give me a good paint job?” I respond, “My education doesn’t make me a better painter, but painting your house will make me a better professor.” It’s easy to stay in a “Christian huddle” when my life revolves around seminary and church. I understand the larger culture and context far better when I spend time with its “ordinary people,” and I think my students benefit from that. I can serve seminary students without leaving the campus. But I cannot prepare them to serve their neighbors if I never meet such people. By the way, it is easier for students to call me “Tim” instead of “Dr. Geddert” after they’ve seen me in my painting clothes.
  1. It’s a chance to advertise the seminary and the university. My advertising flyer introduces me as the “teacher-painter,” and inevitably my customers ask me where I teach. When I say, “At the Mennonite seminary at Fresno Pacific University,” interesting conversations start. Usually people have heard of FPU, sometimes they know what a Mennonite is, sometimes they know what a seminary is. I’ll gladly talk about any of the three.
  1. It helps pay the bills. I covenanted long ago that I would never complain about my salary at FPU. Raising six children pretty much required a “stay-at-home-parent” to transport kids to music lessons and sports activities. (Actually, my wife was sometimes a “wish-she-could-occasionally-stay-at-home-instead-of-always-ferrying-children-all-over-the-place” parent.) Then we had to pay for all those lessons, not to mention international trips to visit grandparents in Canada and Germany. So, a summer job was not optional, and painting was the perfect choice for me.
  1. It was a creative way to make charitable donations. Before the seminary became part of the university, I painted a lot of offices, hallways and classrooms—even the exterior of the Seminary House, twice. I’ve also done a considerable amount of painting at most of the churches I’ve participated in for the last 40 years.
  1. It gets me away from books and computers. Not only do my students need to see me as a well-rounded person, I need to be one, as well. Some people focus on hobbies, others on recreation. I do some of those, but painting houses does many of the same things for me.
  1. To keep me in good physical condition. For years that meant getting back in shape after getting out of shape all winter. Now I am committed to staying in shape all year . . . for most of the year by running, but in summer by painting houses. Staying healthy and as young as I can at my age is important: after all, we now have a six-year-old daughter, not to mention four grandchildren to try to keep up with.
  1. To follow the model of many others. I have always advocated for the “tent-making model” of ministry. The one whose ministry choices bequeathed to us that label once said, “What your hands find to do, do with all your might.” My hands find fading and peeling boards, and those who watch me work would assure you I take Paul’s advice seriously. By the time classes start again each fall, I have the muscles and scars to prove it. And let’s not forget that an even more famous carpenter-turned-preacher left us a model that included more than sermons and lectures. He touched lepers, blessed children, washed feet. When I paint houses, I feel like I am in touch with this side of Jesus.