ECS BLOG

Batman. Spider-Man. Batgirl. These Superheroes come to mind for wielding their superhuman strength to restore good to an evil world.

Last year, a different type of mask-wearing Superhero emerged.

Cambridge Dictionary defines superheroes as characters in a story who have special strength and use it to do good things and help other people.

We assert this appropriately describes ECS teachers.

ECS teachers are the characters in the strange story that was the 2020-2021 school year. They used their special strength from the Holy Spirit to help students grow in knowledge and character so that the next generation is prepared to be servant leaders for Christ.

After teaching remotely in the spring of 2020 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, ECS recognized that virtual education was not the way teaching and learning were intended to be. Teachers longed to be with their students, making the relational connection so integral in the student-teacher relationship for which ECS is known. The ECS COVID Task Force and administrative team worked throughout the summer to determine the best way to conduct the 2020-2021 school year in person for maximum learning and memorable experiences for our students while being safe for all.

This meant things looked different.

Desks were moved six feet apart. Walking lanes were created in hallways. Classrooms became cafeterias. Cafeterias, auditoriums, and tents became classrooms to allow for social distancing. Teachers became disinfectant-spraying custodians between classes. Remote students participated in classroom discussions with in-person students by Zoom. Elementary Art, Spanish, Bible, Music and STEM became mobile on carts brought to each classroom to reduce cross-contamination. Masks were worn by all.

All the while, teachers remained focused on carrying out the ECS mission by perfecting their academic craft and executing their discipleship calling.

Read about the heroic efforts of four of our many Superheroes who showed their superhuman strength, each doing their part to restore good to the world, starting at ECS.

EARLY CHILDHOOD

Pre-Kindergarten Teacher

 

 


 



The challenge

Preparing 14 Junior Kindergartners for Senior Kindergarten while keeping them socially distanced and wearing masks all day certainly requires superhuman strength.

The answer

For this age, establishing a routine early on was critical. “We had to work hard in the beginning of the school year to establish routines,” Mrs. Farris recalled. “Early childhood students really thrive in routines."

“Our challenge was how to give them what they need while still following protocols,” Mrs. Farris reflected. “Social distancing was an extra special challenge. So much of our learning is hands-on and play-based. This meant extra cleaning because we use so many shared materials."

“The children were amazingly adaptable,” Mrs. Farris remembered with pride. “They have been very resilient. They have been so adaptable and so flexible.”

An Unforeseen Benefit

Mrs. Farris practiced flexibility as well. In previous years, a highlight for her students was when parents came to her classroom to read to the class. As new policies were enacted this year including no guests allowed on campus, Mrs. Farris had to reimagine this anticipated event. That’s when they started Zoom readers, allowing parents to participate by reading a book to the class through Zoom conference calls. This enabled parents who work, and even grandparents out of state, to join the class, and the students loved it. It was such a success that even post-COVID, Zoom readers will continue, a perfect example of how rethinking established traditions resulted in new practices that will work even better in the future.


LOWER SCHOOL

3rd Grade Teacher

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Relationship in Teaching

As beloved third grade teacher Mrs. Ray reflected on the past year, conducting school in person was critical to the teacher-student relationship as well as peer-to-peer relationships and worth enduring the many COVID precautions.

“What I love about being in person is the relationships formed between students and teachers and the relationships that students form with each other,” Mrs. Ray reflected. “On the first day of school, they were so excited to see each other and thrilled because they missed that connection with each other."

In-person instruction enables teachers to better gauge students’ understanding of a topic. “When you know students so well, you can see in their faces if they need more help. When I am right there with them, I can come alongside and help them,” Mrs. Ray said.

During virtual learning, she did her best to teach her lessons on screen, but admitted that it is a struggle to see how the information was received. Conversely, she said, “With learning in-person, I can look a child in the eye and know that connection is being made.”

Teaching Moments for the Ages

Last school year provided excellent teaching moments to trust God daily as we all experienced an unprecedented time. Mrs. Ray remembered, “During the beginning of the school year, a lot of the students worried, ‘What if we need to go back to virtual?’ I would encourage them and point them to Christ and say, ‘We may not know what each day holds, but we can turn to God.’” What a valuable lifelong lesson to learn in third grade!


MIDDLE SCHOOL

8th Grade English Language Arts Teacher & English Language Arts Chair

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Middle School Pods

To reduce exposure, the Middle School grades on the Shelby Farms campus began the year in pods, in which each class of students remained together, and teachers rotated to various classrooms.

Challenges and Benefits

The pods brought their share of challenges for teachers and students. Teachers taught more classes each day because class sizes were limited to allow for recommended social distancing of student desks in the classrooms. Students were unable to enjoy changing classes and seeing all their friends throughout the day.

However, pods created some unexpected benefits. The extra workload required teachers to reevaluate their teaching in a healthy way. Eighth grade literature teacher and English Language Arts chair Andy Gross said, “It helped me understand what I needed to keep versus what I needed to cut from my instruction.” For students, the confined classroom and exposure to a limited number of classmates forged new friendships among individuals whose varied after-school interests previously kept them apart.

Balance is Key

Mr. Gross was confident in his students’ robust educational experience during a challenging year and boasted on his teaching team’s lofty academic goals coupled with their shared desire to minister to their students: “First and foremost, we saw the staff continue to love on students in terms of excellence outside of academics in Christian worldview. The kids here were loved in a world that was filled with anger and fear.”

Mr. Gross pointed out, “Most psychologists agree that adolescents have a great need for expectations. Holding kids accountable to your expectations is to their betterment. Yet during this year in which kids are stressed because of what they hear on TV about COVID, death, and unemployment risks to their families, it robs students of their ability to sleep, focus in class and manage time after school.” Mr. Gross, who admitted to usually being strict, reflected, “Finding a balance between the tension of accountability and understanding helped to grow me as a teacher this year.”


UPPER SCHOOL

Economics, Accounting, Introduction to Business, Personal Finance & 7th Grade Math Teacher

 


 

 

 

 

 



Readjusting Lesson Plans

Because of the many courses and electives offered, the upper school changed classes with increased emphasis on mask wearing and social distancing protocols. As some students, teachers or family members were diagnosed with COVID-19, they, along with their close contacts, were quarantined creating the challenge of a constant fluctuation in school attendance throughout the week.

Business department teacher Jeff Payne explained, “This year the big difference was being okay with things not being in your control. I’m a type A personality, and I like having my lesson plans worked out. I had to be okay that everything could change at the drop of the hat.” He explained, “If you plan something out for 20 students, but actually have 14 students, then you have to completely change it.” He found that flexibility was essential.

Real-Time Learning

Interestingly, the pandemic became the topic of study in upper school business classes. Students examined the effects that COVID had on domestic and world economies. Payne added, “When you bring it home and ask, ‘How is it affecting you and your family?’ … that’s real-time learning.”

Transparency => Understanding => Learning

In the classroom, Payne admitted, “Masks definitely created a barrier. I started off (the school year) more lecture-based. Then I wondered How can I engage my kids more? What helped to break down that barrier was being open and honest and admitting as a teacher that no one likes wearing a mask. When kids see that you’re honest, it allows them to be honest with each other.”

Payne cultivated an environment in which students were encouraged to have real conversations about their difficulties. In the pandemic, he noted, struggles became more normalized.

One of the topics that surfaced included Where is God in all of this? To that, Payne asked his students, “When we are out of control, Who is in control?” Questions like these provided “a continual reminder of how much we need Christ.”

By channeling special strength from the Holy Spirit, our Superheroes carried out the ECS mission in a challenging year by delivering excellence in the classroom and pointing their students to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only way to restore goodness to a broken world.

To go along with their masks, these teachers deserve capes for their Superhero costumes. Perhaps a crown in heaven may follow.

 

Six years ago, Coach Willie Jenkins came to ECS on a path few saw coming. But perhaps no one was more surprised than the coach himself.

“Coach Willie” as he is known to everyone, was biding his time during the offseason, waiting to return to play professional basketball overseas. His discipler Roy “Soup” Campbell, executive director at local Eikon Ministries, hooked him up with a gig teaching basketball skills at Memphis Athletic Ministries (commonly known as “MAM”) in the inner city where he charged neighborhood kids admission to his clinics with a memorized Bible verse instead of money.

ECS dad Travis Slater caught wind of this local talent charging Manna in lieu of dough, and asked if his daughter and her teammate could train under him too. After the training camp that summer, Slater admitted that he knew Coach Willie wanted to play overseas or coach young men, but he asked if he would consider coaching his daughter’s eighth grade school team.

Initially, Coach Willie bristled at the idea of coaching middle school girls. But his wife, Eryka, knew better.

She knew her husband enjoyed watching women’s basketball on TV because they are fundamentally sound.

Mrs. Jenkins said, ‘You are always watching it. It will help you become a better coach.’”

So he conceded.


“In Memphis, basketball is an idol for a lot of kids. That’s what they find their identity in. They think basketball saved them or will save them. No, it’s Jesus who saved you. That’s it. There’s not more than that. It’s Him and Him only, and nothing is added.”


“Those young ladies at ECS changed my life,” Coach Willie said. “That year, there were a lot of tears, and a lot of prayer. My wife and I, as well as Chip and Holly Hudson, led Bible studies with them. I realized that basketball is just a tool to share the gospel, and I fell in love with it again.”

Those eighth grade girls have all graduated now, but he still keeps up with them in a group text and frequently asks how their spiritual life is. “If they get boyfriends, they know their boyfriends have to come talk to me first.” He laughed, “It is great!”

Discipleship had come full circle. Coach Willie was passing along what Soup Campbell had done for him a few years before.

Soup, whom Coach Willie initially loathed, pursued a young lost Willie and discipled him. A coffee shop in Binghampton is where the showdown occurred:  Willie told Soup, “I don’t like you” to which Soup responded an even, “I don’t like you either. So are we going to fight? Or read God’s Word?”

That began a beautiful disciple-making relationship between Soup and young Willie. “He led me through the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 and showed me how Adam tried to blame the Lord for his fall. But God sent His only begotten Son. I had never heard the Bible broken down that way.

“He is more than a discipler for me. He is a father, grandfather, my brother, my best friend, my adviser. He is a model and it’s not him: It’s the Spirit that is inside of him and the fear he has for the Lord.”

Now Coach Willie follows in his mentor’s footsteps, sharing the gospel and building godly young men in his role as Head Varsity Basketball Coach at ECS.


“Boys need to see the difference between a male and a man. Find young men who want to be discipled, and model for them what it looks like to follow the Lord. Their actions don’t just impact them but their community. And hopefully they will impact the others.”


Coach Willie, a basketball star in his own right, was recruited out of high school to play at the University of Massachusetts then transferred to Tennessee Tech where he became an All-American Honorable Mention, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, a two-time Male Athlete of the Year and was later inducted to the Tennessee Tech Hall of Fame. Following college, he played professional basketball overseas for seven years. It was when he was playing in Saudi Arabia that Soup’s words gained new meaning, and Coach Willie surrendered to the Lord. “I told God, ‘I don't know anything about you, but I will read your Word before my feet hit the ground every day.’”

Then, his perspective completely changed. “I won a lot of trophies, and they are all at my mama’s house gathering dirt. It’s about God’s kingdom. People think I love basketball. I love what basketball can do for God’s kingdom.”

One such young man that Coach Willie has discipled through basketball and his upper school discipleship group is Marquette University freshman guard Kameron Jones, ECS’ All-Time High Scorer, whose jersey was retired at the end of last season. But their relationship had a rocky beginning.

“It started off, he couldn’t stand me,” Coach Willie recalled. He remembered watching Kam play in the ninth grade and being impressed with his talent but saw that his discipline needed to improve in order for him to be successful at the next level.

“Kam had a lot of things in him that he was gifted with. He is a kid that can score 40 points every game.” But Coach Willie saw the need for this young talent to consider how his gift benefits others and ask himself whether he is using these gifts for God’s kingdom or for his own gain. Coach Willie explains“In Memphis, basketball is an idol for a lot of kids. That’s what they find their identity in. They think basketball saved them or will save them. No, it’s Jesus who saved you. That’s it. There’s not more than that. It’s Him and Him only, and nothing is added.”

“It started off, we bumped heads.” Kam said, so the young freshman wanted to transfer.

Coach Willie had a meeting with Kam and his dad. He told them to follow whatever decision God told them to do, but whether he played basketball at ECS or another school, he needed to work hard. “Kam’s dad sat his son down and said, ‘So you want to leave ECS because he’s asking you to be excellent on the court and off the court?’ Mr. Jones told his son, ‘We aren’t going anywhere. You are staying right where you are.’”

Later, Coach Willie benched Kam for one of the biggest district games of the season. “He didn’t play varsity because he wasn’t ready to practice that week. I told him ‘I love you, but I’m going to tell you the truth.’ Jesus does that. He tells us the truth and it hurts.”

Kam reflected on his relationship with Coach Willie, which after the rocky beginning, he describes as “all love” now: “He is a good coach on and off the court. He pushed me to be the best player I can be. He really changed my work ethic. He taught us not to be passive, to speak when necessary and keep God first.”

Coach Willie said, “Now, we talk almost every day. It’s real talk, about life and basketball. I was honored when his dad asked me to ride with him to take him to college.”

After practicing at Marquette for a few weeks, Kam penned a letter to his ECS basketball teammates. In it, he wrote, “Playing at ECS prepared me for what I’m going through here, and even attending school there did as well. I had to take constructive criticism, I had to keep my head up after making mistakes, I had to lead, I was held to a high standard, I was held accountable for my actions, my maximum effort was demanded out of me, nothing less.

“Playing at ECS has put me ahead of my classmates, mentally, physically, and most importantly spiritually. Playing basketball for ECS even prepared me for the challenges I’ve already faced off the court at college. How to step away from things, how to approach situations, how to talk to people, get to know people before you judge them. Playing for ECS and attending ECS absolutely prepared me for what I am facing now at Marquette, on and off the court.”

Coach Willie often minimizes his impact on others. “The goal of a Christian is to obey the Lord. That is the blessing. That’s all I’m doing. I’m just trying to obey the Lord, which is to make disciples of all nations. I live in Binghampton, and I teach at ECS; all nations are there."


"That’s what it’s about. It is about his kingdom and He uses sports to teach the gospel.”


Recently, Coach Willie asked Kam what God was teaching him.

Kam answered, "Patience is a virtue.” Then as mentee became mentor to his former ECS teammates, he added, “Have your guys read Hebrews 12:11,” which is, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

In awe, Coach Willie said, “When a young man texts you that, that's the trophy. Not that (Marquette’s) Coach Smart loves him, not that we went to the Final Four two years in a row, not that we retired his jersey. He texts you a Bible verse.”

Coach Willie reflected, “Everything else is just part of the journey.”

Editor’s Note: Since this article was published in FLIGHT magazine, Coach Willie has accepted an assistant coaching position at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. We are grateful to Coach Willie for his service to ECS where he used basketball as a platform to disciple young men in Christ. This legacy of discipleship in athletics is in the DNA of ECS and will be continued by newly appointed varsity head basketball coach, Amory Sanders. Listen to Coach Sanders explain his vision for coaching on ECS’ Equip podcast.