Kris Ward is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where she is in her 11th year on faculty. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Belton. From deep in the heart of one Texan, she shares her background and thoughts on Christian higher education. To suggest a Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated leader to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.
Where else have you served, and what were your positions there?
I began teaching in 1994 as a general education teacher in elementary school. After four years, I was able to stay home with my children for a few years before going back to a general education classroom. That year was pivotal in my career.
Though the class was a “general education” classroom, there was not much general about it. Many of the students in the classroom had difficulties and challenges ranging from mild to quite severe. In this classroom, a little second grade boy with autism stole my heart.
He was the first student with autism I had ever encountered. It was a learning experience for both of us and changed the trajectory of my career. Because of the influence of this little boy, I pursued a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in low incidence disabilities and became a special education teacher.
Consequently, I was able to teach him and other students with disabilities for the next three years. The Lord opened my eyes to autism and other challenges and gifted me with the ability to teach in a way that was beneficial to their unique needs.
In 2006, I became the autism and low incidence disabilities specialist at the Education Service Center Region 12. Texas is divided into twenty centers that serve as the liaisons between the local education agencies and the Texas Education Agency. My job was to provide training for local teachers in my designated specialties, as well as support in the classrooms.
While at the service center, I began my doctoral studies in educational psychology at Baylor University. It was my desire to obtain this degree in order to be qualified to teach at the university level. I wanted to impact college students who wanted to be special education teachers so they could go out and serve the children I love so much.
Fortunately, God opened a position at my alma mater—University of Mary Hardin-Baylor—in the education department for a special education professor. I have been serving in this capacity since 2009.
It is so amazing to look back on a 25-year journey and see the path the Lord laid out and the opportunities put before me. I am still in contact with the little boy who started it all for me. He is now a grown man, living somewhat independently and being joy in many people’s lives.
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Where did you grow up?
Most of my childhood was in the Kentucky and West Virginia areas. My dad became an active duty Army chaplain in 1986, and we moved from a small town in Kentucky to Fort Hood, in Central Texas. I was a junior in high school, and when their tour in Texas was complete, I had just finished my freshman year at UMHB. That summer, my family moved to Germany, and I remained behind to finish school.
I met my future husband at UMHB, and we have been in Belton ever since. I never had a hometown experience, but all three of our children were born and grew up in Belton. I love that they have childhood friends with whom they still maintain friendships.
How did you come to faith in Christ?
I grew up in church. We were there every time the doors were open. Coming to Christ was a natural event for kids like me. My parents lived Christ in our homes. They taught us about the greatest gift God ever gave and how to gain eternal life through Jesus.
I was about 9, and at that time my dad was an ordained minister. I was the first person he was able to baptize. Since that time, he has baptized all of his children and grandchildren. That is a very special legacy he will leave for his family.
I was a sophomore when my parents moved to Germany. I distinctly remember the struggle of balancing the anguish I felt missing my family and wanting to have them here against the work they were doing serving our country and, more specifically, my father serving as a chaplain. That struggle was my journey.
Young adults must press through their own path as they develop their personal relationship with Christ outside of their parent’s influence. As a professor with daily interaction with college students experiencing life away from parents for the first time, I have a great opportunity to walk with them in their faith journey.
Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
I received a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in 1991, a Masters of Education degree with an emphasis in low incidence disabilities from Texas A&M University in 2006, and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Baylor University in 2012.
Why do you feel called into education?
I believe teaching is a gift given to me from the Lord. Though there is much work required to craft the skill, teaching is natural to me. Teaching students with disabilities is even more natural to me. It is my responsibility to use my gift to serve others.
1 Peter 4:10 tells us, “Based on the gift each one has received, use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God.” It’s really that simple: identify your gift, use it for the good of others, and manage it well, because it is from God.
Within the first few years I was on faculty at UMHB, I proposed starting the UMHB Special Needs Lab. This is unique for undergraduate students in that children with disabilities come to our campus each week for service provided by our pre-service educators. The lab serves over 50 children each week ages 3 to 21 and is a safe place for students to practice the strategies they have been taught in the classroom with me behind them coaching and guiding as they hone their skills.
How does being a Christian influence your work in education?
Colossians 3:23 reminds us, “Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men.”
Parents of children with special needs are desperate for professionals who love their children; but love is not enough. The gift of teaching is powerful and useful and good for the children and their parents. Imagine a child who is unable to speak.
Each day the parent sends their child to school where other people must interpret the grunts or movements of their child. Will those people at the school know if the child is in pain, hungry, uncomfortable in their wheelchair, happy, excited about something that happened at home, needs a diaper change? This list is not exhaustive.
Imagine the parent who asks these questions every day and cannot retrieve answers from their nonverbal child. That parent is relying on the knowledge and enthusiasm of the child’s teacher to interpret the child’s needs and wants. It is not easy, but it is possible when the teacher has been gifted by the Lord with the talents of a teacher.
My role is to develop special education teachers to recognize their gift and hone that talent in order to serve others, in this case children with disabilities and their parents. The UMHB Special Needs Lab is critical for developing the skills necessary to fully use the gifts of teaching our students are crafting while in college.
What is your favorite aspect of education? Why?
My favorite aspect of education is advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves. Special education is hard. Every child in a classroom is different, but in the special education world, every child with a disability is especially different. Two children may have the same disorder, but it manifests in different ways. It is the role of the teacher to advocate strongly for the child to gain access to an appropriate education that maintains high standards and expectations for the child.
Education is a game changer. No matter where you come from or the people in your past, a good education can create opportunities for a person to go in a completely different direction than their circumstances might suggest.
What one aspect of education would you like to change?
How time is spent. If one counted the number of days of instruction lost to other activities, they would be shocked. The biggest thief of time is high stakes testing and preparing for high stakes testing. So many days and hours are taken from instruction to teach strategies for taking a test, practicing the strategies, taking the test and then celebrating the effort given in taking the test.
I believe in assessment. It is only through assessment that teachers are able to know where students excel and where they struggle. Unfortunately, education today seems to place too much emphasis on high stakes testing, and teachers lose valuable minutes that could be spent teaching.
Name a significant challenge facing education.
One major challenge facing education today is preparing students for a world that looks different than the world that existed when traditional school started. Technology is moving faster than education, and schools must try to keep up with the world.
The students in classrooms today will be working in jobs that have not even been thought of yet. How do we prepare students for something that does not even exist? The only answer I know is we must prepare students to be critical thinkers and collaborators.
Gone are the days of teachers lecturing and students regurgitating. Education must be an event in which teachers deliver instruction in such a way as to require the students to problem solve, get the answer wrong, figure out the problem and try again. In this process, the teacher is a facilitator.
Why are you Baptist?
I suppose I am a Baptist because we always went to a Baptist church. I can remember as a child asking my mom about what makes Baptists different. She replied that we were Baptists because of the Cooperative Program. That is still true today. My tithes and offerings go to spread the gospel throughout the world, and that is one important part of being a Baptist.
What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?
My favorite verse is 2 Timothy 1:7, which states, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love and sound mind.”
I experienced an event that left me with significant fear resulting in panic attacks. It was during that time I came to understand fear was not from God. During my struggles, I would recite this verse over and over to remind myself God did not give me this fear, but instead, he gave me power, love and a sound mind. This verse has been a source of strength and comfort over the years.
Name something about you that would surprise people who know you.
I love real estate and would love to flip houses. I always thought that if I were not a teacher, I would flip houses. I love going into a house in shambles and imagining what it could look like with some paint here, a new floor there and an odd transformation in another room.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview has been edited for length.