Shana Culp is a 4th grade reading, writing and social studies teacher at Pearson Elementary in the Garland Independent School District. She is one of nine public school educators who received the 2020 BEST—Baptist Educators Serving Texans—award. Culp attends New Hope Baptist Church in Royse City and a graduate of Hardin-Simmons University. From deep in the heart of one Texan, she shares her background and thoughts on being a Christian in public education.
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Where else have you served, and what were your positions there?
All of my educational experience has been with Garland Independent School District, even as a student. I was employed first as a substitute teacher, mainly in special education and behavioral capacities. Then, I was hired as the content mastery teacher at Weaver Elementary.
From there, I went on to teach kindergarten through 3rd grade behavioral adjustment, reading at the middle school level—where I also ran the in-school suspension class and authored its handbook—2nd grade general education, and 4th and 5th grade English language arts and reading, and social studies.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Oklahoma City but was raised in Garland, living and attending school there until I went to university in 1999.
How did you come to faith in Christ?
I was heavily involved in church for as long as I can remember, including children’s choir and our Christmas and Easter plays. I loved being there. To my grandfather—the late Rev. Dr. James W. Culp Sr., the founder and pastor of our church—that was just as well, because I was going to have to be there whether I liked it or not.
I was very attentive to the message and what was taught in Sunday school, Bible study and Vacation Bible School. I felt moved to accept the invitation as early as age 6, but I was too embarrassed to walk to the front in front of all those people. So, I suffered internal turmoil each Sunday until the invitation time passed.
Gradually, all my friends made that walk over the years. Then, my embarrassment shifted from not wanting to be seen in front of everyone to not wanting it known I’d waited so long to finally go up there.
Finally, by age 12, it was like Jeremiah, fire shut in my bones. The compulsion to go was too uncomfortable to bear. With my head lowered in the shame of waiting so long, I walked forward to state my acceptance and desire to be baptized. My grandfather’s successor, Rev. Harvey Starling, baptized me in the church where I grew up.
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Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology with a minor in sociology from Hardin-Simmons University in 2002.
I had the full intention of becoming a child psychologist until I fell in love with teaching and earned my generalist EC-6 teaching certification through the Region 10 alternative certification program.
Why do you feel called into education?
Looking back, I can say I have been a teacher long before I ever considered teaching as a profession.
I found teaching while subbing at the Garland Independent School District alternative school. A 16-year-old 8th grader finally blurted out: “Why should I even try? What’s the point? I’m just going to be in the gang and end up in a wheelchair like my uncle, or in jail like my mom and dad and grandfather. Or dead.”
I asked him if that was what he wanted and, when he said no, explained we always have a choice. If he wanted better for himself, it was up to him to do better and to be better. I told him what he chose to do right then mattered. He could try and work hard to make up the ground he’d lost, so he could graduate and even go to college, or he could give up now and become exactly what he did not want to become. The choice was his. I was just there to help him.
I turned back to papers on the desk. We’d been working on basic reading skills on the board, because he was struggling with the assignment his teacher left. After only a minute, he sounded out and read the words on the board. My head shot up, and the light that switched on in his eyes broke my heart. He said, “Miss, I did it!”
We dove into the work like there was no tomorrow. He showed it off to the teacher across the hall, bragging he could read now. That’s when I knew I was meant to be a teacher.
I met so many children like that student, who needed someone who could see past their behaviors and care enough to reach out to them where they were. Growing up, I knew kids like him. I saw how hopelessness created a perpetual cycle. By teaching, I could reach many more kids than I could as a licensed counselor. And, with God, I could help them see better in and for themselves.
I’m nobody special; so, it’s hard for me to say God hand-picked me among other teachers who I know are called. I just know when I am teaching—aiming for kids’ self-efficacy so the academics will follow—I feel complete. I feel like this is where I am supposed to be, and these are the babies I’m supposed to help at this time.
How does being a Christian influence your work in education?
My classroom is my mission field. I never focus just on academics but on trying to grow my students as human beings.
I am a firm believer in agape love. No behaviors are enough to deter my purpose. I extend grace in abundance, because I know God constantly is extending it to me. I always give students a clean slate each day and make it known when they misbehave, I still love them and hope they choose better behaviors.
I have had times when, as I’m walking around, I am praying over each and every student. When things get out of whack, I remind myself it is a spiritual battle and pray over my classroom before students get in there. I share testimonies as applicable to the lesson, providing life lessons full of hope.
I cannot say in whom I believe, due to laws, but I always share my gratefulness and how blessed I am and how much I have received without actually having done anything spectacular to achieve it. Students share their own stories, actually calling on God’s name.
What one aspect of education would you like to change?
STAAR testing. Hands down.
Teachers spend so much time educating ourselves and honing our craft, and we are highly educated. We assess and reassess our students constantly and naturally. This shift in focus from meeting the individual needs of our students to teaching students how to understand and answer trick questions is deterring education, not enhancing it. Trust us to know our craft and then to execute it.
I also wish it were less political. With money tied to performance outcomes on the STAAR test, schools are moving away from what is in the best interest of the students academically and more toward the best way to get more money.
If education were more valued in its own right, districts wouldn’t have to worry about how to meet the educational needs of their students without enough money to do so. Also, schools would be run less like businesses and more like the educational institutions they were meant to be.
What do you wish more people knew about education?
I wish people knew teachers are not glorified babysitters, that at least 70 percent of our work occurs after the kids leave the building, and that we are people with our own families.
I wish people knew education is more than academics. Because of teachers’ sincere desire for all students to succeed, we make huge sacrifices of our time and personal income to provide equal opportunities and equal education for our students.
We all impact education, whether we are in the profession or not, and we can only see true success when we work together.
What do you hope your students will learn?
What I want for my children and my students is for them to learn who God says they are and then love and trust in that. Never compare who you are and what you have to anyone else. Always use Jesus as your measuring stick. If you can do that, all the rest will fall in place—education, career, money and relationships.
Line up with Christ, and he’ll line everything up in your life for you.
What is the impact of education on your family?
My grandparents instilled the importance of taking education seriously in their children and grandchildren.
My mom was poor; so, my siblings and I grew up poor. My grandparents ensured we didn’t go without necessities and sometimes provided our wants, as well, but my mother found her way with what she had.
Seeing the contrast between our home and my grandparents’ home made me focus on doing my best to get into a financial position better than my mom’s, without further burdening her finances to do so. It made my siblings and me work harder to pay our own way, as much as possible, and to help anyone we could to grasp what was being taught, so they could reach higher, also. It made us want more for our own children and for them to use their education toward what God has for them, and to support one another while doing it.
Why are you Baptist?
I was raised by my mother and grandparents. My grandfather was a Baptist minister who later took on the role of the first director of Black church relations for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Baptist was what I knew.
However, I spent much time visiting other denominations with friends of those denominations. In college, I not only studied other religions, but I also attended Muslim services with a friend.
Everything I experienced and learned came back to Christ. All acknowledge him and at the very least call him a “good prophet,” but this contradicts their own definition of what a good prophet is, which is one who serves as God’s mouthpiece without falsehood. Anyone who proclaimed to be God’s son but was not therefore could not be considered a good prophet, but a false prophet.
Then, in the other denominations, I kept hearing people denounce Baptists in particular, saying we only followed other sources like Christian writers but did not use the Bible at all. I was shocked, because in all my life and fellowship with other Baptist churches, I only ever saw the preacher use a Bible and constantly go back to God’s word as the source of reference. Even in Bible study, Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, we always had the Bible out to read the Scripture along with our books for our lessons.
But what really convinced me the Baptist denomination was where God had me was the fact that until I stepped outside a Baptist church, I never heard a preacher in the pulpit spend time bashing other denominations. Even in the rare times other denominations were mentioned, it was only in illustration, not as a condemnation.
We preach Christ. We teach love. We exude faith, and that embodies what I have learned about and experienced from God’s word.
What are the key issues facing Baptists—denominationally and/or congregationally?
We know God’s word inside and out, but we are so stuck on what worked in “our day” that we are losing a whole generation of potential followers. We get angry and combative, when most are seeking love and acceptance. So, we not only are pushing away younger generations, we are not discipling those of a younger generation who do attend and are trying to find their place in God’s body. And we are not open to changes those young people suggest.
What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?
I would create a task force whose job was to be an open platform for young people to have a voice and be able to express their feelings and dissatisfactions with the church honestly.
The team would collect data, getting a pulse of the younger generation’s interpretation of being a Christian, as well as what they enjoy in general. Then, they’d develop a plan to go to churches to teach them how to be more receptive to younger people, training them to incorporate worship experiences that reach across generations and how to disciple young leaders from within the body, while continuing to reach out.
We need a huge revival of the Spirit in the church, and that would take church leadership at all levels and across all ethnic and racial lines.
Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?
My grandfather was my greatest mentor in my walk. He was so strong in his faith and certain in his understanding of God’s word.
As I grew up, he would participate in debates with me regarding what I learned from Scripture, without shutting me down because of my youth or belittling my interpretations with condescension. It was educational, and it taught me not only that my ideas were valid, but my youth was not an inhibitor to my ability to serve God.
He taught me to be firm in my beliefs and to know God loves me no matter what. He taught me the importance of knowing God’s word for myself.
We didn’t always agree, but he always was willing to hear me and teach me. He even learned a little from me, as well.
What did you learn on the job you wish you learned elsewhere?
I learned people are people, no matter how much they say Jesus’ name. No matter where I worked, there was pride, lying, arrogance and deception, and it would happen whether you incited it or not.
I wish in my upbringing in the church we gave real-life applications of what we would face in the world, along with the teachings about resisting sin in our own flesh. It’s hard being sheltered from the “real world” and being sent out into it with only some abstract idea of how to face your own temptations.
What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
My life feels like one big trial after another. Even now, I am struggling with recovering from a stroke that temporarily blinded me on June 4. Through it all, I find comfort in these words that no matter what befalls me, I am in the most capable hands. I don’t have to be in control of what life brings, because even in my weakest hour, my God—who is mightier than anything and anyone—has got me.
Who is your favorite person in the Bible, other than Jesus? Why?
Jeremiah. As a young person serving in leadership, I encountered a lot of resistance from older believers. They did not believe someone young had a place serving God beyond attending and learning.
I tried to shrink in their presence, because they were my elders, but after reading and studying the book of Jeremiah, I realized God calls whomever he will call, and age is not a deciding factor. I became more confident in my place and stood fast on what God said.