NEW ULM - An early experience shaped Dr. David Wendler's teaching career - transferring into his later years of teaching college, and informing his educational philosophy.
In 1969-70, a young Wendler was assigned to student-teach in a class of 42 seventh and eighth-graders in a community near Appleton, Wis.
He was told that the school could not afford all the textbooks, and he would need to teach a month-long unit on India without a social studies textbook.
Staff photo by Kremena Spengler
Dr. David Wendler, Martin Luther College’s vice president for Academics, is retiring this year after a 44-year in education.
"It's the best experience I ever had," remembers Wendler. "The idea that you can teach without a textbook, exposing the kids to a wide variety of resources, having them dig into the resources, critically look at what is interesting and important..."
What he did, in a pre-Google era, is "clean out" every library in several area communities, including Lawrence University. He borrowed every book on India - not just at the seventh and eight-grade level but also books for adults and college texts.
Wendler split the students into groups which developed lists of topics and chose a topic to research. He guided and monitored the process.
"The students had projects to create - they had to read, write, make, present and debate... This was at a time when tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir ran high; we debated the sides' views..."
The concept Wendler explored by necessity proved applicable later.
As he teaches Methods of Teaching Reading, for example, his students do not look at teaching manuals until the end of the semester.
"They have to know their research and how to apply it, know the expectations of kids at every grade level..."
"Teaching is not standing up and lecturing," says Wendler. "It's the students doing. I teach college kids that way, too. We drill it into pre-school teachers that 'children learn by doing'- well, the same is true of adults..."
Wendler grew up on a dairy and hog farm in Brownsville, Wis.
"Farm work and chores gave me a work ethic and taught me responsibility," he says.
He attended Rural Leader Public School for primary grades and then St. Paul's Lutheran School in Brownsville for grades 5-8. He then attended Winnebago Lutheran Academy in Fond du Lac for high school, graduating in 1966. He received his Bachelor of Science in Education degree in 1970 from Dr. Martin Luther College, his Master of Science in Supervision and Curriculum in 1980 from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Psychology and Reading from the University of Minnesota in 1986.
His doctoral research was published as the lead article in the top national professional publication, the Reading Research Quarterly, and translated in 55 languages.
He has held memberships in the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the International Reading Association, Minnesota Reading Association, Southwest Minnesota Reading Association of which he served as president, and the American Psychological Association.
Over 44 years in education, Wendler has been placed in positions where there were many "firsts."
He was assigned to be the first principal of a new school, Riverview Lutheran, in Appleton, in 1970, where he began one of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod's first pre-school programs in 1978.
Called to DMLC in 1980 to supervise student teachers and teach education methods courses, he became the first student supervisor to videotape student teachers, with the objective of analyzing and discussing their performance.
"I carried a huge video recorder and TV along," remembers Wendler.
In 1986, with Dr. John Isch, he constructed the first off-campus in-service program for teachers and began teaching one-credit courses off campus. "Dr. Isch and I hatched this plan in my living room," remembers Wendler.
In 1990, with Dr. Mark Lenz, Wendler constructed, organized and implemented the first on-campus early field experience for freshmen.
In 1991, he received a "Professor-for-a-Day Award" from the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.
In 1992, with Dr. Rolland Menk and Mae Tacke, he organized and led the first WELS National Literacy Convention, attended by approximately 1,000 teachers. The second convention, in 1994, also organized and led by them, drew some 1,100 teachers.
In 1991 and 1993, with his wife Marlene, he led study tours to New Zealand and Australia to study the pedagogy of reading instruction.
In 1998, he became the first MLC professor to serve the accreditation agency, the Higher Learning Commission, as a reviewer for other colleges and universities. From 1998 until present, he has held various positions with the agency, including serving as a peer reviewer and team chair, serving on the Peer Review Advisory Corps, the Design Team for the Assessment Academy, the Accreditation Review Council, and the Institutional Action Council, and chairing hearings on disputed accreditation cases.
In 1997-99, with Dr. John Isch and Dr. Rolland Menk, he chaired the study that led to Minnesota licensure for MLC education graduates.
In 2000, he was appointed as the first MLC Vice-President for Academics. In this role, he oversaw curriculum development and changes, established a review of the teaching process, began an assessment program, directed self-studies for accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission, led the introduction of Mandarin to the curriculum - and always taught at least one course.
In 2004-05, with Dr. John Isch, he crafted the college's online Master of Science in Education program.
Wendler has also taught workshops in China, St. Lucia and Antigua, and has served and still serves as a consultant to the University Council of Jamaica.
He was an expert reviewer for an Educational Psychology college textbook.
Wendler's third-grade teacher wrote on his report card once that she hoped he would some day attend college. He remembered, and became his family's first-generation college student. While not formally educated beyond, respectively, eighth-grade and high school, his mom and dad valued education, and supported his decision.
"Once in college, I didn't want to stop going to college because there was always more to learn," says Wendler.
"As far as leadership is concerned, leadership opportunities and positions seemed to find me..."
"Teaching needs to be student-centered, and leadership needs to be service-centered," says Wendler. "College students need to be motivated to become independent learners. That means helping students find their strengths and interests and build on them. Learning needs to be active, so that students wrestle with information, with stimulations, role-playing, debates, and writing, for example. In this way, students internalize information, and, in the case of future teachers, internalize the methods of teaching by constructing their own applications of content and practice."
"For leadership to be service-centered, a leader is to think first of those the leader is to serve, both internal and external constituencies," he continues. "Shared leadership in a collaborative style empowers those whom we serve... A leader is responsible for environmental scanning and then needs to lead so that decisions are made with a vision of how it benefits constituencies five, ten, twenty years or more in the future."
"I love both teaching and serving in leadership positions," says Wendler. "If I had to do everything over again, I would and I would not change anything. Both teaching and leadership are about people, not about book and policies. My passion for teaching and my emphasis in leadership positions is summed up in two words: students and colleagues. To see students succeed as pastors and teachers, and to see colleagues excited about helping students prepare for their professions, is priceless. What will I miss? Students and colleagues."
Wendler's retirement plans include plans to attend grandchildren's activities ("this summer it is baseball games"), travel, and "read, read, read, read."
He will continue to teach online in MLC's Master of Science in Education degree program (Cognitive Psychology and Issues in Education courses) and conduct accreditation visits for the Higher Learning Commission. He looks forward to consulting opportunities with other colleges and universities regarding accreditation.
His advice to new professors?
"Never stop learning and experimenting with your teaching methods" says Wendler. "Enjoy your students! They are the future. Look at what your students can do and help them build skills from their strengths."
His advice to new leaders?
"Enjoy your colleagues. Think of your work as serving others. Read widely with a visionary eye to the future and share information with those around you. Good decisions are decisions that are research-based, take into account constituency needs and include a vision for the future. Decisions made in this way gain the support of colleagues."