Mary Ina Hooley of Bluffton Weekday Religious Education wrapped up her tenure this spring. For 16 years, she taught children about the love of Jesus and how to live for Him, in addition to living and teaching Bible lessons internationally. She has much to share on teaching and encouraging children through Released Time Bible Education. If you’re looking for some tips and advice for the coming school year, or simply confirmation from a fellow great teacher — read the following interview!

Q: How did you first get interested in teaching Released Time classes?

A: When I began teaching in 2001, my three children were all in school and I was looking for something part-time to do. I had done some walking of the students to the RT classes from the school so I was familiar with the program. I had taught children’s Sunday School classes since the time I was in college and felt a nudge from the Lord to apply when I saw the opening advertised.

Q: Where did you teach, for how long, what ages?

A: I taught in the Bluffton program, which, when I began, was just grades 1-4, but has since expanded to include Kindergarten as well as grades 6-8. The Bluffton program began in 1924, so has been running continuously now for 94 years. I began teaching 3rd grade but when we added the 5th grade and needed to make some teacher shifts, I added 2nd grade to my teaching responsibilities. I taught a total of 16 years, though they were not consecutive as in 2003-2004 our family took a Bluffton University sabbatical year, teaching at a school in Honduras and in 2011, another sabbatical, with just my husband, for the fall semester in India, where I spent my childhood years.

Q: What are some of your favorite memories from teaching?

A: I was born in India and spent most of my first 18 years there, so learned the Hindi language. I enjoyed sharing the language with the students, teaching them a Bible verse, chorus and a craft, in which they learned to write some of the Hindi script. I loved the age group I worked with. Second and third graders are still eager learners, respectful and loving. I enjoyed many hugs and words of appreciation.

Q: Please share your reflections on what teaching in a released time program has meant to you.

A: In any school, there are children from unchurched backgrounds and troubled homes. Not only do we want to introduce Jesus to those that don’t know him, but also aid the church, school and home in encouraging the spiritual growth and development of children.

In our early grades we teach the children how much they are loved by God and how each of them are very important persons (VIP’s). From there we build their Bible knowledge, teaching them familiar Bible stories, relating it to their everyday lives. Then by the upper grades, 5-8, they are taught Christian values relating to everyday life issues such as dealing with anger/conflict, forgiveness, making wise choices, loss and grief, bullying and peacemaking to name a few. So our desire is to give the children an understanding of God through Jesus Christ and to create a desire to respond in faith, love, responsible living, purposeful service and Christian witness.

Q: What encouragement do you have for new and experienced teachers as they head into the classrooms this school year?

A: When I asked our newest teacher, Jill Lemley, what was helpful for her as a new teacher she said, “Listening to and observing how teachers who had been teaching for a long time were teaching.” Hopefully you have a teaching team with whom you can meet regularly to share teaching ideas as well as prayer concerns and joys.

Mary Ina Hooley teaches Bluffton children with fun and games!

To keep the interest of the students, we try to vary ways of telling our stories. Ways we have found engaging are flannel graph, cut and tell stories, movies, Arch books or other story books, and drama. At least once a semester we schedule an activity day. I have created Bible Jeopardy and “Who Wants to be a Christianaire” games (modeled after Who Wants to be a Millionaire), using questions that review the lessons we’ve taught. The students have also enjoyed crafts, memory games and puzzles that relate to the lessons.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: My husband also retired, from teaching at Bluffton University. In our retirement, we would like to spend several months, once or twice a year, volunteering at a Christian International School. In September my husband, daughter and I will be traveling to India for my 45-year class reunion. We then plan to stay on at Woodstock School, where I attended, for another 8 weeks, volunteering as needed. We may not always return to volunteer at Woodstock, but also explore schools in other countries.