On the first day of classes, students in Bill Elgersma’s classes are guaranteed to hear his famous quote: “If you don’t read the assignments, don’t bother coming to class.” Because of his gruff personality, students label Elgersma as an over-demanding English professor who doesn’t care about his students or their grades.
However, Elgersma dropped out of college twice, so he knows what it feels like to do poorly in school. These experiences also taught him to realize the importance of trying your best.
This year is Elgersma’s ninth year of teaching full-time at Dordt, and he knows that he has to grade tough in order to demand the best from his students. Many students don’t understand the logic behind Elgersma’s behavior, so they remain intimidated by his gruff personality.
Mary Dengler, Professor of English, loves having Elgersma around the office. “He seems gruff and terrifying on the surface, but he is full of compassion,” Dengler says. According to Dengler, Elgersma realizes that sometimes being tough is the best way to help students and push them to do their best.
“He always takes time for people, and he is interested in guiding them,” she adds. She explains that he is knowledgeable about so many things, including literary things, people, cars, machinery, building, and athletics.
Elgersma may seem gruff and tough now, but he wasn’t always concerned with discipline. “I was a really poor high school student,” he says. Elgersma grew up in Southern Ontario, and when he went to high school, a passing grade was a 50.
So when he took a test, he would count up the answers that he knew he would get right. And when he was up to about 53, he would stop and refuse to fill out any more of the test, because he knew that he was going to pass.
Elgersma went to college to get away from the family dairy farm. When he got to Dordt, he wasn’t prepared at all to be a college student because he hadn’t tried in high school.
He dropped out of Dordt twice, but he did end up graduating. Because of his rough past with school, Elgersma pushes his students, so they can realize what they are capable of.
Elgersma sets the level of expectation high and teaches to that level of expectation. Just doing the minimum work to get an “A” isn’t enough. The goal is working to achieve it.
“If I’m your employer and you give me the minimum, I fire you. Your minimum isn’t good enough,” Elgersma says.
After Elgersma graduated, he refused to accept a teaching job because he had hated student teaching. Instead, he became a plant manager.
“So then God showed up; that was sneaky,” Elgersma says with a laugh. It happened during a blizzard in March, while Elgersma was laying on his belly in the snow trying to dig out his car.
That afternoon, he got a phone call from Southern California asking if he wanted to teach there in the fall. “I didn’t even ask my wife. I said sure,” Elgersma admits. “God has a sense of humor, he does. And he snuck up when I wasn’t looking.”
Elgersma confesses that he was a terrible first-year teacher. He was used to hiring and firing five people every week for two years.
“I wouldn’t call myself compassionate, and it showed on the students,” Elgersma says. After two years, he burned out and went back to business.
He comments that he thinks a vast majority of teachers are awful at first. “They know the content well, but they forget there are students in the room,” Elgersma explains.
He realized that if he wanted to be a good teacher, he had to get past himself, recognize his own vulnerabilities, and make his teaching relevant to his students’ lives.
After he realized this, he ended up teaching again at Unity Christian in Orange City. Although things didn’t always go smoothly, Elgersma learned from his past experiences and started to become the best teacher that he could be.
“Teaching is the best ‘no job’ in the world. No two days will ever be the same, and if they are, it is because you are horrible as a teacher,” Elgersma says.
He openly admits that he gets his energy from his students. He even ended up going to graduate school to make himself a better high school teacher.
“I knew I didn’t know enough; I’ll never know enough,” he says. Elgersma ended up receiving a Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction in Secondary Education and a Masters in English.
As soon as someone enters Elgersma’s office, they might notice the bookcase full of books or the bulletin board full of papers and sticky notes. Or they might just notice a full sheet of paper that reads, “If the horse is dead—dismount.”
Elgersma laughs as he explains that he needs to be reminded of that lesson often. He admits that one of his faults is not giving up on something even after he knows he should.
Throughout his office, Elgersma also has a few papers and emails from past students pinned on his bulletin board. These articles of writing serve as reminders of both good and bad experiences with his students from the past. He remembers them, and whether Elgersma knows it or not, he makes an impact on students’ lives.
Abby De Groot, a Dordt graduate in 2005, studied Secondary Education and English while she attended Dordt. She can still vividly remember her first semester of freshman year when she had Elgersma for a professor.
She was a good student in high school, and she couldn’t recall ever getting a grade lower than a B in her life. She got 17 out of 30 on her first paper in Elgersma’s class.
“I was horrified,” De Groot says. “The only thing that made me feel better was that over half the class had gotten zeroes. I think that’s when I first felt intimidated.”
“If he hadn’t been so tough at first, I never would have produced my best writing because I would have been happy where I was,” De Groot explains. She feels that Elgersma forced her to dig deeper.
“Yes, he is tough, and yes he is intense, but he makes students rise to the challenge and gets the best out of them,” she says. Even today, she finds herself going to Elgersma for advice.
As soon as Elgersma walks into his Core 180 class, he immediately sets his bag on the podium, and then proceeds to take out his books, glasses, and markers. His red sweater with a yellow-button down underneath and khakis make him look polished and put together.
He quickly scans the room of 24 students, takes a head count, and grabs his rolley chair. He straddles the chair backwards, as if on a horse, crosses his arms, and rolls closer to a section of students to make small talk before class.
At 11:00 on the dot, Elgersma asks for the class’s attention. Every conversation pauses immediately, and every eye turns toward the front.
Elgersma is well-known for making jokes during class, and hearing him talk in his Canadian accent makes the students laugh even harder.
“Pan flied frat bread,” Elgersma stumbles over his words during class. The class erupts into giggles, while Elgersma says, “Sorry, I’m just trying out my new tongue.” The giggles turn into full-belly laughs.
Elgersma’s method of lecture probably wouldn’t even be called lecture. He is constantly moving—across the front of the room, to the board, and then to his favorite position in the rolley chair.
His gestures range from raising his eyebrows as high as he can, using his fingers for recapping, and spreading his arms, every which way they will go.
His eyes are continuously scanning the room and darting between the faces of his students. He talks fast, and he fires off question after question. So students better pay attention and listen. Especially since Elgersma’s handwriting, in all caps, is nearly illegible.
“I can’t lecture, I can’t. I would put myself to sleep,” Elgersma says. His goal is for students to retain what is going on in the classroom. He wants to engage their minds.
“Sometimes I think that’s a depiction of hell: standing there delivering, and no one hears it, no one cares, no one retains. And as they leave the room, they drop it all in the garbage can,” he explains.
Elgersma finds that students in Core classes have a better chance at accomplishment when he makes relevance between the students’ prior knowledge and what he is teaching. “To have them discuss, to ask questions, to respond to each other, to make it a collaborate effort, then we are all in the academic conversation together,” Elgersma says. His ultimate goal is to have them critically think and approach things from a different perspective.
Elgersma expects a lot from his students. Even though he may call on his students a lot during class, he never makes a student look or feel stupid. If a student is struggling to find an answer, he will simply move on and call on another student to help.
When a student gives a vague answer, one of Elgersma’s obvious pet peeves, he makes a witty joke: “Clearly I am missing something,” he says as he looks with wide eyes down the sleeve of his sweater. Laughter fills the room again.