When Don Kok reflects upon his career as an educator, there’s one word that frequently comes up: relationships.
Kok, in his last year as superintendent of Lynden Christian Schools, chose a career in education largely because of his relationships with two mentors from his Wisconsin upbringing — his seventh-grade teacher and his high school principal. Both were passionate about what they did and always took the time to interact with students.
Even as a teenager, Kok knew he wanted to be like them someday.
Kok eventually became principal for kindergarteners through eighth-graders at Lynden Christian Schools in 1993, then took the superintendent position in 2005. He will be 65 this fall and has decided he will retire at the end of this school year. The relationship he has built with the Lynden community, however, will likely continue beyond his last day of work.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
“Education is foremost relational; it’s a relational activity,” Kok said. “If I’ve invested anything, I hope it has been investing into the lives of students, and their families, and their parents, and into staff. They reciprocated by investing in me in a relational manner.”
Family, students, parents, teachers and community leaders gathered at an open house Thursday, May 28, at Sonlight Community Christian Church to celebrate Kok’s 22 years in Lynden Christian Schools.
Portraits of Kok drawn by elementary school kids covered the walls of the church, and Kok’s wife, Shelly, sat right next to him as Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis proclaimed May 28 to be Don Kok Day.
“He’s a good community leader, and he reflects the spirit of Lynden,” Korthuis said.
Before he moved to Lynden, Kok, just out of college, was first a teacher at a Christian middle school in Wisconsin. He moved on to become principal at a Christian academy in Philadelphia after five years, then moved to Bellevue for another principal position.
He seized the opportunity to move to Lynden because the rural community reminded him of his own Wisconsin upbringing. Accepting the position as principal in Lynden was “sort of like coming home,” Kok said.
His primary goal as an educator was to help kids grow spiritually at home, school and church. When children hear the same message in all aspects of their live, he said, it resonates with them more effectively.
“I think when kids hear a consistent message and parents say working hard is important, doing your best is important ... when they hear that from parents and when they hear that from their teachers and other administrators at school, that sends a powerful message that we’re doing this together,” Kok said. “When kids hear an inconsistent message, that only creates confusion.”
Ron Polinder, who was principal of Lynden Christian High School from 1986 through 2000, equated the relationship of home, school and church to legs on a stool: if there are only two, something is missing. Polinder said Kok had such a great impact on the community not only because he’s good-hearted and positive, but also because of his experience in education.
“There’s a level of educational competence that has marked his career,” Polinder said. “He understands education. He’s willing to try new things but has always been sensitive and doesn’t just jump on a bandwagon.”
Lynden Christian Schools reached a deal to merge with Evergreen Christian School in Bellingham one year after Kok became superintendent. He also helped transition from a junior high model to a middle school model, meaning young teens were able to explore music and art more than before.
Though enrollment decreased during the recession, it is growing again by about 5 percent per year, Kok said. He expects enrollment to climb to 1,170 students next year, around what it was a decade ago. That is roughly triple the enrollment of the second biggest private school in Whatcom County.
At first, Kok was uncomfortable with the idea of having a celebration devoted to his retirement. He feels the significance of his position as superintendent is no more than that of teachers, bus drivers or janitors. All positions are equally important, his is just more visible, Kok said.
“The buck stops here, and I understand that, and my influence is broader,” Kok said. “But the significance of every role is huge.”
Lynden Christian has picked a new superintendent, Paul Bootsma, to begin July 15, 2015. Bootsma is coming from Minnesota, where he has been superintendent of a Christian high school since 2001. Kok will spend two weeks orienting Bootsma with the Lynden community during a two-week overlap until his final day on July 30.
If there’s anything Kok would do differently, he said he would try just a bit harder to build relationships with people going through a tough time or who are hurting. What he’ll remember most is laughing in the lunchroom with faculty, or interacting with students during recess.
“It’s those one-on-one interactions with staff, parents and students that I will remember the most.”