Manchester University
Oak Leaves

October 14, 2016

Manchester Alumnus Changes from Superfan to Super-teacher

Cass Ratliff

Jim Butler ’01, former MU Spartans “Superfan,” received the 2016 Young Alumnus Outstanding Achievement award on Oct 7, 2016, following a presentation given the day before on “mindfulness” in the classroom.

Currently teaching in Texas, Butler is spending a year as a mindfulness specialist. He has written curriculum that is being implemented in schools all across the nation and has been turned into a book. He gave five signed copies away the night of his presentation.  

Butler was an elementary education major and the founder of the Superfans club during his time at then Manchester College. He was so enthusiastic that he would wear sandwich boards to class advertising different events happening on campus.

While in school, Butler was inspired by his professor Dr. Karen Doudt, who specialized in early childhood education. Doudt took Butler under her wing but died before his senior year. “She believed in me,” Butler said. He also noted that Doudt’s influence has been with him every second of his teaching career. 

After Butler graduated, he flew to Texas to visit a former professor. This is where he found his first teaching job. “Manchester College literally brought me to Texas to teach because of connections,” Butler said. He taught kindergarten in Texas for six and a half years. During this time, he learned that building relationships are one of the most important parts of teaching, and he still interacts with his kindergartners from his first class, who are now in college. 

Because Butler did not become an education major until the end of his sophomore year in college, he did not have a chance to study abroad like he always wanted to. So, he decided while teaching in Texas that he had to make it happen. He sold his things and went to teach high school English and math in Namibia through a program called World Teach. 

Namibia, being only nineteen years independent at the time of Butler’s trip, was very underdeveloped. Butler worked in the middle of nowhere with no electricity. He was treated with great hospitality and lived in the nicest building in a part of the town that did have electricity. Butler loved to have colleagues and students over to share this luxury, but was told he could no longer have guests over because not everyone in the building was comfortable with the black Namibians. 
Butler then moved out, and villagers helped him build a hut to live in with a colleague. Some of the women in the village went out to cut grass for the roof, including a pregnant woman, who would eventually name her baby “James” after him. 

Another project Butler took on while in Namibia was the restoration of the library. When he arrived, the library in the school was simply a closet. There was an empty room in the school building, and Butler asked the principal if this space could replace the closet. After receiving permission, Butler and students made “rickety” shelves out of tree branches and old doors. They also made their own “old-fashion” library system. The library is still standing and now even has computers. “I love to hear updates as the library progresses,” Butler said. “It’s something sustainable that I got to leave behind for them.”

Because Namibia does not have what Butler calls the same “distractions” the United States does, it was a great opportunity to reflect on his life. This self-reflection meant that he had to face challenges that he had endured during his childhood, which brought him to therapy once he’d returned to the United States. It was there that he learned about mindfulness. He was taught to use yoga and meditation as a means of coping. 

Eventually, Butler brought mindfulness into his classroom. Though initially it was more for him than for the kids, he saw how it changed the students. They became calmer and less angry in certain situations, and would even stop and take deep breaths. Butler made sure to include mindfulness every day in his classroom, and the students responded well. “Mindfulness saved my life and changed me as a teacher,” Butler said. 

Winning this award is a big moment for Butler. “There were a lot of people who though I wouldn’t make a good teacher,” Butler said. “So, it’s cool to be recognized as the educator I always knew that I could be.”