Why Christian Schools?

Why Christian Schools?

After 15 years of working in the field of Christian education, and being a parent of Christian school students myself, I’m convinced that few things provide more hope to our country or our world than teaching Jesus to our kids.

A true Christian school is set up to think, create, feel, design curriculum, present lessons, disciple kids, and partner with parents in a completely different way. If you believe God is the author of life and the creator of everything that is, this means that He has a perspective, something to say about everything in life: not just relationships and living in a moral way, but about things like language, and math, and science, and music, and every aspect of human endeavor. When the Apostle Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, NIV), he doesn’t mean just know facts about God; he means let what you know about God, revealed in His Word and through creation, transform the way you look at everything in life. That’s what a Christian school is about: helping kids think that way. And, no other school is set up to do it. It can’t.

Learning Together in a Christian Community
Being a Christian school impacts not just what is taught, but where it is taught.  As one of my PhD professors told me, “Context is everything.” The “where” is not everything, but it is really, really important. In a Christian school, school community members are unified in living according to God’s Word as his or her standard. Notice I’m not saying, “Everyone lives according to God’s Word all the time.” This school is an imperfect place, because you and I are here. As the Gospel teaches, we are not perfect people; but, we are perfect-able: failing, repenting, and asking the Holy Spirit to help us love and be holy.

This means we love, even when we don’t feel like it. We love even when it’s hard, even when a student, or a parent, or a teacher, or an administrator, or a sick, or injured, or difficult community member is hard to love. We love because we’re family, commanded by God to love and hang together. Teachers feel that love, and it allows them to share, and collaborate, and innovate, and explore in ways they might not otherwise. Students feel that love, and they are more secure in who they are, more willing to try harder, more willing to ask questions, to take academic risks, and to express themselves. When kids know they’re loved, they’re more open to being discipled, to being conformed to the image of Christ. It provides a medium in which great learning and great living happens. This is the beauty of learning together in Christian community. Only a learning community joined by the Gospel can love in this particular way.

A Valuable Investment
The Christian school isn’t paradise. It’s not perfect. No family, or church, or community is. Perfection is always taunting and enticing, yet always eluding those who try to chase it. But, for those who have chosen Christian schooling, who have committed to be a part of it, pray for it, support it, and fight for it, not as an idol, but as an act of worship of the God they love, most days it’s pretty great. Sure, it’s an investment, but it’s an eternal one. And as a father of three, two of whom have graduated, it’s the best investment we ever made. Because “what,” “where,” and “who” make all the difference in the world.

About the Author
Jay Ferguson, JD, PhD, is the headmaster of Grace Community School, Tyler, Texas. He practiced law for 10 years and, in 2002, joined Grace as development director before assuming the headmaster role in 2003. He’s written extensively on Christian education and training children, including his weekly blog, The Head and the Heart. He can be reached via email at jferguson@gracetyler.org.

Envisioning the 21st-Century Christian School

Envisioning the 21st-Century Christian School

  1. What knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values will today’s students need to thrive and shape their world?
  2. How can instructional systems develop knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values effectively?

These two questions are the focus of “The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030,” a position paper by the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The OECD identifies that significant global trends are leading to rapid and profound societal change that, in turn, create a number of challenges (including environmental, economic, and social). More than ever, it is recognised that schools need to be preparing students for much more than the world of work. The students we are preparing need to be equipped with the capacity to “transform our society and shape our future” (OECD 2018, 5). This same sentiment is echoed by Valerie Hannon (2017) in her book, Thrive: Schools Reinvented for the Real Challenges We Face, when she states that “today, education has to be about learning to thrive in a transforming world.”

Education: What’s Changed?

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the dominant narrative around education has been an economic one that sees education as what “enables individuals to be successful and nations to compete to ensure economic growth” (OECD 2018, 19). However, viewing economic growth as the measure of success, and competition as the means of achieving it, does not fully prepare students to respond to the complex problems facing our communities and world. Rather than the default goal for students being acquisition of material wealth and increased consumption, the broader field of education is recognising that schools need to produce globally competent students who “actually know something about the world – its cultures, languages and how its economic, environmental and social systems work” (OECD 2018, 5). Students need to be taught not just knowledge, but also how to take action.

According to Mark Treadwell (2008, 2017), young people will need the skills to navigate the complexities of relationships, moral questions, and the myriad bourgeoning ethical decisions that will face their generation. Similarly, Hattie (2017) contends that schooling needs a “reboot” and that it is time to “intentionally change the narrative that frames our definition of ‘success’ in education” (17). Hattie claims that key to this change is increasing focus on progress, rather than just on achievement. He argues that schools need to “step outside of complacency and carefully consider what to keep, what to modify, what to throw out, what to prioritise, what to aim for” (30-31).

What Does This Mean for Christian Schools?

The broader field is recognising that the future depends on young people being equipped, not just with knowledge and skills but, importantly, with values, attitudes, and a moral compass which will enable them to address society’s most complex challenges. The OECD framework, along with other current literature around the purpose of schooling in the 21st century, serves to highlight the enormous opportunity and responsibility for the Christian schooling sector to step up and take a lead in contributing to the reshaping and reconceptualising of education across the globe.

It’s an exciting time to be in Christian education! Christian schooling has long held a “transforming vision” for education. Our core purpose has always been to see young people prepared for a life of biblical flourishing. Our desire is for each young person in our care to discover God’s unique calling on their lives and to go forth into the world with a sense of purpose and a desire to use their gifts and skills to serve God and their communities, as ministers of reconciliation, pursuers of peace, and good stewards.

How Should Christian Schools Respond?

Now is the time for all schools to re-examine their mission statements and rethink their purpose. Now is the time for Christian schools to audit how well their lived-out practices actually align with their espoused biblical ethos. Now is the time to reconceptualise Christian education in light of the opportunities, challenges, and needs of this generation and those of the future.

The OECD has listed items such as spiritual identity, justice, respect, hope, purposefulness, integrity, and compassion as key, actionable constructs which should underpin curriculum and which it identifies as essential to equip young people for their futures. Surely now is the time for Christian schooling to shine.

References

  • Hannon, V. 2017. Thrive: Schools Reinvented for the Real Challenges We Face. London: Innovation Unit Press.
  • Hattie, J. 2017. “Time for a reboot: Shifting away from distractions to improve Australia’s schools.” In T. Bentley and G. C. Savage (Eds.), Educating Australia: Challenges for the decade ahead. Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Publishing.
  • OECD. 2018. “The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030.”
  • Treadwell, M. 2008. The Conceptual Age and the Revolution: Schoolv2.0: A Selection of 35 Professional Learning Readings. Heatherton, Vic.: Hawker Brownlow Education.
  • ———. 2017. The Future of Learning. New Zealand: The Global Curriculum Project.

About the Author

Maria Varlet currently serves as the head of Research and Innovation at Crest Education in Melbourne and is a board member for ACSI–Australia. She has been involved in Christian Education for over 25 years, holding positions of head of Learning and Teaching, campus principal, and executive officer for Christian Schools Australia. Her doctoral research investigates how professional learning can help teachers navigate tensions between biblical ethos and assessment practices in the Christian school context. She can be contacted via email at maria.varlet@cresteducation.vic.edu.au.

Beginning Well: Succession Planning from the New Leader’s Perspective

Beginning Well: Succession Planning from the New Leader’s Perspective

In a blog post earlier this school year, I (Lynn) interviewed a recently retired head of school about how to do succession planning well. In this post, I have the chance to get the other side of the story—by interviewing a new head of school who transitioned into the role held by a retiring head for many years—to find out what supports, challenges, and pitfalls he encountered in making the transition successfully.

Mitch Salerno is just finishing his first year as headmaster at Monte Vista Christian School (MVCS) in Watsonville, California, which has 1,000 students, with 750 in the high school (100 of whom are boarding students) and 250 in the middle school. Last year he served as headmaster-elect at the school, which meant his transition and overlap with the retiring head ran for a full school year.

LS: Why do you think succession and transition planning is important, as more and more school heads retire over the coming few years?

MS: A succession and transition plan is critical because Christian schools are complex, multi-faceted institutions. We inappropriately assume that the incoming head will be able to smoothly and effortlessly assume operational management duties, while learning and absorbing the culture and history of the school. Based on my experience as a first-year head of school, the amount of historical, cultural, and political knowledge I had to acquire was immense. A succession and transition plan allows the incoming head time to honor the community through a purposeful, intentional, and directed knowledge acquisition phase. I believe the transition plan that was in place for me allowed me to conduct research, prepare for leadership, and understand the community in a way that would have been impossible if I had been asked to assume full operational management upon arrival.

LS: What are some things that you did as the new head that were critical to making it a positive transition?

MS: Within the first several months I conducted a listening tour, which is a coordinated, intentional, qualitative research methodology championed by Dr. David Tilley, the retiring head at Mt. Paran Christian School. The listening tour quickly revealed three salient themes that have provided the framework for my early work within the school. Because I had time and space to transition, I saturated myself with the history of MVCS through building relationships with alumni, historically knowledgeable people, and current staff. Understanding the history of MVCS allowed me to begin my first year of headship on the firm foundation of the past and earn the trust of the community.

Lastly, our school is a commuter school. We draw students from a radius of up to 50 miles. Parent connection and participation is limited by a lack of proximity. However, the parents really do care and they want to be involved. Early on, we made the decision to go to parents and meet with them in homes throughout the community. During the transition year, I attended over 20 meet-and-greets, including several in China for our boarding parents. These meetings were an opportunity to meet parents, as well as an opportunity to listen and share vision. As I reflect on these meetings, I believe they were invaluable and I wish I could have done more of them. In fact, they were so successful, we have continued them into my second year and they have continued to be well attended and appreciated.

LS: What did the a) departing head and b) school board do that was particularly helpful to you with the transition?

MS: The most important behaviors the departing head exhibited were trust, endorsement, and freedom. I could envision the transition progressing in a far more negative manner had the retiring head done the opposite (distrust, opposition, and control). I truly felt supported and honored to be the incoming head of school and was afforded the freedom to own my workflow and agenda. At no time did I feel like I worked for the retiring head, which allowed me to begin to formulate my own leadership agenda and, as mentioned previously, analyze the school thoroughly.

The school board provided confidence and encouragement consistently. I knew, implicitly, that I was their choice as the next head of school and they continually affirmed my position and standing. As I look back, this was critical for my success as a leader and my emotional well-being. One of the most difficult aspects of being the incoming head and overlapping the retiring head is being present for the “farewell tour.” The retiring head, deservedly so, receives constant attention, affirmation, and praise. As the incoming head, you must be comfortable, patient, and respectful, while waiting for your time to lead. The board’s consistent affirmation provided me with stability and confidence.

LS: What is the best advice you would offer to someone taking over for a retiring head?

MS: I would encourage incoming heads to be patient and to listen. While there were some areas where I feel I successfully accomplished patience and listening, I honestly could have done better. Looking back, I believe there is no limit to patience and listening! I suggest finding a trusted colleague or coach and working diligently to be patient and listen. Also, be positive! It is impossible for the organization to be exactly like you would want it to be. The retiring head did the very best he or she could do for the organization and the areas you have identified for improvement were not intentionally made so. Your new team wants to work with a forward thinking, respectful, positive leader. In transition, you might be tempted to focus on what needs to be fixed. In fact, I am going to wager that is exactly why you are drawn to the head position—you like to fix things. Instead, encourage. Praise. Find success and celebrate it.

Finally, build your team with transparency and honesty. Transition and change are hard on people. The students, parents, faculty, staff, board, and alumni want to get to know you. Let them in. Open up to them and build relationships. This will serve you well as you move beyond the transition and begin implementing your vision and accomplishing your mission.

LS: What pitfalls should someone in your situation be aware of? Is there something that caught you totally unaware, but that you think might be a common issue or hurdle for other schools?

MS: I was not emotionally or professionally prepared for the gravitas of the actual organizational shift from the retiring head to me. As we moved through the transition, which began August 1, I noticed the staff naturally and appropriately beginning to look to me for direction and leadership. By Thanksgiving, as the natural rhythm of school life forces a focus on the next school year, my role as the leader increased. However, the retiring head was moving into the celebration phase of the process. The resulting organizational tension and stress was real and must be understood. I don’t think this unnatural or, in any case, negative. You must, however, respect it and prepare for it. As I process this, I am wondering if shortening the length of the overlap would have eliminated this tension and stress or if it would have simply shifted it sooner. Regardless, if you are going to have an overlap, which I would encourage, this dynamic should be talked about and prepared for.

I would also add that communication throughout the entire process is critical. I think we assume everything is going to be fine. Reflecting back, both the retiring head and I could have communicated more often. While our transition was successful, we could have been more intentional, as in scheduling time off campus to share our observations. In the end, our roles were different and our value to the organization required us to be teammates.

LS: What if a school doesn’t have the financial resources to have the retiring head and the incoming head employed at the same time? What advice would you give them to still be intentional in making the transition successful?

MS: This is a great question. I certainly understand the financial constraints some schools face. However, before I offer alternatives, I want to suggest that an overlap, if possible, is truly the best form of transition. I think six months would be an optimal amount of time, but if you can’t do six months, go for three months. I wouldn’t recommend less than three months, though. Financially speaking, assuming both of your heads make $150,000 annually, a three-month overlap will cost you no more than $50,000, including benefits. While that is not a small amount of money, what is the cost of a failed transition? I would suggest it is significantly more than $50,000. But if you can’t provide time for the incoming head to overlap with the retiring head, I suggest carving out time for the incoming head to analyze the organization and to conduct research through organized listening tours and focus groups. In order to do this, the leadership team could assume operational control for a short period of time, even if it is only a month or two, to allow the incoming head the proper time for transition.

The board should also be intentional about supporting and encouraging the new head. I found the transition time to be lonely and overwhelming. In many situations the new head must move an entire family to a new city or state. Don’t underestimate the emotional energy and family trauma that occurs in moving. The new head needs space and time to acclimate to the new environment and for the organization to acclimate to the new leader.

LS: Any final words of encouragement for readers?

MS: As I’m completing my second year at MVCS and my first year as headmaster, I feel very energized and encouraged to lead this institution. No transition is ever perfect, but I believe that this one was successful thanks to careful planning, intentional design, and God’s faithful care. For any readers who are planning a leadership transition in the near future, I’d be delighted to talk with them personally to provide deeper insight and counsel. The future of Christian education hinges on our ability to transition leadership effectively and responsibly

About the Authors

Dr. Mitchell Salerno is headmaster of Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville, California, president of the Christian Coalition for Educational Innovation, and a well-regarded speaker on school innovation and technology. He can be reached via email at MitchellSalerno@mvcs.org.

Dr. Lynn E. Swaner is the Director of Thought Leadership at ACSI. Prior to ACSI, she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. A published scholar, her focus is on engaged pedagogy and creating cultures that foster student learning. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at lynn_swaner@acsi.org.