“Is your Christian school influential in the lives of your graduates?”
“How do you know?”
“I met one of our graduates the other day in a store and asked her whether she liked our Christian school. She said it really prepared her for college.”
Would that answer from one person be enough to persuade you? How does a school measure the influence of its education beyond graduation? If you were to survey graduates, when would be the best time to get the most accurate assessment? Five years out? A decade? What questions would you ask: achievement in college? Naming key points of a Christian worldview taught at your school? Generosity of time or money? Church participation? Something else?
Decades ago, while meandering through a magazine, I stopped at a letter to the editor, entitled something like “Jigsaw Puzzle Education.” The writer was troubled at the state of education, claiming that teachers were not connecting one fact or idea to another. His analogy went something like this: teachers ask students to learn that 2 + 2 = 4, but without any reference to the broader context of life.
He said that this way of teaching is similar to asking students to connect two pieces of a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle without ever seeing the picture on the box. Two facts may connect, but for the students, it has little meaning beyond that. The writer said it would be frustrating for students, seeing no sense in learning the tidbit connection without seeing how it fits in the whole picture.
“My son will not amount to anything.” Decades ago, when a student’s father said that in anger during our parent-teacher conference, I cringed. He saw it and pulled back, “I guess he will find a job someplace, but school is not for him.” Since then, I’ve wondered many times whether some kids lack the brain power to learn anything beyond the repetition of a task. Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, says they can: “I think anyone can learn anything under the right circumstances.”
For Christian schools, this debatable issue has appeared in several places. Some Christian high schools still market themselves as college prep schools, clearly communicating that they make little accommodation for students who may not be interested college prep subjects. More and more, Christian schools have access to programs in the community that train students for trades, with these students, in effect, having dual enrollment in two schools. Many have special education programs that help students with learning differences, including students who learn only elemental parts of various subjects.
I see quite well, actually. From a distance, that is. Computer screens, books, the print on my pill bottles? Not so well. I use reading glasses, cheap ones, with multiple pairs at every landing point of my day. I have an eyeball distortion, called presbyopia, a Greek word meaning “old eye.” (Presbyterian means “rule by elders.”) For most people, this aging of the lens begins in one’s 40s. Reading glasses correct the problem, with higher magnification necessary as one ages.
In school leadership, boards and administrators often have vision diseases that prevent them from seeing God and the world rightly. When administrators wear the correctives lenses of the Bible, they can lead teachers to supply these glasses for students and help them overcome a major vision defect: myopia. This myopia, left uncorrected, blinds people from seeing God’s vision for his people. When school leaders themselves have this disease, they can lead followers on a path that may look satisfying but is loaded with potholes and ditches of quicksand.
The 30-second ad showed a dad washing his car while his young son imitated him: soaping when the dad soaped, spraying when the dad sprayed, drying when the dad dried. Then dad sat down and leaned again a tire; so did the son. The dad pulled out a cigarette and lit it; the son took one and put it in his mouth. End of ad.
I recall this ad every time I think about the gap (sometime a chasm) between my preaching and practice in a Christian high school. Sponsored by the Mormon Church, the ad depicted how imitation is a powerful tool for learning, both for good and for ill. These days we use the term “follower” as a negative, e.g., “He’s just a follower,” like a student who follows the leader of a social group into trouble. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an America writer who celebrated “self,” said, “Imitation is suicide.” Likewise, Samuel Johnson claimed, “No man was ever great by imitation.” In education, imitation is in a recession; what’s taken its place is innovation, originality, and creativity. For the proponents, imitation is lazy, restricting, and deadening.
A quiz for leaders: multiple choice. Which one of these comparisons best captures your view of all children? A child is
- An empty bucket that needs to be filled with the water of knowledge.
- A cocoon wrapped in layers of blankets from which will emerge a butterfly.
- A diamond in the rough, flawed by sin and polished by grace and God’s hand to shine.
- A sheep that needs fences and shepherds to live well.
- A bulb that will become a beautiful flower if not stifled by “correction.”
“Some of the above” may be an option. However, almost all Christian schools, primarily through their leaders, develop programs (curricula) that emphasize one of these models more than others. In my experience (reading, watching, listening), most schools tend toward one of the following three notions about children.
What a “capital campaign” that was! Nehemiah was under house arrest in a land far from Judah. We know he was a close servant to King Artaxerxes there. A small group of his fellow citizens from the homeland sent him a message that the wall of protection for the capital city was “broken down.” He felt the call to help repair it, to lead the capital campaign. There’s a lot to learn about leadership in how he went about it. What would you or I do today to emulate his leadership?
In my last blog, I posed the contrast in leadership styles—push or pull—offering reasons for pushing as a means of helping teachers to achieve the school’s mission. Pushing demands accountability; the leader who insists that teachers all post on the school’s website a paragraph about how they weave the Word into their teaching will need to push until all have posted. “Please do this soon” often gets a receptive smile and a mental shrug. “I expect you will have it posted by this date” is a push…for the teachers’ and the school’s good.
Pushing has its benefits. Pulling has more.
The former president of the US Dwight Eisenhower caught the contrast between pull and push by using the analogy of string: “Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.” At one conference, we leaders in attendance literally tried to push a string to a goal; we wound up crumbling up the string into a wad, giggling to cover up our frustration, but we gained the goal quickly when we pulled it.
Back on the farm, I first heard it when a half-dozen neighbors were standing around waiting to begin a threshing bee, an annual rite in which famers moved from farm to farm to help each other harvest grain, sharing a communal threshing machine. In a joking tone, my dad said, “Alright, boys, it’s time to push, pull, or get out of the road.” Since then I’ve heard the phrase at the end of a tedious debate in a Christian school board room about starting a capital campaign, this time said in anger at the board’s indecisiveness. It had the tone of Nike’s “Just Do It.”
Whether to push or pull is a crucial part of leadership. Even the choice of “getting out of the road” is part of leadership. Pushing or pulling as a leader takes effort, is likely to get resistance from followers, and may lead to giving up. Just this month I heard a principal say, in the middle of criticism for pulling and pushing too much, “I think I’m going to just back off, to let things happen and save myself from the staff’s crabbing.” Teachers and parents all know the temptation of giving up disciplining their children to avoid their “I don’t like you, Mommy” or the teenager’s sassy mouth when we set limits.
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” It’s in the pool or at the lake. It’s sleeping in and slowing down. For principals, teachers, and board members, it’s reflecting back and planning forward: not so easy, but slower-paced than during the school year. It’s soooo good to put balance sheets, lesson plans, and school schedules on the shelf for a few weeks. Family time is a bigger chunk of the summertime than during the “schooling” seasons.
For school leaders and boards, summer is a good time to step back to notice changes in schooling over the past decade, most of which occur in both government and religious schools. Gone is the day (except for small schools in isolated areas) of all students sitting at desks going through the same curriculum with all parents satisfied because “The school knows best.”