Author Archives: Dan VanderArk

Life Imitates Heart

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.
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Who Is This Child?

A quiz for leaders: multiple choice. Which one of these comparisons best captures your view of all children? A child is

  1. An empty bucket that needs to be filled with the water of knowledge.
  2. A cocoon wrapped in layers of blankets from which will emerge a butterfly.
  3. A diamond in the rough, flawed by sin and polished by grace and God’s hand to shine.
  4. A sheep that needs fences and shepherds to live well.
  5. 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.
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Nehemiah Now

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?
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Push or Pull: Part II

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.
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Push or Pull as a Leader? Part I

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.
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Change for Change’s Sake. Not

“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.”
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Whajagit?

Whajagit? This is the title of a book about giving grades to students. The writer noted that kids, when tests are handed back, use this question with fellow students, “Hey, Nate, whajagit?” It’s still a practice in school, and at home, where parents ask at major marking times, “Whajagit?” The students who ask it the most are the ones who almost always get good grades. They ask it of students with whom they compete. An A feels even better if the respondent says, “A-.”
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Acting on Trust in Christian Schools

A sermon illustration from 40 years ago has stuck with me. The pastor had us imagine a father hearing from his son, “Dad, I’m really grateful for all the stuff you give to me. We go on fine trips. You protect me…but sometimes, Dad, I don’t quite trust you.” The pastor claimed that would devastate the father. Then came the point: “Our Father must feel that way when we say, in effect, ‘Father, I like all your good gifts, but….’”
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What’s in a Name?

If you are a board member, what title do you use for your main leader? Choose from the following names, each used by CSI schools: administrator, principal, head-of-school, superintendent, president, headmaster.

If you are the staff leader (I’ve never heard that as a title), how recent is the title you now have? Did you suggest to the board the title you prefer? For both boards and leaders, the current name may have little or no intentional meaning: as long as the person answers to the board, all those alternatives may seem the same. It’s akin to Juliet telling Romeo that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Who cares about the name? Continue reading

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Using Trifocals to Lead

Once, to a group of principals, I described a long day at my school this way: “I dropped in bed at ten after calling two sets of frustrated parents who didn’t like the discipline I gave to their kids; that was after supervising rowdy kids at a game; that was after a faculty meeting where a dream I had caught more ice than fire; that was after a teacher evaluation session in which the teacher said: ‘You seem so rushed, you hardly listen’; and that followed my skipping my prayer time in the morning.” Continue reading

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