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.
If you know me at all, you know I have a passion for being outdoors, and I especially enjoy hunting. One morning recently I got up extra early to sneak into a new stand on the farm where I hunt. This particular stand hadn’t been used at all this year, and the property owner was going to walk me to it, as I had no idea where it was. Under cover of darkness we snuck quietly through the swamp, crossing shallow creeks and winding through trees and windfalls.
Last month, a colleague detailed for me how a surprise edict had come down from administration to his department that outlined a new procedure his department was to follow. “Bart, no one saw this coming. It gives us much more work, without any increase in resources. We don’t even know what problem we are supposed to be solving. You know, it makes me feel like I must be an incompetent teacher who doesn’t know much about what I’m doing.” This colleague is a recognized leader in his field who has traveled the nation giving seminars on his subject area!
Do you see yourself anywhere in this scenario? Which part? I, unfortunately, have been on each side at one time or another. In this blog, I am going to Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance, to identify some underlying principles I believe are in play here that may provide us some guidance.
The holiday season is upon us, and soon we will be besieged with school events, commitments, family reunions, and the world’s take on Christmas. For me, this season starts with my favorite holiday of Thanksgiving and progresses to the most stressful holiday for me, Christmas. It became stressful when I lost sight of God’s view of Christmas and focused on the world’s view of Christmas. It seems I get focused on trying to find the perfect gift instead of focusing on the most perfect gift ever given. So this year, we’re going minimalist and focusing on important things instead of gifts, concentrating on enjoying each other’s presence instead of each other’s presents.
Every Friday at lunchtime, our secondary campus music department brings in pizza to sell as an ongoing fundraiser. There’s usually a pretty big line of students, and several of the teachers also enjoy the option of having pizza for lunch. The students are very gracious and let teachers go to the front of the line, but there is one adult who never takes the students up on their offer. Each time he buys pizza, our secondary campus principal lines up with the students. A couple of month ago I asked him about this. He said he learned it from former Regent College president Walter Wright, who lined up for coffee with his students as a deliberate eschewing of his power to exercise privilege.
Students notice that the principal lines up and waits like they do. Just to be clear, I am not passing judgment on the teachers who go directly to the front of the line; they may have important meetings, intramurals, or student supervision scheduled and need to get there. This isn’t about them going to the front; it’s about the principal waiting in line.
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.
The comparison of a retailer and an educational institution may seem a bit strange. However, they have a lot in common, and there are some clear corollaries that can be instructive when considering the challenges and changes facing both sectors.
Whether intentional or not, your school is constantly making theological statements. If God comes alive during chapel and Bible, and is basically ignored in other subject matter, what theological message are we conveying? Are the theological statements that come from your school consistent and complementary, or are they working at cross-purposes?
The question is not whether a school makes statements about God and humanity; it is about the nature and accuracy of those statements. There is power in the combination of a well-articulated mission statement; a clear, common understanding of the biblical Big Story; and a framework for proactively integrating a biblical worldview throughout the entire curriculum and life of the school.
In my last blog, I wrote about the concept of hegemony: “the power revealed by norms, behaviors, beliefs, and practices” of an organization. The hegemony of a place can often be hidden and yet have more power in shaping a school culture than the official stances and statements the leadership uses to promote and define a place. I was heartened to read Joel Westa’s latest Voices blog wherein he talked about the power of culture: “culture eats strategy for lunch.” We’re talking about the same thing. One could say that the hidden hegemonies of a school, once exposed, are the real definers of a school’s culture.
I’d like to continue this theme of hegemony/culture for one more post, and I’d like to do that by taking a deeper dive into thinking about the power of language. The late educational theorist Thomas Greenfield once said, “Language has power. It can literally make reality appear or disappear.”
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.