Questions for Christian Schools

In just a short time school will start again. Students, parents, and teachers are busy preparing for a new school year. For many families, part of that process includes deciding where to send their children to school. They may find themselves in communities that offer multiple options, including public, charter, and Christian schools.

As parents consider the options, they ask many challenging questions about the purpose, mission, and distinctive character of Christian schools. What should parents be looking for in a Christian school in the Reformed tradition? What questions should they be asking administrators, teachers, other parents, and community members?

As Neil Plantinga so powerfully states in his excellent essay Educating for Shalom, the purpose of a Reformed Christian education is to equip children and young people to bring shalom to the world (see www.calvin.edu/about/shalom.htm). He defines shalom in the following way:

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Old Testament prophets called shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or cease-fire among enemies. In the Bible shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.

A school’s focus on shalom means it will work to help students flourish, but it will also equip them to bring about the flourishing of both the natural and human world, including those people who currently are oppressed, excluded, or marginalized. The questions parents should ask as they make decisions about which school to send their children to should center on how faithful the school is in carrying out this vision of shalom.

That’s a great idea, to be sure—but what exactly does it mean in practice? What might parents, teachers, and students look for in a school that actively seeks to educate for shalom?

Three important characteristics of education come to mind: excellence, equity and inclusion, and empowerment.

Excellence

Many school mission statements mention academic excellence. All parents want their children to receive an excellent education. However, it’s important to ask careful questions about how a school defines excellence and what implications that has for actual practice inside and outside the classroom.

Traditionally, excellence in schooling has focused on academic achievement, particularly in relation to core subject areas such as math, science, social studies, reading, and writing. A school that equips all students to flourish and to bring about flourishing will certainly have a strong curriculum that encourages students to master the basic skills they need to understand the world and engage in lifelong learning. Yet it’s important to realize that definitions of excellence are also shaped by culture and history, so they need to be scrutinized carefully.

Historically, the materials taught, the instructional strategies used, the extra-curricular activities that get promoted, and the organizational structures of schools have been shaped around the needs and “ways of knowing” of the dominant group in society. Not only parents but teachers and school leaders as well need to ask some challenging questions about who such practices honor and include and who they exclude.

In addition, parents will want to ask about the specific ways in which a school integrates faith perspectives into all areas of the curriculum. Christian schools have the unique opportunity and calling to make biblical perspectives explicit inall areas of the curriculum—as well as in their instructional strategies, extra-curricular opportunities, and the ways in which the school is structured and run. Some questions parents might ask include the following:

•    Does the curriculum include content that appeals to learners with a wide variety of interests, including the arts, the mechanical and physical world, the social and cultural world, and the environment?

•    Do the extracurricular activities offered develop a broad range of skills and abilities, including service to others and creative problem solving?

•    Which student achievements are honored and how are they honored? How are students who understand global issues or who care deeply about caring for God’s world or who display a particular gift for working with others honored and affirmed at this school? Do those forms of excellence receive the same kind of honor as high achievement in core subject areas, athletic ability, or gifts in the performing arts?

•    What kind of content, achievements, and events receive the most attention and resources from the teachers and school leaders? What message does that communicate to students about what is excellent and what is valued at this particular school?

•    How are biblical perspectives made explicit in all of the subject areas taught in the school? How is the Reformed Christian vision of the school evident in its instructional practices, extra-curricular activities, and organization as a whole?

A school that educates for shalom will define excellence around content, instructional strategies, and extracurricular activities that promote the flourishing of all students and affirm knowledge and skills that prepare students to bring about the flourishing of others.

Moreover, school leaders, teachers, and current students should be able to give specific examples demonstrating how biblical faith perspectives are integrated into the curriculum and instructional practices. The definitions of excellence in the school should go far beyond traditional academic boundaries and include a clear integration of Reformed Christian perspectives in all aspects of the school.

Inclusion and Community Building

Another important consideration for parents is what the school does to build an environment that promotes joy, justice, and inclusion of all students. In order for all students to experience joy and wonder and develop a commitment to justice, they must experience and see these qualities modeled in their school.

It’s important to recognize that schools have unique “personalities” based on their own histories and cultural contexts as well as the history of education in their community.

For years schools in North America have struggled with how to address ethnic, racial, gender, and ability diversity within a system designed for mass production of learning. Many schools from the Reformed tradition have the added blessing and challenge of a shared ethnic and religious heritage. Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for students with a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and learning styles can be particularly challenging for schools that have a relatively homogenous history. However, if a school is committed to ensuring the flourishing of all learners and bringing Christ to every square inch of the world, it must embrace diversity and inclusion.

Many school mission statements refer to diversity or meeting individual or unique learner needs in some way. But parents would do well to ask some specific questions relating to how a school includes all learners as part of the community, such as:

•    How are classrooms and the school as a whole set up to allow students of different ability levels to be successful? Is the curriculum designed in such a way that different ability levels are served? Are there support systems in place for students who need specialized assistance to meet their learning needs?

•    How are teachers prepared to work with learners from diverse backgrounds and with diverse gifts and abilities? What kind of professional development does the school provide for teachers so that they continue to learn how to work effectively with learners from a variety of backgrounds?

•    How are all of the students assisted in understanding and accepting diversity? Do the students engage in learning experiences that help them address tough questions about difference, inequity, and injustice? Are there specific structures and programs in place to teach students how to work and live with people who are different from them?

•    Does the school integrate diverse perspectives into its curriculum? For example, are the experiences of women, people of color, and people from outside North America well-represented? Are biblical perspectives on diversity, justice, and equity integrated into multiple areas of the curriculum? 

•    How does the school talk about diversity? Is it characterized as a gift to be sought, nurtured, and celebrated or as a challenge or problem that needs to be addressed?

A school dedicated to the flourishing of all learners will have thoughtfully addressed multiple forms of diversity in the curriculum, teacher development programs, and student experiences both inside and outside the classroom. It will address diversity as a key component of God’s plan for his kingdom and a source of strength and joy. Students will have experiences that prepare them to work with people from diverse backgrounds and ability levels. In this way the school will prepare all its students to both experience shalom and bring it about for others.

Empowerment

A third key area for developing shalom-centered schools is empowerment. In addition to developing an appreciation for diversity and a commitment to inclusion and justice, students must learn specific strategies for bringing about transformation in society.

Beyond understanding their place in society and the natural world, students need to be taught how to engage in what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “normative discrimination”—to evaluate specific areas of the social and natural world through a biblical lens and, once the discrimination has been made, “to change what is wrong when that proves possible, to keep discontent alive when change proves not possible, and always to be grateful for what is good” (Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning, Baker Academic, 2002).

This means not only helping students understand their history and the reasons why society is structured the way it is, but teaching them in a way that allows them to learn problem-solving and reconciliation strategies. Knowledge and skills related to God’s restoration plan for the natural and social world need to be integrated into all the curriculum areas, not just an occasional unit added on to the “real” curriculum. Even very young children can benefit from participating in solving real problems.

Empowering students to bring shalom to a broken world again involves the curriculum, teacher preparation, and school structures. Parents need to ask questions like the following:

•    What kinds of experiences do students have with solving real-life problems at this school? How are they learning the skills they need to bring justice and reconciliation to the world at an age-appropriate level? How are they learning to be grateful for what is good while being discontent with what is wrong?

•    How are teachers prepared to teach in a way that promotes problem-solving, reconciliation, and care for God’s world? What kind of support are they given to develop curriculum that helps their students develop the necessary skills to do this work?

•    What kind of relationship does the school have with the community? Is it known for its engagement in community service and learning? Is it involved in activities that broaden the students’ vision beyond their local community to the world as a whole?

•    How are parents empowered to engage in shalom-building work with their children? Do some of the problem-solving activities include families? Does the school challenge the parents to engage in their own shalom-building activities in their neighborhoods?

Schools committed to bringing shalom have built a curriculum that teaches children and young people why they are called to bring joy and justice to the world and gives them the tools to do the work.

The teachers are challenged and supported in shaping learning activities that integrate the necessary academic knowledge and skills into a creative problem-solving framework that includes activities in local, national, and international communities. Strategies for engaging in shalom-building activities are shared with parents.

All are empowered with the commitments and skills needed to discern God’s intention for the world, celebrate the good already present, and work toward change where injustice and brokenness are evident.

Challenge

The model of schooling described above will challenge parents, teachers, and students to embrace new ways of teaching and learning that may cause them uncertainty and discomfort.

Challenging traditional definitions of excellence, creating inclusive and welcoming environments for those who have been marginalized in our society, and embracing a curriculum that is shaped around community engagement and creative problem-solving is not for the faint of heart. The experiences the students have in such a school may be quite different from what the parents experienced. This kind of education may require parents, students, and teachers to interact with people who push them far beyond their comfort zones.

However, parents, students, and teachers who have the opportunity to experience a school that is educating for shalom will have no doubt about its impact. The broadening of vision and deepening of commitment inherent in being faithful to God’s call will enrich all those touched by the school. And God has promised to bless this work richly and abundantly.


for discussion
  1. If you were choosing a school for your child, on what criteria would you base your decision?
  2. Discuss Neil Plantinga’s definition of shalom. How do his words impact your vision?
  3. Does Sue Hasseler adequately adapt this definition to the world of education? What questions do you continue to have?
  4. What would you like to say to Christian educators in your area?
  5. How can you live out the principles of shalom in your life?


About the Author

Sue Hasseler recently accepted a position as Dean of the School of Education and Social Sciences at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. Her area of research is anti-racist, multicultural teacher education. She is a member of Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.
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