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Posted on Nov 1, 2012

Crow’s Nest or On Deck?

Crow’s Nest or On Deck?

by Henry Contant, SCSBC Executive Director

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Everyone knows the sad story of this British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, UK, to New York City, USA. The owners and architect of this White Star luxury liner boasted that “even God couldn’t sink the Titanic.” The sinking of the Titanic caused the deaths of 1,502 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in modern history. Documentaries, books, Hollywood blockbusters, and even musicals have been produced chronicling this tragic event.

The disaster was greeted with worldwide shock and outrage at the huge loss of life and the regulatory and operational failures that had led to it.

Those involved in Christian school leadership have often heard a Christian school compared to a ship. We’ve heard or even parroted such phrases as “Where is this ship headed?”; “Who’s steering the ship?”; “Should a ship have more than one captain?”; “Who’s in the crows-nest or bridge watching for icebergs?”; “Who’s got the safety and well-being of the passengers (students) and crew (staff) in mind?”; “We are going through some stormy seas right now.”; “We could face a mutiny if this issue is not addressed immediately.”?

boards scan the horizonComparing a school to a ship has its limitations and lessons. However, if a school were like a ship, where ought the school board to be spending most of its time? On the bridge at the helm? Manning the rudder? Loading the cargo? Inspecting the life boats? Hoisting the sails? Patching the leaks? Repairing the hull? Scrubbing the deck? Serving as the purser managing the financial accounts? Training the crew? Filling in the ship’s log? Screening the passengers? In the crow’s nest scanning the horizon?

Out of sheer necessity, the founding boards of many of our Christian schools spent most of their time on deck. Not only did they have the vision to establish schools, they volunteered countless hours actually constructing our schools. In some cases, that meant pouring concrete, swinging hammers, digging ditches, and using paint and scrub brushes. In the early years of Christian education in our province, much energy was poured into actually building the ship, not asking where it was going and how it should be sailing. I’m deeply grateful for those early shipbuilders who literally laid the foundations of our Christian schools.

As our Christian schools became established, boards began to focus more of their time and energy on school operations. Education, finance, fundraising, and building and grounds committees were formed to assist boards in what they understood their role to be. Principals and teachers were hired with the expectation that they would take care of the educational aspects of the school, with the school board looking after the other aspects of the school’s operation.

Today, our Christian schools employ well-trained and highly competent superintendents, principals, teachers, administrative assistants, librarians, educational assistants, business managers, development personnel, technology experts, and countless other support staff and consultants to manage the day-to-day operation of all aspects of the school. In most cases, the day-to-day operation of our schools is excellent. Ministry of Education inspection reports commend our member schools for how they live out their mission and operate excellent and even exemplary schools. Parents enroll their children in our schools with full confidence that the school has their child’s spiritual, academic, social, emotional, and physical well-being in mind. Students and staff are being well cared for in our schools.

The evolvement of Christian school leadership has freed up our school boards to focus on their most important task. Boards should now be spending most of their time and energy leading the school community in developing a strategic vision for the school that doesn’t yet exist.

The class of 2026 is already enrolled in our preschool classes. How much time does your board spend thinking about and planning for what your school ought to look like in three years, seven years, or fourteen years when they graduate? Without a strategic plan to guide the future, boards and What's coming?administrative teams may default to merely replicating the past.

Boards must spend the majority of their time in the crow’s nest, scanning the horizon and asking, “What’s coming our way?” Dave Koetje, President and CEO of Christian Schools International suggests that eighty percent of a board’s time should be focused on the future, managing the tension between continuity and change. He suggests boards need to ask themselves, “Who will we serve? How will we serve them? Where will we serve? Do we have financial sustainability? Are we investing in our staff? Which strategic partnerships should we build? What should our funds development look like?”

In contrast, the remaining twenty percent of the board’s time ought to be focused on monitoring current operations. Boards should develop some key performance indicators to assist them in this monitoring role.

Principals need to spend time with their board in the crow’s nest. Principals have a role assisting boards to see and interpret what’s on the educational horizon and advising them on the changing educational landscape. Occasionally boards need to come down from the crow’s nest to walk the deck (the hallways) of the ship (school) to experience the living and learning conditions in the school. If the only time board members visit the school is to attend evening board meetings, they are missing a firsthand opportunity to understand the current situation in their school.

It’s been said that leaders don’t have to know all the answers, but they should be asking the right questions. In hindsight, what questions should those in command of the Titanic have been asking? What things should they have been monitoring to ensure the Titanic would sail the waters of the North Atlantic for years to come?

George Barna, demographer, has observed that “our culture essentially reinvents itself every three to five years. In other words, the core attributes of our society – language, customs, dress styles, dominant leisure pursuits, relational emphases, values, and the like – are being substantially reshaped and reconfigured every few years.” 1

How will these changes affect our schools? What steps should schools take now to shape their future? How should boards position their schools to prosper in the new environment they see coming over the horizon?

Questions from the Crow’s Next

Here is the beginning of a list of crow’s nest questions that ought to be discussed in the board room of your Christian school.

  • What should curriculum design look like for the 21st century learner?
  • What educational paradigm shifts are happening and how are we responding to them?
  • What new competencies should our graduates acquire?
  • How do we articulate our Christian distinctives in new and fresh ways?
  • How are schools addressing a growing biblical illiteracy among students, parents, and staff members?
  • How will emerging demographic trends affect our enrolment in five years? Ten years?
  • What should long term financial planning look like for our school’s situation?
  • Is there alignment between our mission statement and our international student program?
  • When is the appropriate time to launch a satellite feeder pre-school?
  • How quickly should our school be paying off its mortgage?
  • How do we market our school effectively to Gen X parents and their millennial children?
  • How can technological tools enhance student learning in the classroom?
  • How is globalization affecting education?
  • Should our students be encouraged to take on-line (DL) courses?
  • What does play-based learning mean?
  • What new governance structures will better serve our schools?
  • How do we keep Christian education affordable for future generations?

Tough questions? Yes. That’s why we have boards to lead our Christian schools. We need to continually gather bright, forward-looking, passionate Christians to share their insights about the future and apply their collective wisdom to the task of setting direction for our schools in an ever-changing environment.

Where does your school board spend most of its time? In the crow’s nest? Or on deck?

Henry Contant (contant@twu.ca) is the SCSBC Executive Director

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 1  George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church  (Nashville:   Word 1998) p. 43

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