by Darren Spyksma, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
What so many of us long for is to go back to the way “it was,” to get back to “normal.” But what if the way “it was” was not actually working very well in the first place? For learning or for students?
For decades educators have been calling for change to the educational system. In March of 2020 we were given no choice. In the turbulent and challenging times, it took only weeks for the call to go out, “When can we get back to ‘normal’?” The challenging task of educating in a pandemic presents us with an opportunity and impetus for change. Yet, many of us long to go back to the way it was, even though we acknowledge that many aspects of the “way it was,” were not working well for learning and for students.
One of the mysteries of faith, the power of doubt to propel us, is best represented by Saint John of the Cross when he coined the phrase, “the dark night of the soul.” For many educators, there has been a professional dark night of the soul. For some it lasted a day or two, here or there. For others it brought them face to face with their own fear, insecurity, and lack of trust. For each of us, as we face our own frailty and fallibility, to try to return to how it was, is in actuality, taking a professional step backward deeper into the dark night of our profession. The other choice we face, is the choice to face our doubt, raise our face to our Creator in an act of trust, and step boldly forward into the morning using what we have learned as educators through the night, to propel us toward a new beginning for Christian education.
Each school leadership team, staff, and community need to discern their own characteristics or definition of “new beginning.” Just as God created all people as unique image bearers, each Christian school community is also unique in who they are and which families they serve. Here are three questions, with a little background, that can serve as discussion starters for schools who want to propel themselves forward into living out their role as co-creators with God in anticipation of the new creation.
Do we prioritize relationships and belonging as foundational elements of our Christian school community?
In schools, we show we value something by allotting it time. If we as educators do not have enough time to prioritize practices such as standing at the door to look each student in the eye and greet them by name as they enter our room, our practices show that relationships and belonging are less important than doing the last-minute marking, scrolling, or emailing. When we set aside time each morning to complete an opening circle where every child is named, shown they belong, and invited into the classroom story through a framing activity, we show with our actions that relationships and belonging don’t just matter, they are a priority. When we know our students enough to curate some of the learning taking place to their interests and needs, we show students that they matter.
Do our practices promote interdependence or independence?
I am humbled almost to the point of shame when I read Acts 4: 32-36 or Luke 19:1-10. At no point in Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God is there a call to independence. Repeatedly, Jesus, God with us, invites us into a life of interdependence, a life where we are first to look to the needs of others even as we are blessed enough to be able to take care of ourselves.1 Yet, when we look to incorporate this principle into the practices of school, we are reluctant to examine age old practices that either harm the learner or the school culture. Do we rank learners for the sake of personal accolades and institute a valedictorian based on academic achievement alone? Are summative assessments done as individuals, or is there the expectation that part of completing a summative assessment is collaborating with a peer about what you might have missed and then adding it to the assessment in a different colour or font?
Do our structures and practices reflect the complexity and interconnectedness of the created world and the Christian life?
In schools, the default structure divides learning opportunities into subject areas. There is merit to breaking down a concept or skill into manageable pieces. When we forget to reconnect the subject-based specifics with a larger whole we no longer reflect God’s design in our curriculum design. Experiential learning opportunities and secondary course pairing are two options for exploring a learning program which is closer in design to the created order. How would learning change if students who signed up for Physics 11 were also enrolled in Fitness and Conditioning 11 and the two teachers co-planned the learning to intersect in various places throughout the learning cycle? Physics, and God’s designed order, should have something to say about efficient and effective fitness and conditioning. Are we pointing to the interconnected nature of the Trinity with the very structures that we use shape the learning lives of our students? Placing interconnected learning as a priority over “but I want to take just this course” will take resolve and determination based on a school’s values and mission. In a world where students and families are told it is all about them, inviting students into another story needs to be justified and invitational, inviting students into a more compelling learning journey than could be provided by one course alone.
Change is needed. Change is hard. As we return to school, long enough to begin to feel like it is familiar, may we have the courage to stop, examine, and intentionally alter our course away from “because we have always done it this way.” May we take these moments of realization as opportunities to examine each repeated pattern or practice for its validity in meeting the faith formational and learning needs of this group of students, at this time in history.