Distinct: Readily Distinguishable by the Senses
by Darren Spyksma, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
What makes a Christian school distinct? In an era where every action is defined by school safety, by responding to safety guidelines in order to prevent the spread of a pandemic, by minimizing physical contact in some groups and ensuring physical distancing in others, creating a distinct program may cease to be a priority. When you add in the element of fear that is prevalent in many households this fall, without tenacious persistence, the distinctive nature of Christian education may disappear as a by-product of educating during a pandemic.
What would you say makes your school distinct? Would a visitor sense a difference as they walk the halls during a tour? When asked what makes a Christian school distinct, school staff and students regularly offer three quick responses, “We pray, we go to chapel, and we do service.” To explore a school’s ability to maintain and develop its distinctiveness, leadership only need look at the impact of the most prevailing competing stories of the day. As we work to live in God’s story, we are all impacted by the prevailing competing stories of individualism, narcissism, and materialism. To be distinct is to actively work against the competing stories as we step faithfully toward a better story.
A Distinct Institution
In the face of a comprehensive focus on individualism, a distinct institution prioritizes collaboration, collective goals, and unwavering resolve in focusing on the essential. Do all levels of leadership and staff collaborate on, and aim toward, the same goals? Do the stories the school tells the broader community reflect these goals? Are staff intentionally supported and scheduled to work in collaborative teams, thus reinforcing the communal nature of God’s design for interdependence in Christian community? Is contributing to tuition relief an expected outcome of being blessed financially? Are the awards and celebrations at school focused on individual teacher and student achievement or collective achievements? As schools reflect on their present systems, rather than allow them to roll from one year to the next, they ensure that each system aligns more intentionally with the distinctive nature of a Christian institution.
A Distinct Classroom
Is classroom design neutral? A distinct classroom explores who God is through the exploration of creation, community, and self. God is the Creator, commissioning humans to bear His image as they live in the world He created. All learning orients itself in, and revolves around, God and His developing story. It is not enough to pray and worship. Though cultivating spiritual disciplines is important, all practices within the classroom should aim to root a person’s identity first in God. Extending out of this identity, staff and students participate in practices that develop a heart for others, increase the capacity for leadership, foster genuine relationships, all in order to respond in gratitude to Christ. As an elementary teacher intentionally includes six places within the classroom jobs list for students to look out for others who may need help with their classroom job, they are intentionally showing students that their role at a Christian school includes helping others, not just focusing on themselves. Thirteen years of connecting practices to living as an image bearer of Christ prepares students for ongoing engagement in God’s story.
A Distinct Learning Plan
God created all things good. The impact of sin tainted all of creation. God’s plan as represented in Christ’s sacrifice was for all creation. We look forward to a time when all of creation is restored; until that time all humans have a role to play. A distinct learning plan has a rhythm, that over 13 years of Christian education, encourages students to view life critically, thinking and reflecting on how God’s story speaks into their situation. Educators pursuing faithful learning plans create lessons and units which reflect the rhythm of God’s story.
Teaching Christianly includes creating learning plans which aim to consistently answer key questions: How was this aspect of creation created good? How were these skills intended to be used for good? How has the reality of sin impacted what we are learning about? How are these skills being used to promote selfish independence or other competing stories? Now that we know this information, what does it mean for our own habits and practices? What is our responsibility in the world now that we know this?
A distinct learning plan reflects a reality that the acquisition of new skills and knowledge comes with responsibility. Responsibility to reflect on whether our new knowledge and skills should impact our own habits and behaviour while also looking to support others with the newly acquired skills and knowledge. Thirteen years of reflecting on and responding to needs as a result of acquiring skills and knowledge will shape students, with the Holy Spirit’s help, solidifying their identity in Christ.
Distinct in a Pandemic
Living during a pandemic is an invitation to live in fear. Emotions are an invitation to reflect on where we find hope. As you lead learning during this pandemic, know that each staff and student experiences the pandemic in a deeply personal way. For many, the pandemic has forced introspection and disrupted their view of God, faith and what it means to believe. Educators are invited into this reality, curating a space where colleagues and students can ask some of the challenging and mysterious questions of faith. Did God cause this pandemic? Are the people who die from this pandemic and who aren’t Christians going to hell? Why do bad things happen to good people?
These questions are mysteries that need to be discussed. Encourage staff to wade carefully into these types of questions. Reflecting on the pandemic as a staff and as a class gives Christian educators the opportunity to practice looking to scripture, avoid easy answers, and foster the ability to ask hard questions and not necessarily come up with quick answers.
Responding to the pandemic in a way that is readily distinguishable by the senses is the goal for all Christian schools. As we focus our hope and trust in our Creator and commit to a life of interdependence as a community, we model what it means to live distinctively in these challenging and ever evolving times. May the peace of Christ dwell in you as you walk faithfully into today.