In a few weeks, I will be teaching a grad class designed to help equip Christian educators for their work in both public and Christian schools. I enjoy trying to help these teachers live out their faith as my own career has been in both public and Christian education. My career choices were at times pragmatic, but I often wrestled with whether my calling as an educator was to serve in public or Christian education.
Just for the record and for context, I attended K-12 Christian schools and my higher education was a combination of Christian and public institutions. I taught three years in a public school and five years in Christian schools, served four years as an administrator in two public schools and fourteen years as an administrator in a Christian school, then three years working for a Christian school association, and now seven years as an independent consultant, working with both public and Christian schools. What have I learned?
1. Religion is being advanced in both settings
• In my experiences in public schools, many colleagues’ worldview was Judeo-Christian, yet the overarching institutional perspective was one of secular humanism. True education cannot remain neutral and some perspective is being advanced, whether actively or by omission.
• In Christian schools I worried about assumptions that everyone was a Christian and desired that kids develop a personal faith. Were we meeting our mission?
2. God may call us to different settings at different times
• I hoped I could have a significant spiritual impact in public schools and believed God was calling me to be salt and light in this way. I also believed that by signing a contract and agreeing to teach in a public school, I was subject to the current legal interpretation related to religion in public schools. I hoped I would be able to raise compelling questions with students about the meaning of life, but I felt integrity demanded a neutral approach that did not subvert my conditions of employment.
• I found myself frustrated by not being able to verbally express what was in my heart. A climactic experience for me as an administrator was getting a police report that one of our elementary students had been injured by a garbage truck while walking home for lunch. My first inclination was to assemble the staff and students for prayer, but then realized I would face discipline proceedings for that action. I was disappointed in myself I didn’t have the courage to act as my heart demanded in light of my faith.
• Upon returning to Christian schools, I became very grateful and serious about the opportunity to share my faith openly. It disturbed me that some teachers seemed lackadaisical about this – my experiences had helped me not take the privilege for granted. My passion to understand what was distinctive about Christian education motivated me to work on Christian distinctiveness. To help others educate Christianly is one of the deepest joys of my work today.
3. We can help students flourish in both places, but must use different methods
• Both are “mission fields” – we should seek to nurture the faith of students in both settings. We should not assume in Christian schools that students have a faith commitment.
• Being a Christ-like model requires attentiveness and patience in both settings. I believe the Spirit moves and prompts us if we are open to his leading.
Both settings are beset by societal expectations that may work against student flourishing. I have found that my Flourishing Index is resonant with the hopes and dreams of both public and Christian school teachers.
4. What I have come to understand and believe
• God has used my gifts for good in both settings. However, having come to a clearer understanding of my gifts over time, I believe that because of my inclination toward connectedness, my heart will naturally beat faster when I can freely connect my beliefs and actions without restriction. I truly enjoy helping educators make stronger connections between their faith and their work with students, therefore I am most effective when helping Christian educators and schools be distinctively Christian.
• I am part of a “reconciliation”/dual affiliation church that is seeking to repair past damage done, in part, by division over Christian day school education. I believe our church has made a wise choice by turning this decision back to parents and supporting them financially in some degree whether the parent’s choice is for Christian day school education or Christian summer camp. We should in any case, support and challenge parents and the church community to uphold their baptismal vow promise of “doing all we can to raise this child to love God.”
I strongly believe that Christian schools should be taking a more missional enrollment approach – being sure of, and clear about what we stand for, but open to all parents who wish to send their children to the school.1
• I also believe that public tax dollars should be put into the hands of the taxpaying parents to use on whatever educational approach they deem appropriate as long as schools meet certain requirements. I believe that the current system of double payment by parents if they wish to educate their children according to a particular faith or philosophical perspective is unjust. The province of Alberta, Canada provides an example of a successful implementation of this approach to education.
• I strongly believe in the value of Christian day school education and my wife and I believed that putting our daughters next to Godly teachers and in settings where their faith could be nurtured was one of the most important decisions we could make as parents. Yet as an adult, I believed that God called me to serve in both settings at various times. I hope and pray that something I’ve shared may be of some use to teachers wrestling with how to answer God’s call to serve him.
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Thanks Dan! Well said and well done! God has blessed your work in both public (government) schools and Christian schools. I like your church’s policy on helping parents whatever decision they make. I still hope that in our lifetime we will see true justice in the finances offered by government to help parents with educating their children.
Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Dan! I particularly appreciated your first point: all schools are “religious” schools, because there is always some faith perspective (even secular humanism) being embodied in the policies and practices. How well are Christian schools truly striving to be distinctive in this light? Are they just following the model of whatever public schools are doing, and then trying to add on a biblical perspective? Or is the faith perspective central, integral to the identity of the school, and everything else flows out from there? I worry sometimes that it’s too much of the former (just following what broader education culture is doing) and not enough of the latter. My 2¢…
Like you, I was educated in Christian schools, in my case kindergarten through college, and have taught in both Christian and public high schools. I can relate to your experiences and observations, and I agree completely with your conclusions. It has been a pleasure to reconnect with many former students and colleagues from both backgrounds and to learn how they love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ in their lives today.