What do you remember about your time in school? Most people answer that question with a story about a person they remember—a teacher, coach, a fellow student. It’s my thesis that the context of schooling—the network of relationships, the modeling of life we find—is an important part of the content of schooling, and that we need to be as intentional about the context, the culture of our schools as we are about curriculum. As James K. A. Smith argues in his recent book, Desiring the Kingdom, Christian schooling is about “how a Christian education shapes us, forms us, molds us to be a certain kind of people whose hearts and passions and desires are aimed at the Kingdom of God” (18).
That shaping, forming, molding into people who do the work of the kingdom is done in the culture of a school. Thomas Sergiovanni writes, “Communities are defined by their centers of values, sentiments, and beliefs that provide the needed conditions for creating a sense of ‘we’ from ‘I’” (106).
After a lifetime of involvement in the church and Christian schools, I have been led to a vision of Christian schools as communities of grace—a community, not for its comfortable self, but a community on a mission. School cultures develop habits of the mind and heart for our work in the kingdom.
There are many kinds of communities, of which I’ll briefly explore two.
A Community of Mind
A school that functions as a community of the mind becomes a learning community in which relationships are close and informal, individual circumstances count, acceptance is unconditional, relationships are cooperative and collegial, leadership is shared, sacrificing oneself for the sake of other community members is common, and all the members work hard to find a center of beliefs, values, understandings. It’s a place where everyone is a crew member on a voyage and no one is a passenger.
Here’s a list of a few of the practices in schools that are striving to be a community of mind:
- Enduring understandings—a concise, articulate framework that undergirds all curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
- Lists of five, such as these—five promises we make to students; five promises we make to each other; five characteristics that you will see in our teaching; five things we expect from parents; five things parents can expect from us; five faith nurture or discipleship activities we practice. These are developed communally, and when posted, invite students, teachers, and parents to hold the school accountable for these promises.
- Core values—a list of values that our foundational to our practice and that guide all of our decisions and relationships.
- Mentor and coaching programs for new or struggling teachers
- Peer observations and learning walks
- Team teaching or co-teaching
- Common planning time
- Common files for sharing assignments and assessments
- Being a community of learners—studying and discussing books or articles that help us become better at what we do and bring to light our assumptions about school and kids.
- An annual best practices book, with each teacher contributing a single page. All the teachers receive a copy of the book at the end of the year, new teachers receive it as a welcome gift, and the school creates a growing “best practices” library.
A Community of Heart
Christians have a much more profound take on the habits of the heart—one that goes far beyond character development, the golden rule, and civility. Christians are striving to restore the kingdom, and the heart of that effort is our understanding of grace.
In The Riddle of Grace, Scott Hoezee writes, “Beyond forgiveness, grace also aims to transform our way of life. Encountering God’s grace is a formative, creative moment as a result of which a person is not only graced by God’s love but also becomes gracious because of God’s love. I mean gracious in the sense of being grace-like, of showing forth in our own lives some of the qualities of God’s grace in Christ” (4).
Here are some ways we can become gracious as we live in community.
One of the pillars of a community of heart is mutual respect as image bearers of God. Respect is something we earn, not demand, and that’s why a legalistic culture doesn’t work.
All communities need boundaries and structure, but it’s wise to remember that rules without relationships breed rebellion.
So how do we get respect? The simple answer is to be respectful. Respect is earned when others discover that our deeds match our words. We learn to respect people who do what they say they will do, who are covenant keepers, people of integrity. When students turn in their homework, take tests, or write essays, we teachers need to keep our word about when that work will be returned with grades and comments. We need to use classroom time wisely and well, starting class on time and ending with a bang, not a whimper. We need to come to class prepared, no matter how skilled we are at winging it. We need to model diligence and responsibility, and not just preach it to our students.
Trustworthy people are also confidence keepers. Gossip is a persistent sin in Christian school communities, no matter if we try to sanctify it by calling it the “grapevine.” Students have frequently testified that the one thing they hate most is the talk about them that goes in faculty rooms and staff lounges, which they rightly discern is too often not complimentary.
The Dance of the Porcupines
As Henri Nouwen has reminded us, “community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.”(Quoted in John Ortberg’s Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, 13.) James 3:18 says it well: “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor” (The Message).
A community of grace withholds judgment and always offers hope. This doesn’t mean we don’t make judgments. In fact, communities that think love can be practiced without discipline will quickly disintegrate. We need to learn and teach how to confront others when it’s needed, by being direct, but kind. Kind but direct discipline (which we all need, not just students) is a building block, not a stainless steel wall with no handholds. A community of grace always seeks repentance and restoration of relationships as a result of its discipline. Two approaches being used in more and more Christian schools are “love and logic” and “restorative justice.”
Gratitude and Celebration
A community of grace will have an attitude of gratitude. Another persistent sin in all our faith communities is the sin of ingratitude. No matter how blessed we are, we always want more, better, different. We never seem to have enough money, or enough stuff, even though we live incredibly well by the standards of the rest of the world.
In a community of grace, the members are constantly remembering and celebrating God’s blessings—the gift of salvation, the power of the Holy Spirit enabling us to overcome our sinful nature, and at least occasionally being the kinds of people God wants us to be. In a community of grace the members frequently ask, “Where have you seen God at work today?”
Joyfulness is a learned skill. When we celebrate, we exercise our ability to see and feel goodness in the simplest gifts of God. We are able to take delight today in something we wouldn’t even have noticed yesterday. Our capacity for joy increases.
A community of grace is persistently inviting. Our families, schools, and churches can make an effort to be deliberately and persistently inviting, where all visitors and customers (parents) and all staff and students feel welcomed, affirmed, valuable, and able. New students and families can help us find and fix the inhospitable messages we can’t recognize in our schools.
A deliberately hospitable culture can have a major impact on the behavior of the members of an organization. Such a culture encourages respect for individuals, a cooperative spirit, and a sense of belonging, hope, and high expectations.
Above All, Love
Colossians 3:12–14 wonderfully characterizes what our life together should look like. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
James K. A. Smith says it this way: “Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love” (33, 34).
Christian schools should be havens of hope because the language of God’s love is so clearly and visibly spoken there.
- Hoezee, Scott. The Riddle of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
- Ortberg, John. Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).
- Sergiovanni, Thomas. The Principalship: A Reflective Practice Perspective (5th ed.) (Boston : Allyn & Bacon, 2005).
- Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).