Tensions and Transformations

by Debra Paxton-Buursma with Becca Brasser, Shanna Pargellis, Mark Ponstine, and Gary Warners

This final article explores tensions experienced living with one foot headed toward heaven and the other firmly stuck in earthly educational muck. By sharing professional tensions, we acknowledge our earthly location while simultaneously stepping into the sacred, holy space where Christ enters our humanity to teach and transform. With gratitude for educator stories, we explore the tightrope between necessary structures and dynamic cultural changes, trusting that we are all navigating familiar ground.

Christian Pedagogy in a Changing Culture

Mark Ponstine, principal at The Potter’s House, notes the tension that can arise when educating Christianly bumps into contemporary culture (see also “The Practice of Hospitality: From Cup to Community”):

I have found it increasingly difficult . . . to be hospitable and to meet the growing . . . expectation for school security. . . .  I want [students] to feel that they are welcomed . . . to extend peace. I also have increasing pressures to install security equipment at the front doors, . . . to be ‘buzzed in,’ . . . to swipe a driver’s license to record a visit, . . . to perform drills. . . . To respond to an intruder, . . . we practice locking doors and hiding. I have a deep desire toward loving the stranger yet an increasing pressure to fear some strangers.

We are called to faith-shaped pedagogy within school cultures that are increasingly diverse and complex; we hope stories of tension and transformation will tether us together in Christ.

“The Way”

We found that schools struggled establishing practices and routines that were stable, yet responsive enough to bend with changes impacting school culture. As Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk and I analyzed conversations with administrators and teachers, we noted that four of the five schools used the phrase “The (insert name of school) Way.” While the “ways” of the schools differed, each school intentionally structured a particular way through well-honed practices that students and teachers learned and followed.

Schools spoke about creating coherence between beliefs, vision, policies, practices, and places that developed strong community identity. However, intentional “ways” also created specific tensions: (1) when new educators (and students) were apprenticed into “the way” through discussions about enacted practices, it took a full year or two to acclimate them to this new “way.” The more structured the practices, the greater the length of apprenticeship and the less teacher-student autonomy; (2) the more a school grew in numbers, diversity, or programs, the more educators struggled with consistent decisions around transmission of “the way”; and (3) while schools focused on community, “the way” offered newcomers (novice or veteran teachers) little cultural capital for voicing their ideas.

Being Neighbors: Changing People, Places, and Practices

Tensions in a school’s “way” related to change and the ability of a school community to respond flexibly to cultural changes. Shanna Pargellis and Becca Brasser write about tensions arising from changing demographics in schools with a core identity and “way” connected to serving the poor.

When a school decides to be intentional about connecting its practices with its philosophy, it means continued dialogue and re-examination of what is owned or changed within a dynamic learning community. Tensions inevitably arise between old ideas and new ones—what is kept and what is released for a better way.

Grappling with Sociocultural Change

One change relates to the sociocultural changes of the geographic area around the school. The demographics . . . have changed since the beginning of the school thirty-five years ago. Hoboken (home of the Mustard Seed School) has become gentrified. We still have the poor in the projects, although they are less visible, for we now see million-dollar condos lining the waterfront. Those from the middle class, struggling to find affordable living near school, often move out to surrounding areas. The identity that once formed a Mustard Seed Way responded positively to an intentional move into a poor neighborhood. Whom do we serve? Who is our neighbor? Can we, from all socioeconomic spheres, be in a learning community together? Does this community gather for social as well as school events? How does the changing neighborhood with new recruitment strategies change ways of being and doing together? [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Works Cited

Schaap, James C. “‘Every Knee Shall Bow’: Righteous Acts, Filthy Rags, and a Mission Cemetery.” Books & Culture., Christianity Today, March/April 2009. Print.

—. “Rehoboth: Righteous Acts, Filthy Rags, and a Mission Cemetery.” Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Jan/Feb. 2009, pp. 33–34. Print.