Teachers and administrators in Christian schools face any number of issues that make teaching very difficult. In my experience, one issue is the decision about when to expel a student.
This decision poses unique difficulty for Christian educators for a number of reasons. Christian schools, in my experience, strive toward the goal of creating a Christian community of learning. These communities seek to include the widest possible spectrum of students—students who come to school with a great variety of personalities, a great diversity of life journeys and experiences, and a wide range of learning styles and challenges. These students are typically welcomed into the school community because of the school’s conviction that all God’s children deserve the opportunity of an education that will prepare them for lives of faith and Christian service.
Christian schools have both the opportunity and the reason for providing this kind of education for the many different students that enter their buildings every day. These students are God’s children, deserving of the greatest respect and the best education that the school is able to provide. As one mother said to me during my days as an administrator, as we were standing in the school entrance welcoming students as they came off their buses and poured into the building, “We can never forget that God loves each one of these kids. And the fact that they are here makes this school holy ground.” And so teachers in Christian schools do all within their power to serve their students well and to include them in a strong and vibrant Christian community.
When things go awry, as they will in any human interaction, the school community stands ready to forgive, to restore, and to extend grace to those students who struggle, often to their own detriment and occasionally to the detriment of those around them. Sometimes those struggles are related to academic work, but perhaps more often they are related to behavioral issues. And sometimes it seems as though our very best efforts to support these students are in vain, and the difficulties they face and the difficulties they cause seem to continue unabated. The question then arises of whether the student should be allowed to continue to attend the school. The deeper question is this: If these students are God’s children and if the school is really “holy ground,” how can we as teachers and administrators determine the limits of our commitment to serve these students, especially if they appear unwilling to accept the service that we offer?
John: A Case Study
A practical example, perhaps, will illustrate the point. John is in 11th grade. He has come to the local Christian high school from a rather dismal experience in 10th grade at a neighborhood high school. He comes from a strong, faithful Christian family, and his parents really want him to be in a Christian school. For a number of reasons John became involved with “the wrong crowd” in his previous school. As a result, his academic performance, which had been strong in his elementary school and in his first year of high school, became a problem. He failed several key courses and his relationships with many teachers became difficult at best. There were also a number of allegations of drug use. At the beginning of the school year he was admitted to this Christian school at the request of his parents. John also insisted that he wanted a new start and that he would do his best to succeed and to meet the expectations of the Christian community of learning that the school seeks to develop. But now, a few months into the school year, it is becoming clear that he is either unwilling or unable to fulfill those expectations. His academic performance is disappointing, and he does not seem interested in improving that performance. He is again in conflict with his teachers, and there are again rumors of drug use. A number of his teachers have expressed the desire to have him removed from their classes, claiming with some justification that he is a serious distraction in their classes and is having a negative effect on the learning of other students. Several parents, having heard stories about his behavior from their students, have called to express their concerns.
It is probably outside the scope of a short article such as this to propose a definite answer to the very complex question of whether this student should be expelled from the school. I expect that some will maintain that this is a school, whose primary purpose is academic learning. John is not meeting these academic expectations, they argue, and seems to have no interest in doing so. He also does not appear to show any great respect for the identity of the school as a Christian community of learning. So he should not be allowed to continue, especially given his apparently negative effect on the life of the school.
While there is some validity to that position, I wonder if it oversimplifies the challenges involved in having students like John in your school. Can Christian schools only serve students who “fit the mold”? Is there room in Christian schools for those who struggle with academic work, with social relationships, and with their faith, even when those struggles manifest themselves in uncomfortably disruptive ways?
Let me suggest that before we make the decision to expel John from our school, we should answer the following questions:
- Have we done all that we could to ensure that John is well supported in his academic work? Could it be that John’s issues are due, at least in part, to the fact that the academic work that he is being asked to do is not well aligned with his abilities, interests, and learning style?
- Have we taken the time to get to know John well so that we understand enough of his life’s journey to determine how that journey has shaped his current behavior? Are there enough supports in place for him to deal with any issues that are causing his difficulties? How involved are his parents with his learning, and what supports can they offer? What support do they need when dealing with John?
- Have we approached selected strong and mature members of his peer group who certainly will know of John’s challenges and encouraged them to come alongside John to perhaps provide a more positive context for him?
- Is there a teacher or other member of the school staff who has a more positive relationship with John and who could touch base with him on a regular basis to review his work, to celebrate his successes, and to encourage him to move in more constructive directions?
- Have we been open with John about the rumors of his drug use, and have we pointed him (and his parents) toward appropriate support should those rumors be true?
- While it may be true that John’s behavior could negatively affect some of his peers, can we have enough faith in the strength of the school’s community spirit to counter the negative effect with the positive effect of the vast majority of the students in the school? Could that positive effect even be strengthened as the students see administrators and teachers deal with a difficult situation with patience, compassion, and forgiveness?
- And, finally, have we invited John to sign a contract with us which clearly spells out the school’s expectations and the school’s possible responses if John cannot or will not meet those expectations?
I am not proposing that Christian schools should never ask students to leave. I am also not challenging the position that the primary task of schools is student learning. There will be instances when student behavior is so damaging to the student and to the school community as a whole that the damage cannot be tolerated because the learning task of the school is compromised. There will be instances where students, despite the school’s best efforts, refuse to change their behavior such that their participation in the school community is possible. I hope, however, that as educators we never forget that our students are all God’s children. That remains the case even when their place in our schools creates a problem. As God’s children, they deserve the encouragement, forgiveness, and grace that we, as more mature children of God, realize that we have received in such rich measure ourselves. We should never lose sight of the reality that if our difficult and challenging students do not receive that encouragement, forgiveness, and grace in Christian schools, they may hear an implied message about whether they belong among Christians and whether the Christian faith is a fit for them. And that is a message that may affect them negatively in the future.
Gary VanArragon is a retired high school administrator and former editor of the Christian Educators Journal.