Transformational Teaching

Al Boerema began the conversation by asking the panel members to reflect on the tension between the standards/accountability movement that has taken center stage in public policy on education and the equity perspective that emphasizes cultural diversity, positive relationships, and equipping students to confront social inequities through culturally appropriate pedagogy and student-centered learning and teaching. The panel took the discussion in a slightly different direction by focusing on the task of transformational teaching, which is really at the heart of what Christian schools are trying to do.

On October 9, Christian Altena started the discussion:

We all accept that education can bring about personal and social transformation. When we talk in our loftiest language about our profession, we talk about changing lives, developing potential, fostering citizenship, making a better future, and so on. The motto of Chicago Christian, like most mottoes, speaks this language: “A Christ-centered learning community intent on the restoration of God’s world.”

In our Reformed tradition, we should be absolutely obsessed by the idea of a transformative educational experience. It’s in our DNA to see the world not just as it is, but much more significantly, as it will become. And further, that we are not to be passive observers of this change, but active participants.

I would say that we have a decidedly mixed record when it comes to following through on the rhetoric of restoration. Sometimes we are guilty of acting as if the means to the restorative end is merely through the mastery of multiplication tables, correct use of semicolons, and the recall of constitutional amendments. When since the Declaration of Independence has a semicolon been part of something truly transformative?

We may tend to focus on academic skills because they’re easy to evaluate and their mastery is immediately recognized and appreciated by everyone out in the world. We focus on skills because the cold machinations of the economy demand that we do. Of course, we also focus on skills because they are extremely important. So why might we get squeamish when spending our limited time on the soft skills of citizenship?

We miss many opportunities to develop a transformative mindset because the related topics have sounded like things we should be avoiding. Teaching diversity has sounded to us like cultural relativism. Concern for the environment has sounded like left-wing planet worship. Student-centered anything is simply wrong from its hyphenated label.

In my daily litany with students, I attempt to connect a scriptural truth with something that has happened in the history of our country and the world. Today’s litany marked the occasion of President Obama’s dedication of a monument to the memory of the life and work of César Chávez. The scripture from Leviticus 19 reminds us of God’s command to leave something for “the poor and the alien” by not reaping to the edge of our fields. This is a transformative/restorative command. How can we non-field owners do this today? It is a command that may make us wince a bit in the current political climate . . . but there it is.


On October 10, Rebecca De Smith continued:

Recently I attended a conference for Christian school teachers. The keynote speaker challenged us: “If you want to make a difference in this world, you have to be different.” He stressed that we have a calling to be godly teachers. What does that mean? It begins with an attitude that we are not in control—God is. We are not the most important person in our classrooms—our students are. We all have a purpose—and that purpose is to serve.

Christian is right when he says that we often do a marginal job of transformational teaching in our classrooms. But the fact is, every school day we are called to teach reading, math, science, and a whole range of subject areas. We are asked to align our curriculum with state standards and infuse benchmarks into our lesson plans. We are required to attend meetings, review curriculum, and monitor lunchrooms, hallways, and the playground. And we are called to love, forgive, accept, model, respect, nurture, and extend grace to those who need it—which is just about every student and colleague at one time or another. The only way we can do all of this is to let God take control of our hearts, our lives, and our teaching, and trust that God will provide everything we need as we humbly serve in our schools.

This is where we, as Christian schoolteachers, must begin our transformational teaching.

On November 6, Tony Kamphuis picked the conversation up again:

The recent landmark Cardus Education Study (check out had something to say about the level to which our outcomes (in the form of our graduates’ lives) align with our lofty goals. They suggest that we may not be as transformative as we claim we want to be. But when you see the areas in which Christian schools do really well, you start to wonder if a high level of (especially) spiritual formation was really our goal all along! In other words, even though I read Rebecca’s response and think, “Hmmm, is that what we mean by transforming God world in the light of his word?” in fact she might be closer to the reality we have created.

If I understand James K.A. Smith (philosopher, Calvin College) correctly, he says that this is in part because we talk a great game in terms of transformation, but we haven’t inculcated habits and rituals that embody a transformative life, and so our students end up citizens of two kingdoms. We teach them what is wrong about looking to technology to save us, and ask them to take a break from their social media to create a prezi that addresses this.

I think we either need to tone down our transformative talk, or we need to re-imagine it as being light-bearers “you in your small corner and I in mine,” or we need to think hard about how to create the kinds of school experiences that Smith and Andy Crouch and others are hinting at when they tell us to be culture builders. I think part of this challenge is to see our calling as not necessarily to be “different” in everything, but to be “obedient” in everything.

The Panel consists of:

  • Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
  • Al Boerema, who teaches in the education department at Calvin College.
  • Rebecca De Smith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
  • Tony Kamphuis, who serves as the executive director of the Niagara Association for Christian Education in Smithville, Ontario.