As I study the Education profession, work within schools and visit schools, I’m more convinced that Christian schools need to mind more attention to “how” they do the work of schooling. Most schools can show me a mission or vision statement on a wall or recite for me a motto of and for why they exist. I explored this in my last blog (“Navigating the Ed Policy Chaos: Why Does Your School Exist”) and we can easily explain what schools do and according to the Cardus research public, private, and Christian schools are more similar than we even expect.
Therefore, as the schooling marketplace gets more crowded it is essential for school leaders to discover the inspirational reason for their existence and determine how they will work this mission out in practice. Simon Sinek gives a great explanation of this in his book “Start With the Why” and through his TED Talk on the same topic.
The Christian schools that will navigate the “Ed Policy Chaos” will be those that have a vibrant and inspirational reason for existence that is practiced daily through the distinctive character of their school. Distinctives go far beyond the “what schools do” to “how” they do it.
What Makes Your School Distinct?
Last year, I worked with a group of schools as they developed their School Profile. Each went through their lists of AP and honors courses, SAT and ACT scores, colleges to which their students are matriculating, student clubs and organizations, missions trips and service hours, athletic teams, performing arts productions, and other great accomplishments. However, these lengthy lists made none of these schools unique. I believe that schools need to give greater consideration to “how” this professional work is done in a way that allows the school to be distinctive from the local public, charter, private, or Catholic school that has all of the same offerings to varying degrees of size and quality.
Most specifically, consider how you want to do the work of education that will allow you to fulfill your mission within the theological and philosophical framework of your school. I had the opportunity to work at a school that had in its mission statement a desire to “disciple students academically, spiritually, physically, and socially…”, but it was a relationally dysfunctional and bureaucratic place. Therefore, to change the school in an attempt to fulfill the mission we allowed our distinctiveness to be “education as discipleship.” We had to ask two questions regularly in an attempt to direct our focus for how we were going to bring this to life: “does ‘how’ we do school allow us to disciple students” and “what obstacles do we need to remove to promote discipling relationships?”
Discipleship allowed us to clarify how we were doing education and what we were going to do and, subsequently, not going to do as a school. This intentional work allowed the school to come alive relationally and professionally in new ways that created a fun place to do the hard work of teaching and learning. My own thinking on creating distinctiveness at a school was significantly impacted by the change Wheaton Academy went through in the 1990s under David Roth and Jon Keith as they created the distinctives of “Relationships, Excellence, and Service” and how the current dynamic school culture and community gets to work through the tensions of faithfulness to these characteristics each day.
In short, do you know what makes your school distinct from your local competition? If so, continue to hold that school personality in tension with the work of the school. If not, have significant conversations about who you want to be and how you want to do the work of education.
Erik Ellefsen has served in education for 21 years as a teacher, coach, consultant, Grievance Chairman for the American Federation of Teachers, Dean of Academics at Boston Trinity Academy, and as Principal at Chicago Christian High School. He currently serves as an Academic and College Counselor at Valley Christian High School (San Jose, CA), a Senior Fellow for CACE, a Senior Fellow for Cardus, podcaster for Digical Education, and as Vice President of CCEI. Erik regularly organizes Christian school leadership seminars and speaks on issues pertaining to academic program, student leadership, and organizational development. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.