Over the past few months I have shared my thoughts on the chaos that current education policy has both become and created (“Ed Policy Chaos: Why It Matters”). My argument is that charter schools are not a viable option to those of us who support greater levels of educational choice within the American education system (Part I and Part II). However, quite often the blame for our troubles is cast at those around us or systems that do not support our goals, values, and desires. Instead we ought to look internally at our own schools and within our Christian school sector of the education marketplace to develop a path to greater effectiveness, quality, and sustainability.
Therefore, I propose that each Christian school and Christian school leader must answer the following questions about their institution:
- Why does your school exist?
- What makes your school distinct?
- How does your school measure student learning, institutional success, and organizational health?
- Who are you connected to and aligned with as part of a local and national professional network?
Why does your school exist?
This is by far the most difficult question to answer of those listed above because every school has a mission or vision statement, a motto, a stated purpose of existence, and usually a philosophy of purpose. Therefore, I have visited 100+ high schools and colleges in the past few years seeking to understand the compelling, life-changing, and community-transforming reasons why each institution exists. My professor and mentor, Dr. Charles Glenn, used to encourage us to discover this soul or as he called it the “Ethos” of a place, and in my wanderings through these campuses I have noticed three commonalities among high schools and colleges that have this palpable energy.
First, the leaders at each institution appreciate the tension between the past, present and future. They have an historic understanding of why it was founded and how it has held or not held to its founding; likewise, they embrace and seek to overcome the imperfections of their own past, while celebrating with grace the legacies of what was accomplished or attempted in former times. Most importantly, they continue to dream big about the future and what their institution is capable of achieving.
Second, the leaders at these institutions take “mission creep” seriously and embrace the tension between mission and change with a deep commitment to difficult conversations. However, these are the same institutions that are often the most innovative and creative as they understand their own existence in a world that is constantly changing. They do fear that as a Christian institution they could lose their way, but rather than running from change they embrace the tension by having ongoing necessary conversations and are open to institutional adjustments based upon humble critique of success and failure.
Third, the leaders of these institutions embody the purpose and mission, which then exudes from them into the community through all levels of institutional life. The result being a symbiosis of people with the institution making it difficult to separate oneself from such a community without being profoundly impacted by the compelling nature of each person’s existence as part of the institution’s. Usually leaders and members of the community alike find it difficult to explain this “Ethos” to non-members, and they often mourn its loss as they would a family member when they are no longer part of that institution.
If you, as a school leader, can answer the question of why your school exists and it is clarified in the daily life of the institution, then you must continue to embrace the tension that this ethos could be lost, cultivate and live out what this purpose for existence means in every aspect of institutional life, and enjoy the blessing of being at such a place.
If you cannot answer this question with clarity and this ethos cannot be felt in any real sense, then you must discover it quickly, commit to living it out personally and professionally over a long period of time, and visit those places that have it so that you might get a sense of what it “feels” like. And my warning is that if you try to answer questions 2, 3, and 4 without first addressing the question of existence you will find yourself in a vain pursuit of just about anything.
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.