“Professionalism” In Faith-Based Schools: A Brief Primer

When I ask small groups of teachers in faith-based schools why they teach “here and not elsewhere,” invariably someone says, “Because God called me here.” Often, more than one person in the same interview will claim divine direction as their fundamental motivation.

Erik Ellefsen, a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE), asks good questions. During our last conversation  on his Digical Education podcast (“Your Board is a Bad Board, and It’s Probably Your Fault”), he asked me about the impact of professionalization on faith-based school culture and leadership:

“Schools are changing,” he said. “They used to be more community-based, but they’re becoming more professionalized. . . . Boards are changing; the demands on boards are changing. . . . If so, how does that impact a leader or head of school building and guiding their board differently than maybe ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, or maybe even when some of these schools were founded?”

Considering Erik’s question over the past few months and watching leaders work together in that context, ideas on school leadership have occurred to me that inform both the question and my answer.

To start with, teaching and school leadership have always been considered “professions,” but in faith-based environments, especially, working in schools has traditionally been equated with a “calling” to a form of spiritual ministry.

Whereas the number of non-sectarian private schools is on the rise nationally, a majority of private schools were founded as educational advocates for distinct religious traditions. (In Texas, for example, more than 80% of private schools are faith-based.)

Christian denominations like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), founding one of the largest parochial systems in the U.S., still maintain what they refer to as a “call system.” Pastors of churches and teachers in LCMS schools are qualified by the Synod and recruited to serve through very similar processes. For instance, being hired to teach fourth grade in many LCMS schools today is equivalent to being called to youth or adult ministry in a church congregation.

Of course, the most prominent examples of  teaching as ministry are the Catholic orders, whose brothers and sisters are ordained. These individuals constituted the bulk of American Catholic school faculty and administrative positions for at least one hundred years, up through the end of the twentieth century.

Blending the identity of teachers with spiritual vocation set apart educational professionalism from what were commonly considered “secular” professions. On the one hand, the blend socially elevated educators above professions that focus primarily on commerce. There was (and still is in many sectors) a sort of vocational hierarchy in which a calling to teach is considered spiritually superior to the practice of law or accounting, exemplified by common statements like, “No one goes into teaching to get rich.”

In this economy, educators primarily rely on the non-commercial, spiritual value of their work to dignify their profession. Schools and the families they serve rely on the educators’ sincere commitments to their calling to ensure that the teaching and leading meet the highest standards. This approach worked pretty well until both of these notions came under scrutiny.

Two things happened concurrently over recent generations. First, in a secular-trending society, the social value of spiritual vocations diminished. Teachers in faith-based schools, while admired for their commitments to students’ needs and generally recognized for the difficulty of their work, are also often pitied and even socially disregarded because of their earning levels.

This compensation issue shows up in numerous ways, but two stand out. Increasingly, private school teachers work within environments that are dominated by high-income families. This demographic has always been the case to some degree, but income inequality and the defection of middle-class families from private schools has made the gap between a teachers’ lifestyle and those of her students more pronounced.

More generally, teachers are among a class of workers whose incomes have not kept pace with costs of living. According to an NCES study, public school teachers (who typically make more than private school teachers) are five times more likely than other full-time workers to have a second job. Additionally, the notion that teaching is a “part-time” job—rather than an intense full-time occupation that requires an annual sabbatical (summers “off”) to stay fresh and competent—is widely held.

The juxtaposition between the educational service-provider and the customer (private school families and their students) has never been more stark. Meanwhile, client expectations for highly individualized service, time-consuming attentiveness, and top-tier academic and athletic outcomes are greater than ever.

These changes bring us to the second evolution. As demands on schools grow, and as the cost of a highly regarded education rises, many faith-based schools find themselves critiqued for a lack of quality. In some instances, the criticism is well founded and is rooted in the private school’s over-reliance on  traditional, spiritually oriented professionalism.

Whereas American parochial schools have longstanding and distinguished educational traditions, the connotation of the word “parochial” has morphed to mean small-minded and less than relevant. The negative side of an educator’s motivation to serve a calling can be that the calling itself becomes protection against demands for professional improvement, or even basic competence.

In the State of New York, new curriculum regulations were issued in December 2018 for all private schools, largely in response to complaints from ultra-orthodox Jewish high school graduates of yeshivas that allegedly failed to teach them basic subject matter. As uncommon as charges like these might be, they nonetheless serve to erode the public’s sense that faith-based schools value conventional professionalism.

Circling back to Erik’s question about the impact of professionalization on school leadership, a legitimate answer requires some historical context. Rather than professionalism being introduced anew into faith-based schools, it may be that the definitions are changing. As I will explore in the next posting, the new definitions may not be adequate for, nor completely relevant to, a school’s complex mission.

That said, how schools respond to the challenge will have much to do with the confidence with which parents entrust their children to our care.

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2 comments

  1. Jaimie Orozco says:

    I am highly interested in following this discussion and the conclusions reached. Increasingly, school leaders seem to be held accountable for student achievement outcomes and a growing demand by parents to see their children flourish at the respective school of choice. In turn, the demands of the workplace seem to invite a response by Christian school educators to provide a high-quality education where students are personally engaged in a flourishing school culture.

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