by Darren Spyksma, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
A school’s true mission is its lived mission.
As educational institutions, who call themselves Christian, conversations about formation and spirituality can very quickly mirror similar conversations being had at church. It is not a stretch to imagine being drawn into conversations with colleagues and parents who suggest that chapel, prayer, and Bible class make the school a “Christian” school. While these are significant parts of a school experience, chapels, prayers, and Bible classes are not inherently Christian. The aim of each of these elements of the learning experience, and that of all other elements, is what determines the type of formation taking place in the school. It is the daily practices at school that show what truly matters to the staff at the school.
This is about me.
A school can ascribe to an outward-focused mission. Yet, when engaged in practices that pit student against student while celebrating individual achievement over communal responsibility, students are being formed into a self-centred way of being. When learning stays within the school walls and focuses on content acquisition or competency development as an end, students are being formed sometimes without their knowledge, into seeing learning first and foremost as a tool for self-promotion, self-sufficiency, and independent accomplishment at the expense of the other.
I am not my own!
The Heidelberg Catechism reminds students and staff about their place in the world:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The gospel story is a story of interdependence. To live into the gospel story as an educational institution is to encourage learners in embracing the message that the main purpose of learning is to become better equipped to help others. Schools are invited to ask themselves, “Do our daily practices and pedagogy invite students and staff into loving God and others more?”
I am on my own.
As students develop, it is natural to expect more from them. Developing a level of independent decision making allows them to flourish in their community. When we engage in predominantly punitive discipline or hold students accountable for inconsistent attendance without hearing their story, students are formed to live into a story of the educational system as a game to be played. When structures are not in place to ensure that students form relationships with adults in the school, there is a disconnect between word and action. When mistakes and insufficient evidence of learning are met with silence and/or a poor grade without multiple iterations to show mastery, students are learning that they cannot trust the adults in the building to support them in their time of need. When this is combined with structures, making true relationship almost impossible, such as one teacher teaching over 100 different students each semester, students learn that the very systems in the school show them that they are, indeed, on their own.
I am here for you!
Every student needs to have at least one adult who shows in word and action that they are on the student’s team. Relationships start with time for eye contact and a smile. Being able to smile is part of God’s designed order in the world. When adults take the time to get to know each student by using an opening circle, individual and small group connection time, and/or meeting and naming each student everyday as they enter the classroom, relationships and belonging begin to develop. For students to truly believe that they are being cared for and therefore equipped to see that they can care for others, they need to feel known. Then they are comfortable asking the hard questions knowing that space will be provided to pursue deeper understanding of these hard questions. A place that is for you, is a place where mistakes are truly opportunities to learn, where risk and mistakes actually lead to second, third, and fourth opportunities for mastery. When students feel that the learning process is oriented around learning and students, rather than teachers, the very system will form them to knowing that a Christian community is there for them.
I am going to get a good job.
When middle-level teachers are being pressured by secondary teachers to prepare students for secondary so that the secondary teachers can prepare students for university, the very culture of school promotes student formation reinforcing that the goal of school is not learning, rather financial security. When career education is about job opportunities, rather than vocation, service, and development of skill, students are formed to see learning as a means to support consumerism and materialism. When practices focus on personal achievement with no expectation of responsibility to the other learners, the story students are living in is one of personal wealth and achievement not connected to the impact on the other neighbour both near and far. This formation precipitates the mentality that makes it okay to buy clothes or coffee from companies that do not promote healthy work environments but are out of view and, therefore, can be taken advantage of without guilt.
I am an agent of redemption in the world!
Being agents of redemption takes practice; it does not come naturally in this broken world. Repeated opportunities to see life’s small decisions as acts of redemption, healing, and worship set up the learner to be formed in a way that acknowledges their role in God’s redemptive work. Behaviour support becomes about noticing the impact of personal decisions on those around you. Systems are put in place to help students understand that mastery of skills or understanding comes with a responsibility and expectation to support others toward mastery. Personal achievement is downplayed; the focus is on growth and development and the pursuit of personal best in character, learning, and supporting the flourishing of others. As educators make structural and pedagogical choices out of the redemptive call on their own lives, the student formation experience invites a deeper commitment to care, interdependence, and communal flourishing.
As learners and as Christians, we choose a life that is oriented beyond our present reality. We work in a constant state of “now and not yet.” As schools intentionally move toward their espoused mission with their structures and their daily practices, schools can know that they are moving toward what truly matters. Community stories of genuine engagement with the mission emerge, as they are celebrated collectively; inertia begins to point toward the mission rather than away from it. No organization drifts to mission actualization. This process is ongoing, will include missteps, and will be always just out of our grasp. May humility guide successes and missteps as the school walks faithfully toward the mission that guides them.