Photo credit: Sean Dreilinger
During the fall and spring conference time with parents, teachers typically report on the academic progress of students to parents. It should be a time to share celebrations and concerns. Sometimes the student is present or even “leading” the conference. I believe that this time with parents is a critical one as it is one of the few times that there is an intense focus on their mutually shared responsibility – the student. From the school side of the equation, this is a prime time to also communicate the mission of the school to the parents. From the parent side, this is an opportunity to have a significant time to have a conversation with another adult who has worked with their child about their view of the child’s growth.
I have been emphasizing to Christian schools that this precious conference time should be about more than simply academics. Conferences are the best time to discuss the whole child’s progress and, if we are true to our missions, we will take some time to consider the student’s spiritual growth. After all, one of our key distinctives as a school and one of the main reasons parents send their children is so that they will be nurtured in their faith; if we ignore this aspect or give it short shrift, we are missing a great opportunity!
Recently I have been suggesting that we consider the terms wonder, wisdom and work as we consider how to connect our work toward the ultimate outcomes of helping nurture student faith and to move toward shalom. Wolterstorff describes true shalom as harmony with nature, God, man and self. In connecting these words to the K-12 educational experience, I would suggest that wonder is harmony with nature, wisdom is harmony with God, and work is harmony with self and neighbor. I am wondering if this model might work not only for curriculum design, but also for conducting parent teacher conferences. Using this model as a guide for parent teacher conferences our questions/areas of focus with parents might look like this:
- Wonder: Is the student understanding and expressing awe about, and delight in, the created order? Do they understand their place in the world as imagebearers? Are they beginning to develop an understanding of beauty, complexity, design, and what excellence looks like?
- Wisdom: Is the student understanding and responding to the gospel? Do they understand how the world, including themselves, experiences sin and brokenness? Do they understand the good news through Biblical story, personal story, and teacher modeling. Are they begin to discern good from evil? Are they understanding what it means to embrace and live out their faith? How to live into the grace of Christ and extend it to others?
- Work: Is the student understanding who they are and showing a desire to live out the gospel with their neighbor? How have they responded to opportunities and challenges in the classroom to creatively contribute to the learning and life of others? Have they connected personal gratitude for the gospel with external actions? Are they beginning to understand what it means to restore this world to God’s original intentions?
I truly believe that if we used this model for our parent teacher conferences we would have a clearer focus on the distinctives of our school mission, a much more meaningful conversation with parents that goes beyond grades and test scores, and a greater potential impact on the students and parents we are called to serve.
Like Mark Twain’s statement “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” the death of Christianity in North America is greatly exaggerated, according to Frank Newport in his latest book, God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America. Newport is someone we should listen to on the topic: he is the Editor-in-Chief of the well respected Gallup organization, an organization that has been regularly polling about 350,000 people a year on many matters, including religion. In addition to that credibility, Newport is not a dispassionate observer, having grown up as the son of a Southern Baptist theologian and graduating from Baylor University.
Sometimes it feels difficult to get a true perspective of what is actually happening in the United States and it may seem like the country is on a rapid course to secularization. To begin the book, Newport makes the point that America is still very much a Christian nation, based on its data. While we like to think of America as a historically Christian nation, a surprising finding was that, based on the research of Starks and Finke, America was quite non-religious in the olden days and actually church membership is far higher today than it was in colonial times and has been consistently rising for the past 200 years! What has changed in recent years is the number of Americans who say they have no religious identity.
Here are ten surprising findings, as well as some things we might guess intuitively:
- 80% of all Americans are Christians, 95% of all Americans who have a religion are Christian.
- Protestants are shrinking due to low immigration rates, low birthrates, low conversion rates, and not living longer than non-Protestants. Newport suggests the word Protestant may fade away as it is not a common descriptor used by young people today.
- Due to a Hispanic influx, 45% of Catholic Church members aged 18-29 are Hispanic, and about one-third of all Catholic Church members in the age group 30-49 are Hispanic.
- Americans who are the most religious (across all faiths) also have the highest levels of wellbeing, as defined by overall life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behaviors, work environment, and access to basic wellbeing necessities.
- Old people are more religious than young people in all but 16 out of 142 countries.
- Religious belief drops rapidly until it bottoms out at age 23. A steady upswing in belief occurs from age 24 to about 40. One plausible explanation is that having children does seem to affect the desire to be religious.
- There are definite differences between states in terms of religious expression. (In short, Confederate states highest, Eastern states lowest, with the Midwestern states in the middle)
- American women of every age group, in fact most women around the world are more religious and worship more often than men. A woman with a child in the home (18-44) is more religious than any other group.
- More than 4 in 10 adults have left the faith they were raised in and switched religions: i.e. they have switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated to affiliation, or dropped any connection to religion.
- Religion is personally more important to people with lower levels of education and income, while more socially important to those with higher levels of education and income.
Things Newport believes will happen:
- Political parties will increasingly view religious people as a sector to be tapped and mobilized.
- The country will become more religious in the future as Baby Boomers return to religion as they age. This is based on the fact that the return to religion by older people has shown to be a consistent historical phenomenon across the decades.
- He sees two paths for the future of religion in America – the path of secularization many European countries have taken, or its own unique path with “religion changing, morphing, and transmuting itself into new but still vibrant forms.” Based on the evidence he sees, he believes that “America will become a more religious nation in the years ahead, albeit one that may look a lot different, religiously speaking, than it does today.”
Over the past six and a half years that I have been writing this blog my main focus has been to encourage Christian schools to nurture student faith in three very distinctive ways: curriculum, classroom, and community. It’s been gratifying to hear that some of the posts have been a good encouragement to teachers and administrators who are serious about living out the mission of their school with their students. Schools can and should develop sound professional development experiences for their teachers to help them implement the school’s mission through curriculum, classroom, and community. I have been privileged to work with schools in this process.
Much like students enter a class with varying degrees of academic readiness, I have found that teachers have an equally wide range of readiness to nurture student faith. What I have found in professional development workshops is that, when asked, many teachers have not been trained in how to teach Christianly – not that they are not Christians, but have not received instruction during undergraduate days about how to connect their faith and the mission of the school. This leaves the total responsibility to the school to try to develop this teacher’s understanding…and it is a daunting task.
For starters in this conversation, we have candidates coming from a wide range of colleges. By their own choices, they may have attended a public college or university. I did, and was aware that when interviewing at Christian schools, I needed to be able to more clearly articulate my faith and how it impacted my teaching than a candidate coming from a trusted Christian college. My present concern is that I am not hearing rousing endorsements in my workshops from teachers about their training to teach Christianly while they attended a Christian college. This is concerning because it indicates that the Christian colleges the teachers attended did not show its teacher education majors how to effectively integrate faith and learning.
I would argue that whether preparing teachers for Christian or public education teaching, the fact remains that to be true to its Christian mission, Christian colleges should teach all education students how God’s truth is revealed in the educative process. If Christian colleges are requiring a statement of faith in their entry process from students, it is only natural that all students understand how faith is understood and lived out in their discipline area. Having taught and been an administrator in both public and Christian education, I could argue that it might be even more important for Christians working in public education to have a sound worldview and grasp of how to impact kids for Christ – they have to do it more subtly and may have less collegial and administrative support.
In summary, I am pleading that Christian colleges be true to their mission, equipping students to understand and demonstrate, as possible, to those they will be teaching how Christ is Lord over all. In order to impact others, teachers must begin with a solid understanding of their own of how our world belongs to God, and how in turn we can encourage students to respond back to God and others with love and service.