“Why did those gunmen want to shoot those people in New Zealand? I bet if they only knew some Muslim people, they wouldn’t want to hurt them. They could be friends instead.” This was a question asked of one of our fourth grade teachers one morning during the class’s morning meeting, shortly after the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. The question stayed with the teacher and brought her to my office door.
In her follow-up discussion with the class, it became apparent that not many of her students knew any Muslim kids. She had an idea. Could the two sections of fourth grade go and visit a Muslim school in a nearby city, as an expression of friendship? There were some worries though. How would this idea be viewed by the Muslim school, and by our own parents? Would there be fear and hesitation?
It just happened that our staff goal for the year was “doing what love required.” So rather than worry and do nothing, we determined that meeting our staff goal meant taking a risk and reaching out to extend an invitation, and then waiting to see what would happen. And things did happen. The Muslim school was delighted for the invitation! They, too, wanted to break down barriers for their students and increase their understanding of others. Since their school space was limited, they decided to bring their fourth graders to our Christian school for a morning of interaction, play, and activities.
When the bus pulled up on the appointed morning, kids in traditional Muslim clothing and shy smiles piled out. The accompanying teachers were also excited and brought the gift of Tim Horton’s coffee for our staff. That enhanced the greetings and smiles all around. As our students and their guests interacted, the shy smiles vanished and playful laughter filled the classrooms. A circle game of “Just Like Me” broke down any remaining barriers. “You have a dog, just like me? You love to eat bubble gum ice cream, just like me?” “Wow, we like the same things!” was heard throughout the morning. The students made friendship bracelets and played pool noodle tag.
Teachers connected with teachers as they shared their passion of helping kids make sense of the world. I even had the opportunity to have a conversation with the school’s principal, who came along for the trip as one of the chaperones. She shared her story of starting their school in her home and how it had blossomed through the years because parents had wanted a faith-based education for their children. We discussed the challenges faced by busy private school leaders who often have to wear many hats. Just like our students, we found we had more in common than we had in differences. We had met that morning as strangers but parted as respect-filled colleagues, with a commitment to stay in touch.
As the bus was loaded at the end of the time together, our students gathered outside in the driveway and waved off our guests. They now knew Muslim children and were a few steps closer in understanding and having respect toward others who may seem different on the outside, but who are all made in the image of God.
Answering the question of “What does love require?” is not easy, and the more we asked the question at our school, the more areas we saw its application. It is a risky, demanding question but it has a simple answer—go and love in My name, or love Everybody, Always as penned by Bob Goff in his book of the same name. This means doing things that may be hard and uncomfortable. When we as school staff struggled in this discomfort, we would remind ourselves that dying on the cross for the sins of the world was harder than anything asked of us.
Engaging in authentic and purposeful education for our students is another answer to this challenging question. To do so often involves taking a risk, like our fourth grade teachers did and inviting another faith community over to play, not knowing if all of our parents would understand or approve. It may mean being courageous enough to move away from the “factory model” of school and give students voice and choice in the things they are learning and to see them as individuals with their own development timelines. It may mean totally changing teacher plans for lessons and projects and letting students take a lead role.
As we’ve worked to answer the question “What does love require?” we are excited to find that our desire and capacity to love others in our community is growing. Small steps are turning into bigger steps. For example, one of our teachers had developed a project-based learning structure in which she thought her students would prepare a newcomer’s guide to Canada to assist Eritrean refugees. It was a great idea and an authentic project, but instead, as the students heard about a refugee sponsorship within the community, they decided that they wanted to get directly involved in that sponsorship. Sure, they would still prepare the newcomer’s guide, but they wanted to do something even more challenging and hands-on!
As they began to think about gifts and talents God had entrusted them with, the students settled on planning a talent show for the school community. With more dreaming and conversation, it grew into something much bigger. Fifth and sixth grade students hosted a benefit concert (think Live Aid) in a local church and invited the community, raising over $10,000 to help with the sponsorship of Dan from Eritrea. It took two years for the process to complete, but Dan has arrived in Canada, and members of the class were there to welcome him at the airport—even though they were now two years out from that classroom project. Authentic, purposeful education while doing what love requires impacts students and changes lives.
School leaders too have to ask the question “What does love require?” as I support my teachers in taking risks and engaging their students in purposeful and engaging work. We need to ask, Am I being bold and courageous in my leadership and empowering those who work in my school to see students as capable and passionate difference makers? Am I willing to have difficult conversations that challenge perceptions or practices? Asking what love requires in your school setting will help you overcome barriers as you follow the command of Christ to love everybody always, even when it is hard.
About the Author
Marianne Vangoor is the principal of Halton Hills Christian School in Georgetown, Ontario. She has served there for 14 years out of 26 years in school leadership. Prior to that role she taught all grades in elementary school, including special education. She is passionate about having Christian education be life changing for students and helping them see that they can be difference makers in the world right now. Marianne believes in empowerment at all levels of the school—teachers, staff, and students—and loves seeing people flourish and grow as they step into their own leadership roles. Marianne is the proud Nana of nine grandchildren and is thrilled to see them growing and learning in their local Christian schools as the next generation. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.