In a time of precipitous and unprecedented change, educators are being called upon to do more than perhaps ever before. Drawing upon our conversations with hundreds of Christian school teachers and leaders across the country, we tried to name many of the fears accompanying this change for Christian educators. Collectively speaking, we’re afraid of losing our historical institutions, or the way we’ve always done things, or our four-walled schools as we have always known them. We’re afraid of becoming irrelevant—that what we are doing won’t matter much longer into the future. We’re afraid of uncertainty, of not knowing exactly what to do, of not having that one “best practice” that we know for sure works. We’re afraid that our school’s survival is dependent upon us.
Fear of Taking Risks
We suspect that it’s even deeper and darker than this. If we’re honest, we’re afraid of what all these consequences of failure mean for us, personally: the loss of esteem in the eyes of others; the potential failure of our institutions, which reflects directly upon us; losing our own security, whether through our work, or our position, or our standing in the community; or, perhaps even losing our sense of self-worth. Yes, these fears are carnal, but they go to the depths of who we are when we are our most vulnerable, our most broken. And ultimately, and likely because of these fears, we’ve become afraid of taking risks.
We’re not alone. Jake Becker, head of school at The City School in Philadelphia, always tells his school’s story through the lens of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) where we read about a servant who “plays it safe” because he is afraid, not unlike so many of us. Unlike the two other servants in the parable, who invest the master’s money and effectively double it, the third servant instead confesses: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours” (v. 14, emphasis added). Preserving the status quo was this fear-driven servant’s means to self-preservation.
The master is unimpressed by the servant’s road to nowhere, calling the servant “wicked,” and instead promoting the other two servants who took a risk. He punished the one who was fearful and failed to invest wisely what the master had given him. In this parable, we learn that there is no reward for playing it safe out of fear, with what God has asked us to invest in faith.
Risky But Wise Investments
As Christian educators, God has asked us to invest a number of talents wisely—whether our own talents, our students’, or our families’. These include time, human abilities, finances, educational backgrounds, physical resources, and relationships. Given today’s changing educational and cultural climate, here are a few “risky” investments we need to make with these talents:
- Re-envisioning our master schedules to accommodate collaborative or experiential learning opportunities for students.
- Embracing new technologies in and out of the classroom, as well as practicing thoughtful and intentional sabbaticals from those technologies to promote stillness and reflection.
- Partnering with another Christian school, church, or community organization to work together toward common goals and to share resources.
- Changing admissions policies or financial aid practices to meet the needs of today’s families more effectively, as well as to broaden access to Christian education for students of all backgrounds.
- Considering alternative sources of income, beyond the traditional tuition and fundraising model.
- Entrusting teachers with greater responsibility for the instructional culture of the school, and empowering them through teacher-led professional development and peer observations.
- Allocating resources to serve students, families, and communities that have been traditionally underserved.
- Giving students more opportunity for voice and choice in their studies, as well as authentic leadership experiences.
- Reimagining long-held curricular and pedagogical practices to nurture those means of learning which truly enhance, rather than harm students’ and teachers’ natures as image-bearers of God.
- Taking a more active role and positively engaging in our communities and government, through service as well as advocacy.
- Sunsetting legacy programs and practices in targeted ways, to create capacity to do something new that God is commissioning.
Return on Investments
As Christian educators, we know we are investing our talents well when we reap a good return on that investment, which we gauge primarily through student learning and discipleship. A good return on investment also means that our leaders, teachers, and staff are flourishing, and that we have positive relationships with school families, churches, and our communities.
If the sum of all fears is not taking risks, the sum of investing our talents is—taken all together—school cultures and classrooms that are healthy and thriving. As in the parable, these kinds of returns come by taking these risks and trusting God for the outcome—not by playing it safe, out of fear.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is an excerpt from a new book from ACSI. To keep reading more of this chapter and discover how Christian educators can move from fear to hope—as well as from machine to human, scarcity to abundance, isolated to networked, white to mosaic, Gutenberg to 5G, and siloed to engaged—check out MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education, available on Amazon or the PDP Store.] To learn more about the MindShift project in Christian education, visit mindshift.school].
About the Authors
Dr. Lynn Swaner is the chief strategy and innovation officer at ACSI, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus Senior Fellow and is the lead editor of the books MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, and editor of the ACSI blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jay Ferguson, JD, PhD, is the headmaster of Grace Community School, Tyler, Texas. He practiced law for 10 years and, in 2002, joined Grace as development director before assuming the headmaster role in 2003. He’s written extensively on Christian education and training children, including his weekly blog, JaysBlog. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.