Last year during the pandemic, these two simple words were a blessing to me at the end of each of my math classes. Even though I’m the head of school, those of us who serve in smaller schools often have the privilege of teaching a class or two. Mine is Algebra I. Last school year, students were filled with gratitude to be together at school. Families were filled with gratitude to have their students at school. The staff was filled with gratitude to teach in person. And everyone seemed to go the extra mile to express it.
All things school for us last year in the state of Oregon were taken to the lowest common denominator—student desks six feet apart, no field trips, shortened or canceled athletic seasons, etc. Students were just able to go to class, and they were still thankful. I have had the opportunity to visit with other heads of schools around the globe, and last year I heard similar stories of gratitude.
Unfortunately for many, this school year’s story is not the same. As the pandemic continues on with restrictions still in place in many parts of the world, a gracious attitude has given way to frustration and fatigue, mixed with a general lack of patience and choosing sides. However, each day as my new algebra students leave my room after class, I still get an unprompted thank you. Why?
For us, at Central Christian School, the story goes back a few more years. About seven years ago we were blessed to move the school to a new campus. In a rural town of a little over 30,000 people, this was definitely news. The school grew quickly over those first couple of years and although the new campus had plenty of elbow room for more students, the school’s culture experienced growing pains. Just as quickly as the student body grew, it fell back to its prior-campus enrollment numbers.
In the sobering aftermath, we decided to rethink and reframe who we were as a school.
We started by asking a question so that when growth came again, God willing, we would be able to nurture and expand the community at the same time:
With school growth, what would need to change so that our culture would be able to invite and encourage new students to become a part of the school’s community?
The leadership and faculty took a deep dive back to the school’s foundations. We took a hard look at our mission, vision, core values, and graduate profile. If we believed that God placed Central Christian in our specific town for a reason, how were we to see the kingdom advance there? We then asked a couple of questions which became pivotal. What does it look like to be a Christian learning community? And what does it look like to teach Christianly?
We started thinking about the school’s role in student formation practices, and we were led to two key resources: ACSI’s then-pilot project of Flourishing Schools Culture Initiative (FSCI) survey, and the book On Christian Teaching by David I. Smith. The FSCI captured a snapshot of the school’s meaningful strengths and also helped us reflect on how to shape and grow the school’s culture moving forward. The book challenged staff to establish a learning community that, through its processes, practices, and pedagogy, would encourage Christian charity towards others.
Central Christian made a commitment to Christian charity, expanding its focus to include not just what is taught and the values we hold, but also to be intentional in the way all of its members relate to one another. Anchored in Colossians 3:12-17, everyone from the youngest to the oldest members in the school community would encourage one another to honor God and each other in our thoughts, words, and actions, practice thankfulness, and extend and receive forgiveness.
The intentional shift started with staff, since as Luke 6:40 points out, “the student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” We changed the staff morning prayer routine by finishing the week with Gratitude Friday, where the entire staff gathers and forms a circle. Then, as they feel led, they share the name of someone connected to the school, something specific that person did that week that blessed them in some way, and then thank them for it. The practice felt awkward at first, but it soon became part of the rhythm of our days together. After a few weeks, the awkwardness gave way to staff members forming a circle on their own in anticipation of expressing gratitude to one another.
The practice was adopted by a few teachers and introduced to students the year before the pandemic. At the beginning of class, each student shared something they were thankful for. The teachers noticed over time that if a class came in with a negative attitude, by the time they had worked their way around the room giving thanks, there was a shift in the classroom atmosphere—a greater sense of unity around purpose, around learning together, and an increase in gratitude.
What does Central Christian’s learning community look like today? The student body was given the opportunity to grow once again by over 40% in the last two years. The culture is inviting these new members in, and the kingdom is advancing. And when it comes to being thankful? Teachers have embraced the learning community tenets, and are reframing the rhythms of their classrooms. We are now a school community that practices thankfulness both spontaneously—thanking someone who serves us in the moment—and through planned activities—like our kindergarten and second grade students, who are preparing to write and send out letters and pictures this month to over one hundred veterans, thanking them for their service to our country.
As the pandemic continues to drag on people are tired and weary, and words of thanks do not easily roll out of the heart and off the lips. We still stand in a circle every Friday and offer gratitude to the Lord and others for the week, and I still get ‘thank you’s, regardless of circumstances, from students at the end of my Algebra I class.
About the Author
Elisa Carlson, MS, is the head of school of Central Christian School in Redmond, Oregon. She has been a professional educator for 35 years, joined Central Christian in 2002 as the assistant administrator, and became the head of school in 2007. Elisa also serves as a Van Lunen Center faculty member and ACSI Board member.
Note: The article was originally published in November 2021.