Education is relational. For Christian schools in particular, relationships are important because of the incarnational nature of the Christian faith, expressed through community and in discipleship (John 1:14, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 4:16). Loving relationships between members of the Christian community are central to the Gospel, as Jesus explains: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Jesus affirms the dignity and identity of the disciples through their relationship.
This same pattern is evident in culture now. Various value systems and cultural worldviews are passed down through generations through our relationships. As we examine recent events in the United States concerning issues of racial injustice, educators all over the world are taking a closer look at their relationships and their worldviews. For many, this time of reflection has been convicting—revealing a striking imbalance of the distribution of equity and empathy amongst all peoples.
Relationships in Christian schools are one of the most powerful context for worldviews to be cultivated. Whether teacher to student, student to student, leader to teacher, family to school—the mission and purpose of these relationships are unlike any other. These relationships are called to reflect a story of love, grace, and unity—not uniformity. As Christian school leaders and educators examine their school cultures with fresh urgency and resolve to create more diverse, just, and inclusive communities, there are helpful resources available (see the end of this post). But what can we learn from research specifically on Christian schools, in this effort?
As we have reported previously, ACSI’s Flourishing Schools Research identified trust-filled, supportive, and authentic relationships between all school constituencies, as well as with the surrounding community, as key to flourishing outcomes. Within the larger flourishing domain of Relationships, the research identified nine validated constructs that were predictively linked to flourishing outcomes for a number of school constituents (students, parents/guardians, alumni, teachers, leaders/administrators, support staff, and board members). In this article, we revisit these constructs.
School and Community Relationships
Within the category of school and community relationships, the research identified three key constructs as linked to flourishing outcomes, as follows:
Insular Culture – The school shields students from the world’s brokenness, the school is independent from the surrounding community, and/or the student body lacks diversity. This specific construct was among the most frequently identified top “opportunities for growth” for Christian schools in the FSCI sample, with 36.7% of schools having this in their top five.
Community Engagement – The school engages with the surrounding community and regularly taps into community resources, including networking and resource-sharing with other schools. This specific construct was also among the most frequently identified top “opportunities for growth” for Christian schools in the FSCI sample, with 31.7% of schools having this in their top five. Additionally, the research found that where leaders/administrators engage the surrounding community, alumni were significantly more likely to report they are currently walking with God.
Parent Relationships – Teachers “get to know” parents, and frequent and systemic communication facilitates positive relationships. This construct identified how cultivating positive relationships with parents, through frequent and systemic communication, helped parents to feel more connected with the school and with teachers.
The research findings with regard to school and community relationships are particularly strong and are informative for schools at this time. Schools that disconnect from the outside world in an effort to “protect” students do not cultivate flourishing (Jeremiah 29:7). Instead, schools can introduce students to issues in the world, giving them a safe environment to wrestle with complex issues, and prepare them to confidently engage with maturity and empathy (1 Peter 3:15). Similarly, school leaders can serve their school community as early leaders in the church were commanded to knowing that this ultimately reflects Christ (1 Peter 5:2-4; Matt 20:28). The research also found that diversity in the student body is important for flourishing outcomes; this suggests that schools should be intentional in recruitment and admissions processes around this, as well as ensure that the school environment is welcoming and inclusive of students from varying backgrounds once they matriculate and throughout their school experience. Schools can also intentionally cultivate positive relationships with families of all students, with attention paid to ensure that families from all backgrounds benefit from frequent and systemic communication, and that they feel their input and participation is valued not only in their children’s learning but also in the overall life of the school.
School Leadership Relationships
Within the category of leadership and staff relationships, the research identified two key constructs as linked to flourishing outcomes, as follows:
Leadership Interdependence – Diverse backgrounds, transparency about one’s weaknesses, and relying on others to offset those weaknesses is key. This specific construct was among the most frequently identified top “meaningful strengths” for Christian schools in the FSCI sample, with 30% of schools having this in their top five.
Supportive Leadership – Principals are trusted, teachers feel that leaders “have our backs,” and leaders empower teachers and staff to make decisions. This specific construct was also among the most frequently identified top “meaningful strengths” for Christian schools in the FSCI sample, with 45% of schools having this in their top five.
These findings indicate that diverse backgrounds of leaders and a mutual dependence on each other is important for flourishing, as are trust-filled relationships between leaders and teachers/staff. In examining findings relative to leadership relationships at Christian schools, this appears to be a strength of a significant number of schools. The findings suggest that schools should continue to prioritize unity (1 Corinthians 1:10) and build on existing relational capital among the leaders and staff in their efforts to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Within the category of teacher-student relationships, the research identified three key constructs as linked to flourishing outcomes, as follows:
Christlike Teachers – Teachers show Christlike love, kindness, and care to students. Students are cared about individually, including their spiritual development. Students and their families value individualized attention and loving care from teachers.
Caring Environment – From the perspective of school graduates, teachers were kind, students felt included in class, and students were protected from bullying. Caring for and including students in class, as well as addressing bullying, can improve students’ perceptions of the school environment.
Mentoring Students – Staff point out talent in each student, help students see how they fit in God’s bigger plan, and are aware of students’ struggles at school or home. Students benefit from staff efforts to point out their individual talents and show how they fit into God’s bigger plan, as well as greater staff awareness of students’ struggles at school or home.
In addition to identifying these constructs as significant for flourishing, the research found that at schools where students confirmed their teachers care about them, school alumni were significantly more likely to report they’re currently walking with God. This suggests that the teacher-student relationship is not only crucial for students’ faith formation during the school years, but also has a lasting impact far beyond. As schools consider ways to become more intentional in fulfilling the greatest commandment (Mark 12:30-31) and in teaching students to do the same, prioritizing caring teacher-student relationships—among teachers and students of all backgrounds—will be key and ultimately will have a lasting, lifelong, and eternal impact.
Within the category of student-to-student relationships, the research identified one key construct as linked to flourishing outcomes, as follows:
Prosocial Orientation – Students not only enjoy helping others, but also are known by others (e.g., peers) for showing love and care. Students that are more oriented toward helping others learn how to show love and care toward peers in a variety of ways.
This finding shows how important it is for our students to engage in loving their peers and in the identity of Christ—as our redeemer and restorer (Titus 2:4, 2 Corinthians 5:17)—being reflected in their own lives. Educators can support and reinforce this positive desire on the part of students by teaching, modeling, and celebrating ways to show love and care toward peers of all backgrounds in meaningful and consistent ways.
Discussion and Resources
The research is clear—how we relate to each other in Christian school community matters. This moment of unrest and reflection in our country can propel us to re-prioritize equity, empathy, and life-giving relationships amongst all school constituencies and the surrounding community.
In terms of additional resources, please click here for an important statement on “A Time to Listen and Lead: Developing a Biblical Response to Racism” from ACSI President Dr. Larry Taylor. In addition, the following ACSI blog posts on diversity, inclusion, and equity are available below:
- “Marked Urgent”: Unity within Diversity in Our Christian Schools
- The Importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion During a Pandemic
- To Hire or Not to Hire a Diversity Director?
- Creating Diverse Communities in Christian Schools (Podcast)
- Should Diversity Affect Christian Schooling?
- “Cultural Humility” and the Christian School
- Christian Schools Need G.R.A.C.E. for Diversity
Finally, the national report on FSCI research is available for free download here.
May this summer and the coming school year mark a new opportunity to create a Christ-like, caring, and inclusive environment that removes impediments for children to come to learn (Mk 10:13) and to be a light to our communities (Matthew 5:14-16).
About the Authors
Dr. Charlotte Marshall Powell recently served as the senior researcher at ACSI. Her background includes a decade of research examining individual and community well-being in academic, corporate, and church communities. Deeply rooted in Christian values, she has an ability to lead research projects strategically and empathetically. Prior to joining ACSI, she served as an academic researcher and professor of psychology. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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 and followed on Twitter @LynnSwaner1.