During this month of concluding graduation ceremonies at our schools, I also participated in my own commencement exercises—this time, on the receiving end. I’m told someday I’ll forget most of what I wrote in the dissertation I recently defended to earn my Ph.D., and perhaps that is true. Currently, however, the work still occupies much of what I think and feel about leading Christian schools. In the process of studying the ways heads of K–12 Christian schools lead pastorally, I learned how Christian school leaders craft climate, culture, and community in ways that advance student learning, promote faculty flourishing and serve as powerful acts of worship.
Heads of school have little direct impact on day-to-day student learning. They do not influence the quality of instruction in the same way as the classroom teacher, or even the building principal. The most effective thing a head of school can do to build a thriving school community and impact student learning is to design and construct a school culture, the medium through which the school flourishes (or fails). Heads of school are really the only ones who can ultimately lead in building this culture, because what heads value—what they talk about, emphasize or do not emphasize, decry or praise, and live out or ignore—in many ways becomes the driving force behind what ultimately becomes important to the school, or its hidden curriculum.
The Power of Story
One of the ways school heads build culture most effectively is through the power of story. Everyone appreciates the value of a good story, because it captures the attention and the imagination. Kouzes and Posner have said that great leaders are great storytellers. Stories make abstract concepts concrete, expand paradigms, and spur others to action. Within the school, stories illustrate values most important to the school community, and serve as exemplars and reference points for community identity, giving school families perspective on what it means to be part of the community.
Early on in my headship, I realized some of the most powerful partners in designing a thriving school culture were school parents. When parents understand a biblical perspective on parenting and embrace the gospel-centric values of the school community, nothing allows the school to better partner with parents in educating their kids, or contributes more profoundly to a healthy school community.
There are lots of ways to draw parents into the school story, but one I found most helpful was weekly blogging. Four years ago, I began posting weekly blogs to a personal site we created. I told stories about our school, about its people, about my life, and about God’s work in all. Over time, these stories began resonating with school families. They would stop me at games and school events, telling me how something I had written helped them think about their faith differently, or gave them a new perspective about parenting in a way that honored the Lord. Eventually, I discovered my weekly blog was a way of sharing my heart with my families; it was, in itself, a kind of pastoral ministry, an educational tool. It was a culture-builder. One of the hallmarks of our school is its sense of community, and I believe these purposeful stories have served as building blocks along the way.
Some Stories You Can Share Now
Below, you’ll find links to four blogs that are several of many directed specifically to parents. They are not scholarly or professional in tone; they are not intended to be. They are conversational. As Augustine, Christian Smith, and others have noted, when one really wants to spur action, one appeals to the heart—the center of the will.
I have written an introductory paragraph explaining how and why I used each blog entry. I hope these writings encourage thought and reflection among your own school families, draw them closer to your school community and to their Lord, and provoke you to invite your people into your own school story through your own speaking and writing. May God equip and inspire you to tell great stories, and to build beautiful cultures within your schools!
Back to School—Round 2: I wrote this entry after dropping my middle child off for her freshman year at Baylor. I intertwined my reflections on her time at Grace Community School, and my appreciation for the ministry of my school in her life, with an exhortation to my school parents to take full advantage of all the blessings afforded by a Christian school education while their children are still in their homes. It is a good resource to refocus families on school at the beginning of the year.
Parenting Intentionally (Five Really Big Questions): Parent education is a really important function of Christian schools, and a really vital ministry to families. Schools often struggle with how to provide helpful guidance on parenting from a biblical perspective, ours included. I hear from my families that my blog is often a useful resource for parents, mostly (I believe) because I try to share with them the things I’ve learned or God has taught me, not as the “sage on the stage,” but through mistakes I’ve made along the way. This entry is an example, and it can be used any time throughout the year.
Why Christian School?: In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis noted that, as Christians, we need to be reminded more often than taught; to be taken time and time again to those timeless truths we are so anxious to forget. If your school community is like mine, my families need to be reminded why they chose Christian education in the first place, and why it’s so important for their family, their children, and the kingdom. Periodically, I will write something like this entry to serve as what I hope is a hopeful reminder about why they are here. It also reinforces our school’s values. I think pieces like these are particularly helpful during re-enrollment season, when families are making the decision regarding whether to return next year.
Making the Improbable Possible for Your Struggling Student: Parents often need to be encouraged and exhorted, particularly when their children struggle in school. We all know what it’s like to be so “down in the weeds” of parenting that we lose sight of the greater vision, or God’s greater calling upon our work as parents. This particular entry resonated deeply with families, probably because they saw their own child in my personal story. They saw hope, and that the God who loved them was at work in their lives. This type of piece is particularly helpful at the end of the school year, when parents may be feeling the effects of supporting their struggling student over the preceding months. I think we can be powerful forces in encouraging them to keep up the good fight.
[Editor’s Note: These blog posts can also be found under the new “For Families” tab at the top of the blog. We will continue to add resources in this space that you can opt to share with school families (e.g., via email, e-newsletter, your own blog) as you seek to build a positive school culture and support your students and their families.]
About the Author
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, The Head and the Heart. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.