A tweet from Jen Schwanke in Education Week Teacher that keeps popping up in my feed says: “The biggest challenge I face as a leader is carrying the burdens, worries, frustrations, and challenges of so many other people.” This hasn’t popped up just once, but I seem to see it weekly. As Christian educators, we should be pretty clear about what Matthew 6 reminds us in that we should not worry, as each day has enough for us to handle. We also rest in the words of Lamentations 3 that remind us that God is faithful and supplies new mercies each day.
There is truth in that quote, and there is truth in those scriptural reminders. School leaders today fill the role of not only an administrator but also as counselor and advisor in ways that we did not a decade ago. Truthfully, I wish that I’d paid more attention to my psychology classes; I might feel better equipped to fill the role that I am being called to fill. However, this is the world in which we serve and I believe God has uniquely called us to step in the gap with each other, as women leaders.
I started my journey as an educator 20 years ago, first in a middle school science classroom for six years, and then began the foray into administration as an assistant principal, then a principal, and now, superintendent. I had to immediately adapt to being either the only or one of the few women who sat in school leadership meetings. That was less than 15 years ago. Even now, I find that at most administrative gatherings women are outnumbered about four to one, but in God’s design, I believe that women in leadership have a tremendous opportunity to model the book of Titus as we respond to today’s world as a body of believers.
Once upon a time, when I was in my 20s, I helped start a Titus 2 ministry for women. Remember that in Titus 2, Paul charges older women with training up younger women to live spirit-filled, biblically grounded lives. At that point, I was in the younger women category. To have a mentor during that time was a great support and a way to deepen relationships with each other and with Christ. I am not sure where the switch occurred, but fast-forward 30 years, I have become the older woman, and my perspective has developed more significantly.
Considering the past years of school leadership, I realize that mentoring has become a significant part of my leadership work, and much of the mentoring that I do is unrelated to curriculum and instruction. I find that many discussions center around life/work balance, managing people, and building professional relationships. In particular in recent years, it is in helping teachers understand that without filling their own selves and souls, it is impossible to serve others. In studying books like The Rest of God by Mark Buchanan and Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton, I have come to better understand the need for Sabbath rest as we try to balance home and church and work. This balancing act is a true challenge, maybe more so at a Christian school where teachers are fully invested in their commitment to student success in the areas of academic, spiritual, and social/emotional growth.
It is important to acknowledge that generation gaps exist at schools. The speed of change and the speed of communication and information delivery have amplified the generation gap. Many of the educators who are just coming out of a college setting now have a clearer picture of today’s students. School leadership (me) must realize that even those teachers who have been in the classroom for five to 10 years may have a truer perspective and pulse on today’s young parents. My leadership team, a small group of four women, reflects from four to 30 years of classroom experience, and we recognize that understanding and growth have been experienced at both ends of that experience spectrum.
This gives those of us who work together a distinctive opportunity to mutually influence and learn from each other. It also means that in many cases, we need to have the younger women lead. We must look beyond the measure of years of experience, and allow leadership to grow because of the depth of experience. By enabling young, knowledgeable teachers and leaders to impact the culture and flow of information at the school site, I am not implying the antithesis of Titus 2. However, as we work together in community to sharpen each other in both directions, we can blend our experiences to create a space where there is authentic and targeted growth for not only the students but the faculty and staff as well.
In order for mentoring and reverse mentoring to work, a culture of trust must be cultivated. This includes on a leadership team, where it is important to bring a variety of viewpoints, experience, and expertise together. We must also build the capacity for others to lead, and this can be done through informal, small-group PLCs, or in large-group professional development meetings at the school site or in the community at large. Building the confidence and leadership capacity at our schools bodes well for the future of Christian school leadership. We have to do this with intentionality, based on an understanding of being in the trenches and how to work collaboratively for the strongest future of our schools.
As women leaders continue to care deeply about the people with whom we do school life, let’s faithfully and collectively care for the people in our school communities. We cannot carry the burdens of every member of the school community, but we can partner with colleagues, parents, students, and each other to create caring communities, as we lead our schools well.
[Editor’s Note: Visit Women Leaders for Christian Education, where you can find Jenn and many other prominent leaders blogging on the topic of women’s leadership.]
Note: This article was originally published in May 2018 and republished in January 2021.
About the Author
Jennifer Thompson is the current head of school at San Jose Christian School and will assume the role of superintendent of Ontario Christian Schools for the 2018–19 school year. Before heading west, Jenn spent 15 years serving at Westminster Christian School in Miami, Florida, in roles that ranged from middle school girls basketball coach to elementary school principal, covering most positions in between. In whatever spare time Jenn has, she enjoys traveling to watch baseball games or to visit family who are spread all over the globe. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.