Doing A Great Job on the Wrong Things?

By: Scott Mayo

I had the distinct pleasure of reading Dr. Donovan Graham’s Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace and Truth Into Your Classroom in manuscript form during my Master’s program at Covenant College. It was subsequently published by Purposeful Design and is now a required reading for ACSI teacher certification. By definition, then, it is getting a wide reading in Christian school circles. That being said, I am having a hard time believing that there hasn’t been a great outcry, in that I found it to be a very troubling book on several fronts. His central premise is that the Gospel, the central element of the Christian Faith, does not permeate our schools in a manner commensurate with our profession of its importance. Sadly, our Christian schools seem to rival our secular counterparts in the area of focusing on the temporal, superficial, and measurable. In fact, because we have great kids and wonderful teachers, we tend to produce even better results, albeit results measured on the same secular yardstick.

What to do then? Well, I asked Dr. Graham that very question over lunch one day in the cafeteria. His good-natured response was that the working out of his thesis was “our job” as Christian school administrators and teachers. That answer was more profound than I originally understood. The outworking of the Gospel into daily life, including school life, does not lend itself to a recipe-like approach. The seasoning of grace will produce as many flavors as it finds sinful, hurting, difficult situations. Once I began to grasp that I didn’t have to figure out how to bring grace and truth into every classroom in every school, that freed me up to start to discern how to bring the Gospel to bear on our little school with our unique set of dreams and aspirations hindered and clouded by the site specific effects of the Fall.

Initial implementation began in the conventional way; we read the book as a faculty and then discussed sections of it throughout the year during in-services. The content of those discussions varied widely, but the structure stayed very consistent. We were always finding ourselves at “Yes, but…” moments. The “yes” was in reference to the claims of the Gospel and the necessity for all our actions to be guided and covered by grace. The “but” was the pragmatic, mundane reason why we couldn’t accommodate the Gospel in a particular school situation. Instead of acting as a conjunction, we had turned the “but” into an eraser, effectively eviscerating our “yes” to the Gospel of any real meaning. It was evident that we had good intentions, a great desire to make positive changes, and a long way to go!

We are now completing our second year of school-wide attempts to move from a place where our students derive their worth from their performance and instead find it in Christ. This has involved changes in content and process. We still teach, test, discipline, perform service projects, and field athletic teams. It’s just that we are striving to have God’s grace make a difference in each of those elements of school life. Those efforts have not always been understood, especially by the parents. We’ve been accused of giving our students a license to sin (behaviorally) and fail (academically). While not claiming to be infallible in our efforts, it is noteworthy that we had never been accused of granting license before. As Paul made clear in Romans 6:1, grace will always be misunderstood by those who measure ultimate worth and merit by performance (especially outwardly visible performance). Interestingly enough, most of the consternation was not voiced by parents concerning their own students, but was centered on how our actions with other students was somehow not “fair” to their students. During those conversations, Christ’s parable of the workers in the vineyard from Matthew 20 always echoed in my mind. It’s easy to want grace for ourselves. It’s also easy to resent grace when other receive it.

We truly believe that the image of God in our students coupled with the power of God’s grace can be used to roll back the effects of the Fall in a way unattainable by behavioristic, manipulative methods, methods that often seem to produce desirable results in the short term. In the face of all the difficulties, we are still convinced of and committed to the ideas delineated in Teaching Redemptively. To continue to make this the reality at our school, several things working together are needed. First, we must model this as well as teach it. So many times schools try to plant something at the classroom level that is choked out by the overall school atmosphere. For instance, as an administrator it makes no sense for me to expect the faculty to discipline in a relational way while I treat the teachers bureaucratically. Next, we need to continue to research, instruct, and experiment. While grace-based instruction should be situational and should never be enacted mechanically from a checklist, that certainly doesn’t mean we can’t learn great things from other schools. For instance, in Dr. Gene Frost’s Learning from the Best: Growing Greatness in the Christian School, his chapter describing the approach to discipline enacted by Lutheran High School North in Macomb, Michigan was both inspiring and useful. So much of what they are attempting to do in moving from Law to Grace is transferable in essence to any school.

Finally, as leaders we must constantly paint the big picture for those on the front lines. Sometimes that takes the form of visionary speeches. At other times, we just need to take the small, teachable moments to show how a philosophy can inform practice. Recently, I began our morning meeting by reading Luke 14:12-14 aloud. This passage is where Jesus instructs those giving a feast to invite the poor, the crippled, and the blind, i.e. those who couldn’t pay them back. I then distributed an assignment. The teachers were to reread the passage. Then, to drive home the point, I required a few written paragraphs within a week reflecting on how this story applied to their classrooms. The twist was that they had to name names in the reflection. I wanted them to realize how easy it is to reward those who are rewarding but to only tolerate those who aren’t. It’s an even greater leap to love those students who are needy in an academic or behavioral sense. It’s easy to admit that in general. It can be painful to admit that when there is a face attached.

The results were wonderful. In their written responses, the teachers were very honest about how theory and practice diverge on a daily basis. When they would mention Little Johnny by name, describe how they normally reacted to him, and then record how he should be the object of their love especially because he had less to “offer” them compared to his peers, it was evident that the desire to be gracious was making a tangible difference. For closure, I read aloud excerpts of the reflections in our morning meeting the following week. That was helpful in that various teachers identified varying ways in which teaching particular students exhibited that lack of inherent reward along with heartfelt regret for not pursuing more diligently those same students in love. If nothing else, we intentionally took time to examine our practice in light of the Gospel. While no one-shot panacea, I do believe exercises like this can aid in the process of changing the culture of a school.