Leading faith-based schools today: Challenges and opportunities

malone student teacher offers lesson

By Lynette Duplain

In the midst of a world that is changing at a phenomenal pace due in part to the onslaught of technological advancements and the stress and tension that comes with trying to keep up with them, there is hope in the words penned by Rudyard Kipling in 1910,

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Christian schools and Christian educators can keep their wits about them by standing firm on God’s word. God’s word has been given to teach, rebuke, correct, and train them that they might be equipped for the work they do (II Timothy 3:16-17, NIV). They should remember that they are not alone in their work, that God is not the author of confusion, and that their struggles are not against flesh and blood, but with the forces of darkness in the heavenly realms (Hebrews 13:5, Romans 8:31, NIV, I Corinthians 14:33, ESV, Ephesians 6:11 NIV).   News reports abound with stories that validate the downward spiral of the society in which we live. We know that Satan’s fury is great because his time is short, but as this age draws to a close, the Bible tells us the Holy Spirit will also be poured out (Revelation 12:12, Acts 2:17 NIV).

Challenges

One of the settings where the stress and tension of our society’s rapid technological advancements is vividly evident is in our schools, particularly our faith-based schools. The teaching and learning process in the twenty-first century is experiencing more and more pressure as technological advancements sweep into the marketplace at an overwhelmingly rapid pace.

One challenge schools are facing is being able to keep up with these rapid changes and their affect on students. Students from all economic levels, as young as preschool and Kindergarten, are entering school with technological skills, access to technology tools, and an abundant amount of time to engage them well beyond what the schools are able to offer in their classrooms and weekly lab periods. This creates tension and frustration as school leaders work to provide professional development for their staff and find funding to upgrade their school’s technology. There is also tension to write policies and procedures to keep pace with the knowledge and skills students are coming to school with.

Another challenge educators wrestle with is the intense pressure our society imposes in regard to student achievement. Factors such as divorce and decisions not to marry are bringing more and more children into schools that have no father figure in the home.   A society rich in fast foods, processed foods, and the sedentary lifestyle that compliments high technology usage is sending children into school with signs of obesity as early as preschool.   The presence or absence of bed and mealtime routines, of books and adults to read them, and the number of times a family may change residences during a child’s life also influence the profile of today’s students.  The number of children who enter school with a learning or behavioral challenge is also increasing. Balancing dynamics such as these with society’s expectations for high student achievement can lead teachers to feel like they are trying to make bricks without straw (Exodus 5: 1-21 NIV).

Other challenges, particularly for faith-based schools, are declining enrollment and the annual search for monies to keep their doors open. Fewer families are seeking faith-based schools for their children’s education as economic tension affects an increasing number of families. The shift in cultural morals and values more and more to the left and greater access to free online classrooms also contribute to declining enrollment. Although government vouchers are creating new funding for faith-based schools, families who access them may seek private schools as an alternative to poorly performing neighborhood schools and not for a biblical worldview.  This dynamic further contributes to declining enrollment as some families leave faith-based schools as the schools change their focus from simply supporting the biblical worldview to being purposefully more missions-minded.

A challenge that may be less obvious, yet contributes to the tension, is that the industrialized model of the twentieth century is still deeply rooted in many faith-based schools and classrooms (Ervin, 2014, 9). It seems that the technological and cultural arenas are morphing faster than classrooms are. Even the most innovative professional development plans struggle to keep pace with the laden-some job of adjusting the model to meet the needs of the twenty-first century learner.

Opportunities

Although the industrial paradigm has been the dominate teaching and learning model for nearly a century, it is not the only paradigm in the marketplace. Shifting our teaching and learning paradigm from the industrial or factory model in which product is the main focus, to a more natural, ecological model such as a garden or forest in which diversity and nurturing are the focus is a viable alternative. Children are living things not raw material. Therefore, our classrooms should be places where children can be nurtured in a more diverse and natural way. Although many societal, economic, and technological changes have happened in the world of education over the years, the sequential pattern of child development remains a constant. Children in this modern day still grow through the developmental stages in much the same way children have done for centuries.

Children, like trees, can be nurtured in basically two different ways. They can be nurtured and supported in their natural growth patterns, or they can be force fed. When trees are planted and nurtured in their natural growing patterns, their root systems grow downward in the same proportion as the trunk and branches grow above the ground, thus anchoring the tree to support the top growth. On the other hand, when trees are force fed their top growth extends in a faster proportion to its roots. When storms come along, these trees tend to uproot because their root system is not deep and wide enough to support their top growth.

Educators must remember that children, with all their knowledge and experience with technology, are still children. They may appear adult-like in some ways, but they are not adults. The Apostle Paul gave us insight into this truth, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (I Corinthians 13:11 NIV). According to Jeremy A. Ervin, “The twenty-first century classroom allows for shaping of the individual student with the beauty of the natural material. This individual crafting allows each learner to be uniquely different yet able to demonstrate understanding in different ways because of the God-given talents of that student” (Ervin, 2014, 9).

As twenty-first century Christian educators we do not need to be intimidated by the rapid advances technology is making in the world of education. In many ways technology can enhance our resources and opportunities to creatively nurture strong, healthy, academically capable students and offer tools for investing in their spiritual development as well.

First we can begin to look at and embrace the knowledge, skills, and access to technology students have and begin to write policies and procedures that will allow students to bring both their knowledge and their personal devices into the classroom. In reality, most schools will find it very difficult to keep their school labs equipped with state of the art technology at the same pace they are being released into the open markets. However, artfully written policies and procedures laced with accountability and responsibility clauses may give faith-based schools the flexibility they need to make use of students’ own resources.

Another opportunity faith-based schools have is being able to network with churches and other faith-based community groups to form partnerships that may give students access to additional learning spaces, environments, resources, and experiences the school itself cannot provide on its immediate campus. Faith-based schools have an advantage since they may already have connections and relationships with these organizations as part of their annual fundraising drives.

A third opportunity faith-based schools may take advantage of is funding through foundations that offer grants to schools with innovative and creative uses of technology. By artfully incorporating online Bible resource and research tools into their curriculum scaffolds, faith-based schools can enrich students’ Biblical knowledge base enhancing the opportunities for growth and maturity in their spiritual development. Such innovations have potential to attract grant funding to support their strategies.

Lastly, faith-based schools can assess their own teaching methods and strategies to determine how deeply entrenched in the industrial model they are. They can begin to look at the use of their program’s time, space, materials, and personnel resources to see what can be done to reconfigure some of them. They may also adjust the way they utilize time in their programs to allow teachers to act as facilitators for a portion of their school day if they have never done so. By engaging some of these opportunities, faith-based educators may indeed be able to “keep their wits about them when the rest of the world is losing theirs” (Kipling, 1910) and draw additional students to their campuses as a result.

References

Bitgood, G. (2014). How Technology Will Change Your SchoolCSE: A Magazine for Christian School Educators , 18, (1), 40-41.

Ervin, J. A. (2014), Defining Twenty-first Century Education. CSE: A Magazine for Christian School Educators, 18, (1), 6-9.

Kipling, R. (1910). Rewards and Fairies. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company.

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