Author: Diane Stronks

Dreaming Big Dreams

“I will pour out my Spirit
on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.”  Acts 1:16b-18

 

For those of us who are getting older, there is a tendency to reflect on the ‘signs of the times’ and wonder what cultural time we are really living in.  When we are bombarded by non-stop bad news and are overwhelmed at the complexity of the world we live in, it is easy to get caught up in the daily news and believe that the world is spinning out of control.  However, as people of faith we know that, in fact, we have a faithful Saviour who knows the plans that He has for us, and loves and cares for us despite all the issues that we are facing.

Our faithfulness to serve our risen Lord is a decision we need to make every day.  We are called to be people of hope, of love and of reconciliation.  Our prayer is to ask for the eyes to see the Spirit working in our schools, our homes, our neighbourhoods and in our cities.  Being in a community of strength and truth allows us the gift of vision and dreaming about what could be.  Being intentional about service and faithfulness and justice and forgiveness and love for our neighbor is essential to the core of who we are as God’s beloved children.

Every generation needs to read the beautiful words of Acts (or Joel) and dare to be courageous.  Every generation needs to pray that they become the prophets who can proclaim boldly what is true and lovely and beautiful.

Building capacity in our young people to dare to dream the big dreams of peace, love, and reconciliation is at the very heart of being counter-culture.  Love allows us to be agents of hospitality; agents of change for the common good; agents of reconciliation.  As teachers and leaders of Christian schools, may we also dream big dreams; may we see the Spirit working in our classrooms and in the hearts of the students we guide and, most of all, may we be strong and courageous—never wavering in our pursuit of LOVE, God’s most excellent way!

A Peculiar People

“The primary goal of Christian education is the formation of a peculiar people—a people who desire the Kingdom of God.”   James K.A. Smith

 

As I reflect on almost 40 years in Christian education, I am extremely grateful for the conversations/practices that our Christian schools are continuing to have.  The never-ending struggle on how to connect our Christian faith with learning, as well as how to honour our students as image-bearers and agents of reconciliation, is alive and well.  In his book, “Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation”, Jamie Smith talks about the primary goal of Christian education being the formation of a peculiar people, a people who desire the Kingdom of God.  Smith challenges educators to create opportunities for learning and discipleship that deepen patterns and behaviours for justice, love and mercy.  His famous analogy that students are not “brains on a stick” helps all of us to move beyond just the passing on of knowledge to our students to thinking deeply about our pedagogy, how to engage students in their learning, and connect their learning to works of service.

By using the word, “peculiar”, to describe ourselves as well as our students, we begin to question how we may be peculiar or different.  Will our neighbours know us for our love and caring?  Do we fight for justice and mercy?  Are we attuned to the plight of the vulnerable?   Are we hospitable and welcoming to the “stranger at our gates”, the refugee, the immigrant?  Are we using our power and privilege for the common good?  Can we look for ways to be inclusive and be people of shalom?  It begins with us.  As educators, we have a holy calling on our lives to work, play and learn with our students.  We need to be a peculiar people, educators who desire the Kingdom of God and are willing to continually examine ourselves as both educators and Christians.

We know we will never arrive but we always strive for God’s Kingdom here on earth.  And when we see our Christian schools in a never-ending search for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we know that we have communities that too can be called peculiar.  Much courage and perseverance to every stakeholder in Christian education today!

Emmanuel – God With Us!

Over these last few weeks, as Christmas is upon us, I began to wonder why God would use a couple of teenagers to take care of his beloved Son, a helpless baby who could not protect himself. Think about it: God, the Creator of the Universe, entrusted these two young people with the most important Gift to humankind. No interventions, no list of expectations, no army of angels to assist them. As far as we know, Mary and Joseph were left to care, love and raise baby Jesus in the simplest of homes and circumstances.

Certainly, God was with them. Certainly, Jesus was fully human and fully God. But just think about the trust that was placed on their shoulders. I wonder if there was any anxiety on their part to “do things right.” What mistakes did they make as all young parents do?  How many sleepless nights did they experience, wondering how to protect, love and nurture their son?

Perhaps they rested in the knowledge that God was actually WITH them. God the Father was watching over them and God the Son was their tiny baby, and maybe—just maybe—they trusted in God enough to trust themselves. To put it another way, maybe they realized that since God trusted them with his Son, they ought to trust themselves more. They could then risk living and raising Jesus in the full knowledge that every step of the way, God was WITH them, even in the difficulties and the good times, the trials and the struggles.

It is my hope that each of you feels the full presence of God this Christmastime. May you know that you are fully and truly loved, and may that love give you the courage to risk life to the fullest!

Leading with Love: Inclusion and Humility

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Imitating Christ’s Humility

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.    Philippians 2:1-4

As we look forward to our annual celebration of learning, the Edifide Convention, we think of who we are and why we do what we do. Teaching and learning is really about giving of ourselves to our students so that they can grow, develop and become who God intended them to be. Our students learn how to take risks, see connections, love God and their neighbour, demonstrate leadership, build community, restore brokenness and serve their communities. What more important values do we instill than love? Care, compassion, inclusion and humility are all outpourings of love, and model our Saviour and Lord. We are called to be ambassadors of Christ’s love, and we are called to look out for the best interests of “the other.”

It is with much pleasure that I point you to workshops where stories are told about how to live in encouragement, compassion and selflessness. Learning how to be “with” others in their vulnerability and to possibly see it as strength is one path towards wisdom.

  • Integrating Faith, “Disability” and Academics: Using Rather than Accommodating Unique Skills and Abilities,” (Chantal Huinink)
  • Nurturing Students Where Sexuality, Gender and Faith Intersect (Jennifer Bowen, Wendy Gritter, Arend Strikwerda, The Talent Consortium)
  • Fostering Relationships, Learning and Inclusive Practices for Students with Disabilities: The Power and Promise of Peer-Mediated Supports (Erik Carter)
  • A Personal Story of One Family’s Journey through Mental Illness (Janet Soppit)

May we always have the ears to hear our Lord and Saviour calling us to lead in love.

Leading with Love: Celebrations of Learning

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The mark of a true community and healthy relationships is the ability to celebrate the beauty and strength of others. We honour who God has created us to be when we help each other to develop our strengths and gifts. Scripture tells many stories of people who were called to do amazing things for their community. Being able to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn is a signpost of true selflessness, kindness and compassion. We wish to grow in Christian character and develop a culture in our schools, families, neighbourhoods and churches where appreciation, gratitude and deep love lead us to cultivate an authentic community.

With that in mind, many of our schools are in the process of hosting celebrations of learning, where students can share with their family, friends and community members the excellent learning that they have journeyed toward. What an amazing opportunity for our children to tell their stories of connection, contribution and learning. The beauty in these events is the understanding that students, as well as adults, are continually deepening our knowledge and wisdom. We never really arrive at a place where we are done learning.

During Thursday’s closing session at the Edifide convention, we will be holding our own celebration of learning. This celebration will include welcoming new members; recognizing 15-, 25- and 35-year milestones; and honouring our retirees. We will listen to Dr. Beth Green of Cardus on the meaning of excellence in Christian teaching, and we will celebrate the recipients of the newly minted John Rozema Teaching Excellence Award.

We are so excited by the number of teachers who applied for this award and were willing to share their excellent teaching and learning. We thank them for their leadership but also their vulnerability. To have others critique and give feedback is a risky but necessary exercise for true growth and change. We look forward to sharing these educators’ journeys.

Healthy institutions have artifacts, ceremonies and places of gathering that tell the stories of the movement. The convention has been such a gathering for more than 38 years. We welcome you to the 2016 Edifide Convention and invite you to participate in “Leading with Love.”

Looking forward to seeing you!

How Great Thou Art!

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Moraine Lake, Alberta.   Photo by Stephen Janssen

Last week, over two hundred leaders in Christian education from across North America met at the biennial Christian School Canada conference in Banff.  We had the pleasure of listening to Andy Crouch (for some of us again) talk about vulnerability and power/authority.  I have many reflections about the week but I wanted to start with my profound gratefulness to God to have created such a beautiful place in Banff.  The cool mountain air, the snow one morning, the grandeur of the mountains and the sun peaking through the mists made me remember one of my favourite hymns…”How Great Thou Art”.

How Great Thou Art

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hand hath made,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed;

Refrain:
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
and hear the brook, and feel he gentle breeze;

Refrain

And when I think that God his son not sparing,
Sent him to die – I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

Refrain

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home- what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!

This is a song that allows us to give praise to God when we see His beautiful creation, but it also is a song that allows us to connect to Christians both in the past and around the world.  It is a song that reminds us of that old, old story that we love to tell and of the humbleness and gratitude that we experience when we lean on our Saviour in the happy, joyful times and in the sad and broken times.

There are those in our community who have had beautiful, joyful times this past September and those in our community who have experienced sickness, sadness and grief…..and to all I hope that God continues to be near and present.  May his grace be sufficient for you today, tomorrow and in the future.

Journey into Educator Growth: Assessment and Evaluation

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“Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” With those words, the servant who doubled his talents was greeted by the master of the household. Don’t we all long to hear those words said about us? We may not admit it, but encouragement for a job well done feels really good. We may be shy or embarrassed when we receive kind words, but when they are given genuinely, such words give us the energy and goodwill to do our work and do it well.

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion at the spring OCSAA meeting in Uxbridge on the topic of teacher assessment and evaluation. Each of the participants on the panel made their case about how teacher assessment and evaluation played a role in a school’s overall learning culture. I was particularly impressed by the comments made by my colleague Christy Bloemendal, a VP at Hamilton District Christian High School. She talked about investment in teachers, both in time and resources, and the importance of teacher voice in the ongoing shaping of any school’s teacher assessment and evaluation processes. All the panelists agreed that teacher assessment and evaluation was important for growth, but what it looks like needs to be re-imagined and re-articulated. For me, the most important take away was the belief that teachers’ success and thriving must be the goal of any system. Filling out the paperwork may be somewhat important, but it pales in importance to developing a trust relationship and encouraging the good work of teachers so that they serve their students well.

In a healthy workplace, it is important to know where you stand, what your school’s mission is, and that you are a valued member of the community. Using an assessment and evaluation tool to “weed out” struggling teachers is less than productive. It is damaging to the overall culture of the school. Being intentional about teacher assessment and evaluation is key. Schools need to develop a system that is manageable for the leader and people-focused rather than paper-focused. I think we serve our staff best when focusing our time and energy on a formative assessment and not simply a summative report.

As we learn together how to give feedback (I like, I wonder, I suggest) through various means, protocols and voices, I do wonder if we need to continue talking about how to inspire educators to move forward, take risks, and continue to learn in really healthy ways. I also wonder if mentoring, sharing work with colleagues through Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), investing in professional learning, and cultivating teacher leadership would be the way forward.

Let’s begin a new conversation about this practice and approach it with creativity and teacher voice to blow up structures that are less helpful and find something that works for our unique sets of staff/individuals. Let’s imagine something that is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Empowering teacher voice could be seen by leaders as healthy risk-taking. It could also create a system where failure is re-envisioned as a path toward learning.

Hope

Senior woman and its grandsons together examine an album with photos

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my grandmother who taught me about engagement and meaningful work. She died when I was only twelve. What I remember most vividly about her funeral and the wake afterward was the seemingly endless stories that were told about her. I remember being astonished that people were laughing and joking when only an hour earlier they had been weeping and grief-stricken. I learned an important lesson that day: life is about both grief and joy, and they may be two sides of the same coin.

These past few weeks have seemed to be especially hard given the many announcements of death, especially among the parents of our members and friends. Over the years, I have also learned that no matter how old you are, when your mother or father dies you are devastated—even if you are in your late 50s or 60s. Your mom is your mom and your dad is your dad, no matter how old you are. Learning about loss is actually one of the most important lessons that we will all go through, including our students. It may be the loss of a parent, but it could also be the loss of a pet or a friend or other family member. As teachers, many of us will be expected to know what to say and how to be.

Whether you are new to the profession or a veteran who has not yet travelled that sorrow highway, you know it is inevitable. We know that our hope is in our God who does not fail us, but grief does sometimes open us up to doubt and feeling alone. I wonder if the way through the tears is through story. The telling of stories—both funny and serious—help all of us to imagine that person, to somehow give life back to the person, if only for a little while.

Telling a story about the person who is now gone, or even reaching out without words, may be a comfort for those who are missing their loved one. And our students are watching us; they take their cues from the adults who surround them. Just as I learned that it was actually OK to smile on the day of my grandmother’s funeral, young people will watch to see how we carry our hope and our faith even in the most trying and difficult times.

To all of you who have lost loved ones recently, may the love of our God, the comfort of the Holy Spirit and the peace that passes all understanding surround you!

Hospitality as Vision

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The hallmark of a healthy society has always been measured by how it cares for the disadvantaged.” —  Joni Eareckson Tada

One of the dilemmas that we face in Christian schools is how to create communities of learning that are hospitable and welcoming to all types of families and students. Issues arise in terms of affordability and accessibility, as well as the type of students we serve and whether families must fit into a particular type of criteria.

I sometimes wonder if the early Christian community faced some of the same issues. Who is in and who is out? It seems to me that the “viewpoints” debated by Peter and Paul had something to do with whom the church would include or exclude.

Now, for those who know me, you won’t be surprised that I land on the side of openness—opening up the doors of our Christian schools to diversity as a way to share the gospel but also as a way to ensure that we don’t insulate ourselves from this good world that God has created. We have so much to learn from our neighbours, whether they profess Christ’s name or not.

One of the other dilemmas we face is how to serve families who have children with disabilities. How can we create communities (church, school and otherwise) where everyone belongs and where everyone is valued? Being intentional about inclusivity may just be the measure of not only a healthy society, as Joni Eareckson Tada suggests, but also of being a Christian community.

I am not saying that as a movement we haven’t made amazing strides. Many schools have dedicated resource departments. Many educators have certification in special education and continue to upgrade their abilities to serve children with exceptional needs. The question is how to do more. Two of my heroes are Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen. Both worked in unique environments where they challenged each of us to actually see “the other” as beautiful and blessed creations of God. I would encourage us to continue to think, dream and vision how to make our Christian schools places of flourishing for all—children of different races, creeds, abilities and backgrounds.

Can our Christian schools and communities actually continue to become places of healing and shalom, of hospitality and blessing, so that we shine and model true love, justice and compassion? Our society yearns for these places. Let us invite them in, asking, “What can we do for you?” and “How can we mutually be a blessing to each other?”

 

Meaningful Work

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Years ago, I wrote a paper on the amazing educator, Maria Montessori. She was a woman who established schools in the midst of Italian ghettos, where she discovered that young children love to do the same kinds of work as adults. She taught them to clean, to prepare food, to take care of themselves through washing and dressing and to generally contribute to the community. We would say today that she encouraged student agency and student voice.

My mother’s mother was a vibrant, fun-loving, song-singing Oma. When we went to visit her on the family farm, she was always cooking, baking, gardening or cleaning. She was not a woman who sat down much. As her grandchildren, we loved to be with her, and so she always gave us a job. Whether it was weeding, cleaning beans, washing dishes or helping her carry things, she made us feel that we were indispensable to the important work of preparing the meal or helping her with her chores. She embodied Christ by wanting children to be with her and not sending us away because we couldn’t do things the way she wanted them done.

As I near that age of beginning to imagine life without a regular job,and as I talk with many who are retired or retiring, one of the things I notice is that we all still share that drive to do something meaningful with our lives.

Children, young people and adults all seem to have built into our very DNA the need to be needed. Research (not to mention common sense) suggests that we need communities and people to help us become who we truly need to be. As children, we need to have people in our lives, like Maria Montessori or my grandmother, who show us that we can contribute in significant ways to our families, our schools and our communities. As young people, we want to have our ideas and voices heard by those around us, and we want to contribute in significant ways. As adults, our work—whether at home or in the workplace—needs to contribute to the meaning of the family, organization or institution. Answering the question “WHY are we doing this?” is ultimately important. All of us need to know that the things that we are doing have value and meaning. Often, we need to feel that our work serves our neighbour. Giving of ourselves with no expectation or exchange of goods or service develops in us caring, servant hearts. Children have to learn caring for others at an early age; young people need to see that the world is bigger than themselves; adults need to know that their careers, vocation and work contributes to the good in the world; finally, seniors need to find other meaning in their lives, outside of vocation (and I don’t include playing golf or sitting on a beach-though both are fun).

As educators, we develop learning experiences that help students discover, grow, and contribute to the larger community. As parents, we give our children the opportunity to do real work that contributes to the family. As young people, we seek our roles and vocation and try out many different ways forward. As adults, we seek the bigger picture of meaningful work, and want to be part of an organization or institution that fulfills our deepest need to be culture-makers. And finally, as people who are no longer in the regular workforce, we seek opportunities to also create meaning for ourselves and others.

As you work with students, colleagues and community members, you are really working yourselves out of a job. Your job is to empower your students so that they don’t need to learn from you again. Just as parents show their children how to take care of themselves, cook for themselves, handle themselves out in the big world, we work to show students that they are true agents themselves—culture-makers. Through our examples and connections with them, they will in turn grow to help others become who they are meant to be. Sharing our wisdom; giving young people agency to do things for themselves; helping them to contribute to their communities, families, schools and churches—Maria Montessori did it; my grandmother did it. Can you?