Leading Children

What matters most? Why are we really here as a school? What’s our measurement of success?

Schools will answer those questions differently. The easy answer is to say that learning matters most… we’re here to give an excellent education… we’re successful if our students get good scholarships and good jobs.

Well, those pat answers don’t satisfy us here at Immanuel. The teachers and I are engaged right now in a challenging conversation about our real purpose, and our answers are getting more and more defined around discipleship. Our mission is to provide an excellent, Christ-centred education so that our children can be equipped for life-long following of Jesus. That has some significant implications:

  • We don’t just teach the Bible as dry narrative to be learned in a factual way.
  • We don’t reduce the Christian life to mere action… “just do the right things, and then you’ll be good boys and girls.”
  • It’s not good enough just to have parents and teachers who follow Jesus; discipleship is a personal decision and relationship.
  • Passively sitting there in church and in Christian school isn’t the Christian life.

It also means that we as school leaders seek to create an environment where personal following and discipleship is discussed and honoured. We’re working right now at thinking of even more practical, concrete ways to do that, and we’d love to hear your ideas!

When we pray…

“When we work, we work. When we pray, God works.”
– Hudson Taylor

No successful church, school, or family has ever been created or sustained without prayer. All human institutions are inherently fragile: one doesn’t have to live very long before witnessing or experiencing in them some painful strife or division. The only chance we have to make our homes healthy, our churches united, and our school truly successful is by spending considerable periods of time in prayer. I must say I have always considered it fairly mysterious that God would choose to bless us only after we ask Him. He often (but not always) holds off blessing us until we ask. Why wouldn’t He in His goodness and wisdom just automatically work for the growth of His kingdom at all times, regardless of whether people are praying or not? Isn’t it Hiskingdom? Well, He chooses to wait for us, and I believe that it’s because He genuinely wants to empower us.

Ironically, when we are frenetically busy with our many projects and plans, giving nary a thought to prayer, we accomplish very little. Or we even see our hopes dashed. But when we cease from our harried pace and settle down to ask God’s blessing, we finally start accomplishing things. He empowers us. What a marvellous and gracious thing to be permitted to join in God’s work, to be His very body on this earth! One of my prayers is that we at Immanuel will all grow in prayer, and that our meetings and community life will be characterized by a noticeable conviction about our dependency on God.

  • Pray for Immanuel with your children. Encourage them to pray for their teachers. Lead them in praying for any students with whom they haven’t been getting along.
  • In your personal prayers, ask God to guide the staff, committees, and board.
  • Pray that God would raise up godly and talented people to serve as new board members.
  • Ask Him to guide the school, that we may year-by-year become ever more successful in fulfilling our purpose.
  • Consider committing to meet at the school with me for a regular parents’ prayer meeting. I would be delighted to book some time each week to join with you in this.

Stormy Weather and School Days

Well, well, well. School seems to be permanently cancelled for the year! What an incredible arrangement of storms, wrapped around a weekend, to make for “March Break #2.” Some of you are likely delighting in the extra time with your kids, while I can well imagine others are feeling stretched to the breaking point!

So… what does this mean for learning? We’ve missed four days since March Break, with tomorrow looking iffy, and summer feeling a long, long way away. How does our program adjust?

One simple move we’ll make is to regain one instructional day by cancelling our May P.D. Day and spreading that staff work over the weeks before and after it.

As I’ve expressed to you in past newsletters, we highly value P.D. Days for the time it provides for staff enrichment. That said, in these unusual circumstances, we’ll forego this one.

What about tacking on more days in June? We chose years ago to create a June schedule that ends a little earlier than the government system. We always find that children’s productivity wanes as June advances. By the 20th of June, “attention-deficit-hyperactive” seems to describe just about everyone! Lengthening the year is unlikely to be profitable.

(It should be noted that we compensate for our slightly shorter June by starting earlier in September and making each school day longer, so our children have substantially more instructional time than any other students in PEI… about 50 hours more per year, in fact.)

Our teachers are already very sensitive to how time is used in the school. Movies, as you probably know, are very uncommon and are only used during class time when there’s a clear learning benefit. Class time is already treated as precious, and will continue to be preserved carefully. Already one teacher has, for example, cancelled a new three-morning program that was optional – an experimental thing that could very well have been worthwhile, but will be bumped to a future year.

One thing we will keep is the odd party. Parties are great! One of the things that people cite as something they love about Immanuel is that we are a community, not merely an “educational institution.” So at appropriate times, we’ll put on the music and take out the party hats and celebrate something or someone!

The first thing we’ll have to celebrate is the eventual end of this stormy weather! (mm)

Professional Development

Parents are right to be interested in the professional development of the teachers in their children’s school. You want to know that we are not stale – that we are seeking improvement, aiming higher, researching and reading about best practices, and renewing the curriculum.

Teacher PD has received media attention over the past six months as the government has opted to increase the number of school days set aside for it. Whether their approach is wise or not, I don’t know. But I do believe in the value of what we do here at Immanuel.

Our teachers start their Professional Development at the end of June each year by identifying areas of research and study over the summer months. We work on units and lesson plans; we read books about education; we read novels to consider for literature study; and we take courses. In late August, we dedicate the week before Labour Day to collaborative work and classroom readiness.

In September, each teacher considers our “Teacher Professional Learning Tool,” which is a detailed document we developed to express our sense of the ideal teacher (this is available for you to read, if you are interested). We choose areas to work on and set actual goals that we intend to accomplish over the school year. I follow up with each teacher as the year progresses.

Two days in October are set aside for us to attend a convention in Moncton. Meeting with other Christian school teachers and learning from lectures and workshops is very valuable. Then, from January till May, we take three separate Fridays to convene here for team development and curriculum improvement. On the agenda in January and this Friday are the following:

  • Developing a graduate profile: How do we want our students to look/think/act when they leave us?
  • Planning for a high school
  • Considering classroom space and design factors
  • Teaching organization skills to our students
  • What gaps or inconsistencies are there in our program?
  • What are some good methods for personal organization as a teacher?
  • Preparing for a mutual observation (teachers in pairs take turns sitting in on one another’s class)
  • Unit planning
  • Practical business (e.g. scheduling matters)

There’s no shortage of things to work on, and we never quite get through everything!

Please pray for us as teachers, that we may learn better and better how to bless our students. (mm)

Isaiah 44

I just rediscovered these ideas in a letter I wrote to parents a year ago… It’s not as dry a summer, but the ideas are still pertinent!

In thinking and praying for your children and for mine, I’m drawn to a passage in Isaiah that has deep resonance, particularly in such a hot and dry summer as this. It’s a promise from the Lord to pour out His streams of water …

“But now listen, Jacob, my servant,
Israel, whom I have chosen.
2 This is what the Lord says—
he who made you, who formed you in the womb,
and who will help you:
Do not be afraid, Jacob, my servant,
Jeshurun, whom I have chosen.
3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants.
4 They will spring up like grass in a meadow,
like poplar trees by flowing streams.
5 Some will say, ‘I belong to the Lord’;
others will call themselves by the name of Jacob;
still others will write on their hand, ‘The Lord’s,’
and will take the name Israel.
Isaiah 44

The work of parenting is so very hard, and it is easy to feel spiritually dry and ineffective. But the promise to our children is so very rich! The Lord will pour out His Spirit; our children will spring up; they will claim the Lord’s ownership over their lives. What a good Father we have!

When Grace Hits Home

It’s not hard to guess how students are feeling when they’re ushered in to my office to have a little chat. The expression on the face usually gives away the particular emotions! One of the things I’ve grown increasingly convinced over the years is important for kids to hear at a time like that is, “I know what that’s like, because I’ve done that too.” They usually perk at the news that their principal has his own checkered childhood history! Sometimes I’ll share a little story from one of my own more regrettable escapades.

They also typically hear, “I’m not angry with you.” Anger is a valuable and appropriate reaction only on rare occasions. Most often, it’s more true and helpful for me to reassure them that I’m not angry, just wanting to help them find a solution. I try to keep in mind that our good Father looks upon us as His children, seeking for these children entrusted to us to experience something of the Father in the way we treat them.

I had a lovely moment not long ago when I was speaking with a young fellow about some very unpleasant behaviour. I used the words “toxic” and “poison” in relation to his actions (and quickly reminded him that his teachers and parents and I are guilty of introducing poisons to the people around us too…. kids need to hear that we’re all alike before Christ). He seemed burdened by the thought, and hung his head a little. But then I had the chance to remind him that our poisons are washed away when we’re forgiven – that they’re not held against us any more. And then the lovely moment arrived. He smiled. It was the genuine smile of grace hitting home. The burden was gone.

What a wonderful God we serve, who lifts heavy burdens and turns our guilt into smiles! (mm)

What You Had to Say

Our board embarked on a comprehensive School Quality Assurance Program in September of this year, and the committee assigned to the work is nearly finished with its report. As we put the finishing touches on it, I thought I would share with you a few lines from the extensive survey that parents were asked to fill out in September. The results have been very informative and encouraging, and they are providing much of the background to the final report. Among many other things, we asked…

“The Christian character of the school is evident in the school’s instruction and programs.”
– 96% of parents agree or strongly agree

“The academic quality of the school program is good.”
– 90% of parents agree or strongly agree

“Faculty and staff model Christian maturity in speech, attitude, and conduct.”
– 98% of parents agree or strongly agree

“Faculty and staff function as a team of Christian workers.”
– 98% of parents agree or strongly agree

“Teachers believe that all students can learn and be successful.”
– 98% of parents agree or strongly agree

“There is a positive atmosphere among the students in the classroom.”
– 91% of parents agree or strongly agree

“The school provides a caring environment for all students.”
– 96% of parents agree or strongly agree

“I believe that students are safe at this school.”
– 100% of parents agree or strongly agree

The survey was overwhelmingly positive, but there was also some near-consensus that some things should be addressed. By far the loudest voice on this front had to do with the facility and the need to be looking for something more suited to the school’s larger enrolment. You also had great suggestions about other things, such as the need for more special education & resource support, and these will be brought up in our final report.

The Dreaded Principal’s Office

The dreaded principal’s office. We all remember it from childhood. Whether you suffered inside one or not, it was a place you probably associated with fear, punishment, and maybe tears. My own principal was an enormous man with a voice to rival James Earl Jones. I don’t recall ever seeing him smile. I recall never wanting to see him. (Unfortunately, I did… and learned my lesson!)

I care very much that those kinds of memories not be generated in any of our students here at Immanuel Christian School!

Here, we have a relationship-based approach to problem-solving. Our discipline policy is strong on grace and light on automatic consequences. We don’t use the word punishment, because it doesn’t capture the heart of discipline. We’re not trying to employ methods and systems that produce an external show of compliance: we seek instead to draw hearts to what matters most. We want our kids to love what is lovely and to seek to be intrinsically-motivated disciples. We think of this as a “shared followership”: we follow Christ and encourage our children to follow him too.

This is the heart of discipline: learning together how to be disciples.

The teachers and I had a great discussion last week about how important it is for them to be using me in their work of shepherding their students. Specifically, we noted together that in our school’s discipline policy, we have a zero-tolerance approach to…

  1. Regular disruption of the classroom
  2. Disrespect to teachers or other persons in authority

(and we’re working to add a point related to choosing not to work during class time)

By “zero tolerance,” we mean that these things will not go unaddressed, and they will not be allowed to persist. A few reminders will be given in class, as the teacher employs some classroom strategies. But if those don’t work, then the students are to come to the principal’s office. This is not a punishment, but an involvement of me in the work of encouraging them in their faith. We talk about the problems and why they happened. I might bring into the equation a consequence – or I might not. It depends very much on how the student responds. In nearly all cases, I consider the matter quickly resolved; confession and forgiveness normally play a part. In some cases, I involve you as the parents, depending on the gravity.

As the teachers and I work to strike the right tone on those zero-tolerance matters, my office may for some of our students come to be a place associated with fear… but I’m praying and working hard to make sure it’s only a holy fear, more like the kind the Bible talks about as the fear of God! Pray for me in this.

From the Teachers…

One of our teachers once said to me, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” I recently asked each of them to describe a moment when they were especially happy in their work…

In our morning circle time each day we practice singing “O Canada” so that the students know the words for our Friday chapel services. Recently I commended the seven little Kindergarten boys for their knowledge and strong voices. I told them that they might be the best singers in the whole school. Well, they must have remembered my comment, because last Friday they belted out the words at the top of their lungs, paying no attention to the tempo of the piano or to the rest of the school. It reminded me of a scene from a Mr. Bean episode. It took everything in me (and a few of the other teachers) to stifle our laughter, and to be good examples to the students on how to behave during the singing of our national anthem. That day they really were the best singers in the school! (Mrs. Dickieson)

This week a student approached me during math time and asked to help another student with some work. There was no concern about the fact that there would be more homework because of this. It was an amazing moment of realizing where there was a need and taking initiative to help without prompting; it made me very proud. (Miss Scott)

I love when my students are very eager to pray for each other during morning devotions. They are always very respectful and demonstrate their care for one another by volunteering to pray for a classmate. I feel honoured to help facilitate these times of worship. (Miss Kipp)

When a new project is introduced and while working on it the students start getting excited about it and begin coming up with suggestions to add to it so it could be more effective. We then collaborate our ideas and through this they choose to make it their own. After all the hard work is finished and the students are sharing what they’ve invested time and energy into then all of a sudden their sweet, beautiful faces honestly show how much they are truly enjoying what they have learned. That is the moment that makes me happy in my work here at ICS. (Mrs. Wilting)

There are lots of times but the one that comes to mind was this week when the grades one to three were singing together for our devotion time and I was watching some of the students as they joyfully sang with lots of movement and expression… I love watching genuine joy on their faces.(Mrs. Anderson)

Okay…and one just happened now…I’m sitting here at 3:10 and Levi comes back into school because he forgot something and he says to me “Mrs Anderson, what are you STILL doing here?” ………cute!! (Mrs. Anderson)

I was delighted in my work when we spent an entire month working on a Shakespeare play, and the students were so absorbed in what they were doing that not once did anybody ask how they were being graded! (Mrs. Mawhinney)

I was also delighted when I told the students (who were skeptical) that there was nothing they needed to know about algebra that I couldn’t teach them in 10 minutes – and 10 minutes later, they looked at each other and said with surprise (and relief!) “Wow! That was easy!” (Mrs. Mawhinney)

I love seeing the light that comes on in their eyes when my students make a connection to what we have learned in class to the world around them. While taking a walk with my students, we were looking for examples of what we have learned about trees. The students loved collecting all sorts of ‘treasures’ along the way and I loved overhearing their discussions and songs about trees, leaves, and photosynthesis. They were so excited to share with anyone in listening range what they learned and I was impressed with how much they remembered from class ( they have learned a lot of big words!). It was great to see how excited they were to see a leaf changing colour and to be able to tell why that was happening. (Miss ten Brink)

On bright, sunny days, wandering around the recess yard, I’ll sometimes stop and close my eyes, thinking that I’m feeling just a hint of our Father’s pleasure in His children… the warm sunshine on bright faces, with the giggles of happy play…. (Mr. Mann)

Technology in School

I’ve always considered myself a bit of a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to using technology in school. I locate the heart of what we do in the inter-personal work among teachers and students, with all other things being peripheral (from pencils to books to computers). I expect that many of you feel the same, and would choose a school with no technology and brilliant teachers over a school with high-tech-everything and sub-standard teachers.

Over the past five years of my involvement in this school, I have put most of my effort into investing in the quality of our teachers and their programs, saving technology for “a later day.” It’s always seemed too expensive and too fleeting in its lifespan to be worth a whole lot of time and money.

That said, I’m beginning to think that this is now that “later day,” that the time is right for us to make considered investments in learning technologies.

For those of you who are wary of computers as tools that isolate people and make learning shallow, please don’t worry! The teachers and I are, I think, appropriately sceptical and cautious. Modern technologies pose a serious threat to community; to reading, writing, and research skills; to attention span; and, of course, to budgets. There is a strong argument, however, that digital experiences are the new and permanent reality, and that we and our students need to learn how to enter that part of our culture carefully and wisely, benefiting from what is valuable and keeping our distance from that which diminishes. A corresponding argument is that a great teacher can offer even better learning experiences when bolstered with the right technology.

There are a few aspects of this that I find, honestly, very exciting. I look forward to implementing them here in the near future.