We welcomed to The Teacher’s Lounge Dr. Lisa Joyner, chair of the Christian Education Department at Veritas Baptist College and Online College, a ministry of Faith Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Lisa specializes in special education, having helped multiple schools build out their special education program and developing the special education degree programs for Veritas. Lisa is passionate about helping Christian schools expand their offerings and services to kids with special needs and develop a well rounded experience for all students.
She shares her interesting story and wants to encourage every educator to lean into supporting all students, regardless of their individual needs. She’s been married to Oscar for over 36 years, and she just married off her youngest the weekend after Thanksgiving. You’ll find part two of this podcast below, or you can listen to it here.
Michael Arnold: Tell us about some of the outcomes of the reach of the school in the community. Obviously, I’m sure you could tell stories of students that you served, but how did it impact school culture and the ministry?
Lisa Joyner: I know that the testimony of the school and the community was improved as a result. When I would have to go to an IEP meeting at a public school for one of our students, those professionals, teachers, and administrators were always surprised that a Christian school was there to get this testing and when they would learn what we were doing to help these students. They know that Christian schools are not serving the needs of many of the kids with special needs.
But on top of that, we’ve had students be saved as a result. We’ve had their families come to church and feel loved by the body of Christ. I’ve always said how tragic it is when a family has three children and they drive up and they drop off two of their kids at a Christian school. And then they have to keep going with the third kid and take them to public school. What does that say to that child? That’s the concern that I have. They’re not good enough for the Christian school.
Let me tell you, this past May was graduation at Friendship Christian, and there were 35 students who graduated. Out of those 35, six of them were in what we call the Focus Learning Center. Those are the kids with Down Syndrome and Autism and they weren’t graduating with the same kind of diploma as their peers were, but they were graduating in their green robes and all of the regalia.
I missed this graduation because I was home sick with COVID, but I watched it online. I was able to pick out not just those six kids, but there were several others that I pointed out to my husband as we watched it on the screen. And I’ve got to tell you, I had a couple of emotions. I was thrilled and happy to see that, but then I was sad for all the other families of kids with special needs who will never get that moment, who will never be able to see their children walk across the stage of a Christian school and get their diploma.
Michael Arnold: Enlarging our influence, serving all students, celebrating every life as a gift from God– And aren’t we all challenged in some way? Don’t we all have our own difficulties? And yet Jesus loves us anyway.
Lisa Joyner: I’m glad you brought that up because I’ve seen that in schools that do embrace kids with special needs. The rest of the student body, the “regular, average” kids, go to a public school, and they are surrounded by kids who have disabilities. When they go to a Christian school, they’re usually insulated from that. And that’s not good. We shouldn’t be insulated from the “poor and needy and maimed.” We shouldn’t be. We should invite them to the same feast, just like we’re offering to everyone else. What we found is that the rest of the population of the school embraced those kids, which made them normal, and they became very protective of them and there were few instances of what you might call bullying. Very few in all the years that I was there.
They eat each other. I said, they’re like little piranhas in a fish bowl. In their own little group, they’re like siblings with each other, but we can deal with that. But on the other hand, the rest of the student body embraces them. They play on sports teams. They’ve been cheerleaders and they go on field trips together with them. They eat lunch together. They go to chapel together. They are part of the community of Christ. And what I think is important too, is when you look at statistics, a lot of those students, when they have children, somebody there is going to have children with disabilities. What if we normalize it early on and they learn that compassion? That’s been a really beautiful by-product of having a program for kids with special needs in a Christian school.
Michael Arnold: You moved to Veritas a few years later. And it sounded to me as we talked earlier that part of your desire was to help multiply your efforts beyond just one school at a time. Tell us a little bit about those efforts and how you’re trying to help other educators in this area.
Lisa Joyner: All right. One thing that we do in our education program and all the courses, is we talk about differentiation in every single course. We talk about how to differentiate this content for a student who has a learning disability in reading or writing or math. That’s part of the worldview. Our biblical worldview is that we include all of the students.When our graduates go to a school, no matter where they go, they’re going to have students in their classroom that have a disability. So we’re really doing them a disservice if we don’t prepare them for that in their undergraduate program. It’s exciting to see that because then they go on and we hear from the schools where they are that they’re a real help to their schools.
The other thing that we’re able to do is through teacher conferences. I travel a lot in the fall and so do some of our other educators at Veritas. We spread out and we go all over the country and teach workshops for those teachers, and I’m telling you, the rooms are filled with teachers, flowing out of the rooms, sitting on the floor. The last one I did was in Texas. I’ve never been to this Texas conference before, so these teachers don’t know me, but my room was packed from the very first workshop I did. They were literally sitting on the floor, we were bringing in chairs, and they were out in the hallway. I wasn’t the draw, because they didn’t know me, but the topics were the draw. When we’re talking about mental health and anxiety, about ADHD and learning disabilities, and how to help and how to differentiate those topics, teachers are excited about it.
That’s a limited amount of help that we can give, so I really like to share as many resources as I can, books and articles and websites that they can go to to get the help that they need. I also love going to Christian schools that ask me to come and do targeted workshops for them like some teacher training at the beginning of the year. That’s a bit more limited, but it’s another good way to get out there.
But the point is that teachers are hungry for this information. They want to be a help to these students.
The State of Faith-Based Education
Michael Arnold: How would you describe the state of faith-based education as you interact with multiple schools each year? Do you feel like we’re moving in the right direction? Do you feel like we still have a lot of barriers and misconceptions in place when it comes to serving students with learning disabilities and other special needs?
Lisa Joyner: Unfortunately, yes, because on the one hand, I get really excited about much interest there is.
But on the other hand, I hear from about the same number of teachers or parents who are still just so sad and frustrated that they just are not getting any support in that area.
I talked to a family about a year ago that just really broke my heart for them. They have two boys who I think were their natural children, with no disabilities, and they were at their local Christian school. And then they have two little girls who were in the second grade, and these little girls had been adopted.Theyprobably had some fetal alcohol syndrome, which kind of looks like learning disabilities or ADHD. So they were a little behind, but how far behind can you be when you’re in the second grade? They’d already been turned down once. So this is one of those families that would drop off their two kids at the Christian school and keep going to the public school to drop off the other two.
Well, their concern was that they were seeing the influence of all the nonsense that’s going on in public school right now. They were seeing the influence of that permeating what their girls were being taught, and they wanted for their girls the same kind of biblical worldview and Christian school nurturing that their boys were getting. But they’d been turned down.
So they met with me and I talked to them and gave them some ideas and talking points about how to assure the administration of their intent, that their goal was not that these Christian school teachers were going to race to get their kids up to grade level in record time. That was not the goal. The goal was to have their girls be in that nurturing Christian school environment, learning Bible stories and that Christian worldview that our schools are so good at. They wanted the girls to just have a chance to be a part of that community. I talked to them and suggested that they maybe even ask if the school would give it a trial?
They came back to us and said, no. I suggested, why don’t you go to the next level up? Maybe that’s the thing. let’s just go to them and ask again and again, reiterate what your goal is. You want your girls to be raised in this nurturing Christian environment. You don’t expect a magic pill, et cetera. The following week, she reached out again. She said they took it to the school board and the school board flatly said, “No, this is not the direction that we want to go into.”
And I was appalled. I try to be understanding because I know that a Christian school is not set up to take every single student that walks into the door. I understand that. But when you’ve got a Christian family. How can you not make that work? And I think, let’s go back to your mission statement. What does it say? Does it say that the purpose of your school is to train little elitists to go out and make big money in society and do great things? Probably not. I go back to, what would Jesus do? Would Jesus say, “No, we looked at your IQ scores, and you’re not college material, you’re really not cut out for our curriculum.”
Then we go with the curriculum. I say change the curriculum if that’s an issue. Adapt the curriculum to fit the student. Don’t make the student adapt to fit the curriculum if it’s not a good fit. What would Jesus do? I think He would make it work.
Michael Arnold: And I agree with you, but let me play devil’s advocate here for just a minute and address this as the administrator or the school board who says, “But we have limited resources to pay our teachers. Our classes are already full. Our teachers are overworked. We can’t just change out our curriculum resources. We’ve invested a lot into this.” How would you respond to that? What baby steps could be taken to start moving in the right direction if you find that your school’s not at a place where it can readily serve students like this?
Lisa Joyner: That’s a good question, obviously, because you can’t overtax one classroom. So you have to be intentional and that’s one of the things that we learned along the way when we developed our program.
First of all, with the administration, we would identify a percentage of students per grade level that we could take who had disabilities that were going to be extreme enough that they were going to need some extra attention. Whatever percentage that is, maybe 20%, maybe that’s 6 kids per grade. Now, some of them you can let slip in because it’s minor enough that it’s not going to take any serious modification or accommodations that are extreme.
You should also read that paperwork carefully and look for behavior issues because one extreme behavior issue can distract the entire classroom dynamic. And I get that. When we had a suspicion about that, then we would suggest a shadowing day or two. Even students with Down Syndrome, who I think are the sweetest ones in the world, can be distracting with behaviors that are inappropriate. Sometimes kids with any sort of ADHD even could be that. If we had a suspicion that their behaviors would be so difficult to manage, then we would suggest a day or two to shadow for free because you could tell a lot in a day or two about whether or not that was going to be a good fit or not.
Michael Arnold: There are more resources available for students with diagnosed learning disabilities or things like that, I think, than even in the previous decade. And I think to your previous point, why not pursue those? Why not explore what resources we have available to us so that we can open our doors to a wider range of students?
Lisa Joyner: And you made the point about from the administration’s point of view or the teachers, that they aren’t paid what they’re worth. That’s for sure. And they do have a lot of work to do. I understand that. I would say that is one way where my public school experience did serve me well because I saw there that they are paid better. That’s for sure. They’re also very busy. They also have a lot of, things that are thrust upon them to do, even outside of the classroom, especially the special ed teachers. So they’re tired too, but they have to do this for these kids. If they are given an IEP for that child, then they have to.
And I’ll tell you, one thing that surprised me was the teachers’ response. I would have an IEP meeting for the student, and then I would come out of there with the list of either modifications or accommodations that needed to be made for this child based on this testing, and then I would show this to the teachers and I never got any pushback ever. They just did it. Was it hard? Of course it was hard. Yes, it can be. But there are ways to save time on that.
But in the Christian school, I was shocked by the pushback. Oh, I can’t do that. I’m already doing this. I don’t have time to do that. Wait a minute. This is what the child needs. And so what I tell Christian schools is if you have nobody in the building that understands how to differentiate for students who have disabilities, all you need is one. You don’t have to have an entire program for kids with special needs. You really don’t. You just need to have one teacher who’s got some training.
And that’s one reason why Veritas did what we did, to make the free stuff available through Truth Matters and through the degree programs that we’ve got, because if you’ve got one expert in the building, they can be the resource. They can be the one that reads the paperwork, first of all, for the administration, before the child is enrolled and says whether or not this is something the school can handle or not.
The key word is differentiation. When you Google that and you start studying differentiated education, then you learn that, oh, it really doesn’t have to take up that much time. I’m not doing more, I’m just doing a little differently and manipulating some things around a little bit, especially when it comes to assessments.
But good teaching is good teaching. And if you can use good strategies and instructional strategies that will reach the lowest student in your class, you reach everybody. You just assess them a little differently.
Michael Arnold: I want to ask about resources. So let’s say that there’s an administrator or teacher who wants to start investigating this further, looking into this. What would be the top resources you would point them towards as far as wrapping their minds around this and what more they can do.
Lisa Joyner: First of all, I’d say identify a school that’s within drivable distance from you that is doing something similar to this and visit. Go and see it. You need to see for yourself what it looks like and how it can work in your situation. Now the model that we used at Friendship worked really well and continues to work really well for them. But our model is not necessarily going to work the same in different Christian schools because the dynamic of every school is different. But visiting a few of them is really helpful.
And then there were some books that I would recommend. One that I started with that was super helpful came out in 2006. There needs to be an updated version of it, but this one was good. It’s called Serving Students with Learning Disabilities in Christian Schools. It’s written by Myrna Esom and Debbie Irwin. The subtitle is, A Program Management Manual for Teachers and Administrators. I started with that one, and that was an excellent one. It’s almost a manual for getting started. Another one that I would recommend is called Planning, Writing, and Implementing IEPs, A Christian Approach, by one of our instructors, Dr. Bunny Claxton,. And it is an excellent manual on an IEP and disabilities in general.
Michael Arnold: What about organizations, maybe consulting organizations that might help with grant writing or navigating the partnership with a local district? Are you familiar with any organizations like that? Have you done work with people like that?
Lisa Joyner: No. It’s hard because we have 50 states, and all 50 states have different laws pertaining to education and policies. And then in those 50 states, they’ve got districts within each one of them, and so they all do things a little differently. But what I have found because I travel to different states, and at the conferences I hear from teachers and I always ask, all right, in this state, what does it look like? And in some states they get very little help.
And in others, the public schools come to them and say, Hey, here we are. What do you need? Do you need OT? Do you need speech services? I would say what I believe is necessary is for every single school to identify who is the person on either the district or the state level, probably the district level, who is the coordinator for non public schools.Build a relationship with them, take them to coffee, find out from them what can you do to support them, because believe it or not, there are things that they need from you, and then see if they can support you. What they need from you as a Christian school is a list of students, not necessarily with their names, but they needed to know the number of students that we had enrolled who had a public school issued IEP. They can turn those numbers in to the state, and then that represents dollars.
They had these numbers of students that were in non-public schools, but they had IEPs, which meant that by law, they have to serve them with whatever that they qualify for. So therefore, they could get money back from the state for that. What was in it for us is by showing that give and take that I’m willing to work with you.
I think we should do it too, just because we are Christians, and we shouldn’t come across as hostile to them. No, we need to have a good working relationship with them, and I think you’d be surprised at how many Christians there are in the public schools, who are very understanding of what you’re trying to do and will be very accommodating.
Michael Arnold: How have you seen volunteers help with this process? Volunteer grandparents or parents, maybe the parents of the children that are being served or just others who feel like this is their passion, their ministry. Has that been helpful? Are there barriers there?
Lisa Joyner: No barriers. No, they’re very helpful, especially financially. Grandparents get very excited and they open their wallets when you send out that request for items. Now, when it comes to actually helping in person, you have to be a little bit careful with that because FRPA, the laws against people knowing what the disabilities are in particular, that kind of information has to be protected. You can’t actually have parents regularly in the classroom helping with the education, but helping with other things that we would do, extracurricular activities, field trips. That is good for the parents because then they bond as parents, having things in common like having children who have special needs. And they need that kind of support from each other.
I had some parents who were very good at knowing how to advocate for their kid through the system, knowing what kinds of resources were available, and knowing how to get them. They had the time to put into that that I didn’t have. So they would share that with me and I would sometimes set up like little lunch-and-learns for the other parents to come in and have them explain what they knew about how to navigate this process, how to get this service for your child, how to get other things, even things like guardianship process, which can be tricky to navigate and expensive, too. Using them as experts was also a great resource, so I didn’t have to do everything and I didn’t have to know everything on my own, but I just had to ask.
Michael Arnold: Now you’ve stated that you enjoy talking to educators and administrators. What’s the best way for people to get a hold of you if they want more information or want to explore or pick your brain?
Lisa Joyner: I would say email me. I do have people frequently who reach out to me and ask me specific questions, and I do have a plethora of resources that I can point to if I know exactly what the need is. So, absolutely, it’s a ministry of mine. I am passionate about it.
And if your heart is to help kids with special needs in your school, then I do want to be available to help you. So you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in one of our programs, or if you would like to extend your education and add on, then go to vbc.edu, whether that’s to finish an undergrad or a graduate degree, or even your EDD.
You’re not alone. If you’re a Christian school teacher or administrator, know that it can be done. Is it difficult? Maybe, but anything worth doing is going to be a little difficult to do, but it’s not impossible. There is support. There are others like me that would love to reach out and help you.
Michael Arnold: Lisa, I’ve taken up enough of your time today, but I always like to give my guests what I call the last word where you can talk directly to the audience. You don’t have to talk through me. And so I’d like to just invite you to imagine that you’re addressing a teacher directly, maybe a teacher who has students with special needs in their class.
What would you want them to know or hear directly from your heart as we part ways today?
Lisa Joyner: God tells us in the New Testament–I think Paul says it– when we ask for wisdom, He will give it. I know that during that year in public school, I took those verses seriously and every single day, I would beg God for wisdom. I said, “Things are going to come up today that I am not going to know how to handle. Please give me the words that I need. Give me the ideas, specific instructional strategies that I need. Help me today to have wisdom to know how to respond and how to be the best teacher that my students need from me today.”
And that’s a prayer that God said He would answer. And He did. If you’ve got a student with a special need in your class, and I’m sure you do, become an expert on what their special need is. If they have ADHD, become an expert in ADHD. If they have a learning disability, become an expert in learning disabilities, and then ask God to give you the wisdom to be the teacher that they need you to be.