I never planned to teach. I became a Christian educator unexpectedly, and I remained one because the idea of teaching Christianly captured my imagination.
As a young teacher in a Christian school, I gradually realized there was more to making education “Christian” than I had assumed: more than the freedom to speak freely about the gospel. I discovered that many teachers struggle with the tension of knowing they are expected to “integrate faith and learning,” often finding too few satisfying ways to do so and being too busy to give the project the attention it deserves.
According to their mission statements, most Christian schools exist to have an impact on students’ spiritual lives. Christian educators have a two-fold task: doing education well and doing it in a way God can use to transform hearts. I found that the first part alone absorbed most of my time and energy. Of course, we try to model and mentor Christian living before our students, but thinking about how to teach in ways that are not only informative but also formative is a tougher nut to crack. The good news is that recent scholarship in the area of faith and learning sheds light on how we can do this well.
Since the beginning of the modern Christian school movement, the conversation about “integrating faith and learning” has primarily been about presenting course material from a Christian perspective. Christian school teachers have always aimed to nurture students spiritually, but the academic focus has been on bringing a biblical worldview to bear on content. More recently, this conversation has changed, recognizing that experiences shape our hearts at least as powerfully as does knowledge. Teaching Christianly involves faith influencing not only what is taught (a Christian perspective on content: developing a Christian mind) but also how it is taught (instructional practices that shape students’ imagination and desire for the things God loves; James K. A. Smith writes compellingly about these things in his book, You Are What You Love).
The challenge of Christian education is for teachers to allow their faith to influence every aspect of classroom culture (not only course content) in ways that promote the love of God and neighbor, that is, ways that nurture Christian character. This is good news for teachers. Unlike approaches that focused primarily on biblically filtering course content—an awkward fit for skill-oriented subjects like mathematics and grammar—this broader project is a good fit for all academic disciplines. There may be no “Christian” way to do algebra or identify parts of speech, but there are plenty of formative ways to teach both. More good news is that this approach does not assume one size fits all. Instead, individual teachers will discover different ways to shape a formative classroom culture, influenced not only by the subject they teach but also by their personality, things they are learning spiritually, and the age and characteristics of their students. The key question for teachers has changed from, “What biblical principles apply to my subject matter?” to one that goes further: “How can everything my students experience promote love for God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40)?”
Exploring this approach has been an adventure, sometimes frustrating (creativity risks failure) but also deeply rewarding. For example:
- A former student told me that my “Big Ideas” might have saved his faith in college. The Big Ideas are guiding principles about science and faith in a question-and-answer format. They illustrate a way of shaping a Christian perspective on the subject matter of my science courses.
- Faith has also influenced how I teach. It is not uncommon for high-achieving students, like those I taught in Honors Physics, to struggle with perfectionism. I often told them that the goal of taking such a challenging course is not perfection but learning; however, telling is not teaching. I was saying good things, but how I taught—my grading—was sending a conflicting message. Honors Physics is highly mathematical, and I was deducting points for every careless error. It is true that accuracy is important in mathematics, and it is important for students to experience failure, but I felt a deeper message was being missed. Underlining every minor slip does not reflect how God treats me. He does not coddle me, and sometimes failure has serious consequences, but his grace is greater still. How was I to embody a similar lesson about grace in our life together as a Physics class? I eventually found a way to apply a measure of grace without indulgence by making a very small change in my grading. Now my verbal and nonverbal messages aligned, and what students were experiencing was reinforcing both.
It is an exciting time to be in Christian education. Teachers have more and more ideas available to help them create transformative communities in their classrooms, to engage practices that shape both hearts and minds.