Amy Claussen joins The Teacher’s Lounge today to share a vision for regional Christian educational leadership. Amy serves as the Chief Venture Strategist at Maranatha Christian School, where their innovative approach with some of their initiatives is very encouraging and compelling. Maranatha recently hosted a Christian educators conference designed for all the Christian teachers in their region, and we want to review that and talk about next year’s conference and hear some of the things that they have in store as they seek to serve Christian educators into the future. You can read an abbreviated transcript of the interview here, or feel free to listen to the entire podcast on The Teacher’s Lounge.
Michael Arnold: Amy, do you mind sharing just a brief overview of Maranatha Christian? Who is Maranatha Christian? Where are you located? How many students do you have? How long have you been in existence?
Amy Clauson: Absolutely. Maranatha Christian Academy is located in the Twin Cities, on the outskirts of Minneapolis, actually, specifically in Brooklyn Park, and we have been in existence since 1978, over 40 years, serving the Minneapolis region and northwest Minneapolis area. We have just under 900 students in preK through grade 12. And we are unapologetically Christian, although that kind of just goes without saying. But then on top of that, we really are pushing to be as innovative as possible.
So that’s really what we combine. The Christian aspect, the faith-based curriculum is like the baseline. Everything is built on that foundation. And then we use as much design thinking and innovative forward thinking as we can to keep the students engaged and prepare them not just with memorization of facts, but how to apply those facts to life.
Michael Arnold: And you’re on the administrative team there, but you have a unique job title from my observation as I’ve worked with Christian schools: Chief Venture Strategist. Tell us how that came about and what that means in a day-to-day role.
Amy Clauson: It’s probably the most common question I get because it is something that most people don’t hear of. I am on the administrative team and really my function is to keep my eye on strategic initiatives and moving them forward. I think we all have a strategic plan, so to speak, but that often gets pulled off the shelf once every five years when you refresh it and then you put it back on the shelf and you go about your day-to-day jobs. The whirlwind takes over our school on a daily basis. But I’m tasked with keeping my eye on that plan every single day and trying to move it forward, collaborating with everybody within the school to continue to look for new growth strategies and different things that we can do to build Maranatha as we go.
Michael Arnold: So how did you get into that role? I’m sure you could write a book about it, but just the highlights here.
Amy Clauson: My background is in business development and up until 2016, I actually did that in a different industry. I’ve been largely within biotech and med devices my whole career up until 2016 when I made the transfer into education. And so with that, I’ve been able to bring a little bit of the business side over to the education side and really keep my focus on growth strategy and helping the organization either redo processes that we have that aren’t working, optimize things, and then obviously look at different strategies that will help us grow.
Christian Schools Working Together
Michael Arnold: Exciting. So a few months ago, you and I met for the first time, and one of the things that you shared was this idea that you want to help the Christian educators in your region, outside of even your school walls. You want to be a lighthouse to your region when it comes to Christian education. There are at least 30 Christian schools in your area. You don’t see them as competition. You’re working together. Explain that a little bit and why that’s your perspective there at your school.
Amy Clauson: We really believe in the importance of Christian education, right? It is easy to think of other schools as competitors, but really every school will have a right fit student. And so the goal is to strengthen Christian education, rather than compete against one another.
We do believe that we’re stronger together. And so part of our strategic plan is really to be a resource, particularly for the number of smaller Christian schools. Educators work so hard, both teachers in the classroom and administrators.Everybody is wearing more hats than anybody can even count. And we looked at the number of small schools out there and thought, How can we help bolster them? How can we help resource them so that we’re just not reinventing the same wheel over and over?
As schools develop and grow and become stronger like Maranatha, 40 years in, 900 students and thriving, how can we be a resource to those that are much smaller? The average private school size in Minnesota is around 150 students, give or take a few. And so how can we be that resource to those schools?
Michael Arnold: And we’re in a moment right now where more and more schools are being founded. So that’s really exciting to hear that schools who have been around long enough to figure a few things out, want to encourage that and support that. But it’s not just other schools, right? You also have your eye on Christian teachers, regardless of where they’re called to teach.
Amy Clauson: That’s absolutely right. We also want to be able to bring educators together. Sometimes being in Christian education can feel lonely. You know, if you look at the majority of the schools, depending on how large your school is, you may have one or two classrooms per grade level. So, if you think about that within your own school, you only have two to maybe four others that are working directly in your area. So where do you brainstorm? Where do you come up with new ideas? Where do you collaborate?
And so sometimes it’s nice to be able to reach across the boundaries and go to another school. They’re doing the same thing in another classroom across town, so how can you build those relationships so that you can talk and ideate and collaborate and come up with ideas? And we want to even extend beyond just educators in the classroom to business offices, development and admissions folks, who are all working so hard and are all presented with many of the similar challenges.
That’s really part of our goal to bring schools together: not just teachers in the classroom, but all roles within a school, as we’re all delivering on the mission of Christian education. How can we collaborate together in Christian education as a whole, be stronger when we’re united?
Michael Arnold: As you focus more on your city or on your region, what advantages do you have from taking the approach that you’re taking?
Amy Clauson: I think focusing regionally allows you to get together. I know that over the pandemic, we all got into Zoom and we could be connected with schools all over the place. But there are still regional differences. There are still regional policies that are impacting your curriculum, that are impacting some of the things that the state is putting forward, whether it be with licensure or requirements within your curriculum, and those are things that are all regional.
Being able to connect with other Minnesota schools that are faced with some of the same things–as we’re all watching what’s happening around us in terms of what requirements are being put out from the Minnesota Department of Education– bringing that into the conversation is helpful, and that’s very specific to Minnesota.
Michael Arnold: So what other concerns or needs are you trying to fill by taking a regional approach to support and encouragement among faith based educators in your area?
Amy Clauson: Part of it is to bring about a professional development opportunity where schools can come together. Minnesota has a standing time each fall in October, it’s called MEA for Minnesota Educators Association, and they have been running a conference for years. And the majority of at least public educators will engage in that conference, but most of the faith-based schools will do their own, but they tend to stay along the same timeline. When the entire state is marching along the same calendar for those few days a year, it allows us to set an event at that time frame and have the ability for other schools to participate. Again, you can be so inward focused when you do stuff on your own all the time. And there’s a lot of value to schools doing their own professional development because you all have your own strategic plan and the way you’re doing things. But there is some value in being able to come together. We can bring about some unique keynote speakers that you may not be able to do if it was just your school alone.
Michael Arnold: And this past year, your school hosted its first conference. Is that right?
Amy Clauson: We did. We hosted in October during MEA. And we brought in a keynote speaker, Dr. Roger Erdvig from Summit Ministries. His title is Director of Worldview Education and that’s exactly what he does: he really does educate those Christian and faith-based leaders within schools to go beyond just biblical integration, really set up immersive environments for that. It was great to have him in.
We did put the invite out. We were a little late to the game. We were marching down this path last spring when I was looking at that strategic plan and I saw that the academic side of the house was working on this professional development day and I said, Why don’t we start this right now? It’s on our strategic plan. Why are we waiting? We’re already doing this. So I tagged on to the back end of their event and we just stepped right into it.
So for year one, there were seven other schools that joined us. We had about 300 educators from all sides of the institution. So, many of them were on the business side, and athletics and teachers, they all came together. It was great for year one. Our hope is to be able to get the word out a little bit earlier for next year.
Michael Arnold: What hurdles or struggles did you have to work through? Was it easier than you thought or harder than you thought to pull it off at a citywide or regional level?
Amy Clauson: It was easier than I thought. It did come together quite well. However, year one taught us a lot of different things. We brought in elements that we thought would be a treat, and some of them were a treat, and some of them were not (more distracting). And so you begin to learn the cadence of how an event flows.
We put a survey out to those that attended to find out what they really did find valuable, so we can minimize the things that people didn’t enjoy as much and add more of the things that they did. Overall, we wanted to bring in that collaboration and that’s what we heard. We heard so many positive reviews on the fact that people loved being able to talk with others that were doing exactly what they were doing.
We had our keynote sessions in the morning where we were all together with our keynote speaker. And then our lunch and breakouts were really broken down by what area of the school the people work in. So if you are in the business side of the house, or if you are in athletics, and even those educators, we broke them down either by grade level if they were in elementary, or if they were in middle and upper, we broke it down by subject and content area, so they could get really specific on what they actually work in. And we just heard raving reviews about that. So we’re looking at how to do that better next year.
Michael Arnold: And you can’t go wrong with Dr. Erdvig, who is just a powerful, innovative thinker when it comes to biblical worldview and how to apply it practically. I know we’ve had his work on some of our workshops as well. So I’m sure that went over real well and Summit Ministries–what a powerful organization to support your efforts as well.
Amy Clauson: And I think what we’re focused on is bringing in a speaker who can inspire, but not necessarily drive the way it gets done. I know every school might take a different approach to what biblical integration looks like. We’ve heard a number of schools that are using the Teaching for Transformation method and that’s great. You can continue to use whatever method you are using within your school, but it’s great having somebody who can come in and speak about it in a broader way and give you great ideas for what that looks like without disrupting whatever you maybe already have. So for those going forward thinking that if they’re not using that method or if they’re not using that book or curriculum, we didn’t want to get so focused on that. It was about coming and being inspired at a greater level and then taking away some really key ideas that you could implement in your classroom right away, regardless of what method you use.
Michael Arnold: And then rubbing shoulders with others who are doing the same thing, maybe in different ways, and just knowing that you have allies in the trenches, is so valuable.
Amy Clauson: Absolutely. Ever since I did cross over into this industry, one of the things that I noticed, and it makes sense because the academic side is the core product, the majority of those that you employ are in the academic side. But the business side that is really helping to support that mission a lot of times in professional development gets a little left out. But they are just as important in delivering your mission. And so it is important to be able to bring that side in and really put together resources that were relevant to that job function.
If you are in development or fundraising and you were talking to donors all day, or if you’re in admissions and you’re meeting and greeting families all day, you are still part of delivering a biblical worldview within your job. And the same with the athletics and the coaches and the athletic directors and all of those that work in the space– how do we give them a piece of that professional development. Because so often on those days, the educators are doing their thing and the business end of the house is still just in their office plugging away. And so we really wanted to bring elements of that in so that everybody could come and create networks and really create new friends and relationships.
Conference Next Year
Michael Arnold: That’s great. So you want to do this again next year. And you’re inviting other people to be a part. Do they have to live in or around Minnesota to be a part of it?
Amy Clauson: No. It’s October 17th. We chose that date in 2024 because that is one of the days that almost all Minnesota schools have off already. But even this year we had schools coming from Wisconsin that drove in. And so we had a handful of schools that got a hotel right down the road from us so that they could make a two day event out of it, and do a little bit of team-building with their own schools.
So really anybody that is within the distance that they feel it’s valuable to come is more than welcome. We don’t get so specific in Minnesota that if you’re in Wisconsin, nothing relates. When conferences are located across the country, most of the time, one or two leaders will go and then the rest of the staff stays. So just from a budgetary perspective, those that are close enough to drive in for either just the night or the day is really where we find the focus to be because we really want to bring everybody.
Michael Arnold: And again, what a unique approach! I don’t know that that’s very common in a lot of conferences. There’s a lot of teacher conferences or administrator conferences, but bring the lunch ladies and coaches and administrative assistants to this one!
Amy Clauson: We had breakouts that were specific to those who are working in the nursing centers and those that were working the lunches. Everybody is a valuable player in delivering the mission, and if you are interacting with students, you are interacting with staff, and you’re interacting with families, then you play a role. And it’s hard to find anybody in a role within a school that doesn’t interact with at least one of those groups of people. So we felt that everybody should have a place at the table in a breakout meeting, to be able to rub shoulders with those that are doing the same work in another school so that they don’t have to feel so alone.
And I know that just in the years that I’ve been in education since 2016, there has always been something unique every single year that I have found that when I’m able to reach out to those that I’ve created relationships doing the same work in another school, that has been such a valuable resource to me. Hey, this is what I’m faced with. Have you been faced with the same thing? How did you approach it?
Michael Arnold: Being able to talk to someone who gets it, who gets your role, because they live your role, is so powerful. So, October 17th: mark your calendar, look for more information, and we’ll try to promote it out here at Curriculum Trak as well, and see how we can get involved. We’re really excited about it, and want to get behind it so we might be there in some shape or form. Any other details that you want to share?
Amy Clauson: Not quite yet. We are currently looking at our keynote speaker for next year. So I’m not quite ready to announce at the moment, but we expect it to be a similar type of event. I think we’ll create it a little bit longer next year based on the feedback. We’ll have details soon.
Michael Arnold: Is there a website or an email that we could share to get more information or to follow along?
Amy Clauson: Absolutely. Our school’s website right now, mcamustangs.org, is where you’ll find us. We may create its own standing website for next year, but at the moment you can find it on our website. It’s under our purpose, and there is an email address you can get to. It’ll go straight to me. Or you can also reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org as well.
Michael Arnold: So as chief venture strategist at your school, what are some of the other things that you’re mindful of, things that your school is trying to do as you just try to be a lighthouse, a support, a resource to the schools and educators in your region?
Amy Clauson: So a couple of different things: One of them is through online courses and classes. There’s a number of schools that may be small, they may be K-8 schools and want to expand into high school, but maybe don’t have the resources to do it, or they have a high school, but don’t have the resources to offer all of the courses. We launched an online school coming out of the pandemic and we’re continuing to enhance and elevate it every year. So that’s one resource that is making some of those courses available to other smaller schools that want to extend or expand their own curriculum.
Michael Arnold: And that’s easier said than done.
Amy Clauson: It is a major undertaking. We’ve been working on it for a few years. We’ve got a group of us that are working on that initiative and a group of teachers that are working on developing all of that curriculum.
The other thing that we’re working on is we have a signature program at Maranatha for teacher onboarding. It’s called “First”, and it really is a great way to bring teachers on board and bring them into the culture of your own school. It’s one thing to have experience as a teacher, but when you’re coming into a new school, you don’t have experience teaching there. The culture is a big thing, and so how do you onboard those teachers well? And so we have a three-year program. And we have a number of people asking questions about it. So we’re looking at putting together a resource there that we can offer to other schools that shows how you implement this type of program at your school.
And those are the kinds of things I’ve got my eye on: what can we make available to other schools based on things that we have developed? And so we’re looking at putting a resource center together on our website. It’s not quite launched yet, but we’re getting there.
Michael Arnold: So let’s say I’m at a school similar to yours, but in another part of the country, and I feel like we’re at a place now where we can start sharing our experiences out and supporting other schools, much as you described. What advice would you give to someone like me who’s seeking to become a lighthouse in their community for other Christian schools?
Amy Clauson: I think my advice would be to develop some sort of a plan around how to do it that won’t max out your own internal staff in trying to be that resource to others. And so that’s where it becomes important to try and create some sort of a package of things that you can provide. We get bombarded with a lot of questions and we love it.
We do love it. We’re not wanting people to not inquire and ask Maranatha about different things that they’ve seen. But oftentimes when we try to connect to those that are actually running those programs, it’s hard for them to be able to give the kind of attention that we want to give to others as we’re being that resource. Develop some sort of a package that is put together that you can provide to others so that you’re not tapping in on those people who are trying to actually execute every day what they’re doing.
Michael Arnold: Yeah, that’s good advice. Amy, it’s been great to have you on The Teacher’s Lounge today. We like to close by first of all saying thank you, but then just stepping out of the way and letting you address our audience directly. So I’ll invite you to picture a one-on-one conversation with hundreds of listeners. You’re going to look them in the eye and give them advice. What would you tell them from your chief venture strategist perspective when you’re thinking about the business end of faith-based education, why it’s so important? What would you want them to know about the role and the role that they play in the classroom on a daily basis?
Amy Clauson: As educators, you are so valuable. Whether it’s from the parent side or the business side, I see so much value in the work that educators are doing in the classroom every single day. The impact that you have on these students, you can be a life-changer for them. I know that it can be so tiring day in and day out, and with the amount of things that have been added to your plate since the pandemic, you know, everything has changed. You are so appreciated and I think everybody in your school sees that, whether they’re behind the line or on the front line with you, just know that they’re there to support you. It may not feel that way every single day, but I know that they appreciate you. Hopefully some of the resources that we’re putting out can be an added resource to you. But just know you’re appreciated and valued.