Entering the School Year with Kingdom Motivation with Katie Wiens
By: Brian Jensen
As we observe the start of the new year, which is already underway for many of you, I wanted to ensure that we provided you with a few final pieces of advice and encouragement from my good friend Katie Wiens. Katie played a role in the founding of the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability and served as its original Director of Academic Advancement. She now serves as CESA’s Executive Director. CESA works in concert with schools to enable growth, provide resources for improvement, and to hold accountable all schools who strive for programmatic distinction and excellence, for the glory of God.
In my conversation with Katie, I asked her to share her thoughts on four major topics:
The current struggles of those in leadership,
The need for restoration,
Building a Gospel narrative, and
Encouragement for leaders and staff.
1. Current trends and struggles of school leaders heading into the upcoming year
We discussed two struggles that seem prevalent at the moment: tension and exhaustion. We can find encouragement in knowing that Christian schools have done really well during the pandemic- schools still have waiting lists, retention is high, satisfaction is high, and the faculty are committed to the school and its mission. Christian schools are maintaining a good posture. Furthermore, many schools’ reputations have gotten better in terms of quality of education, resulting in more families considering Christian schooling. However, certain challenges arise as families consider Christian schools for more disparate reasons. Bringing people together around a central mission is hard when people are there for a myriad of reasons. Additionally, many schools are experiencing tension in the boardroom as boards seek to be united in how to deal with COVID. When it comes to COVID decisions, these decisions can easily become political, dividing boards, students, families, and staff, and it can feel like there is no winning. Unity is critical for a healthy Christian school to flourish. And although achieving unity within your school is not impossible at the moment, we know that it is not an easy task.
Leaders are also tired of making decisions that aren't about education and about their school specifically. Exhaustion has gotten heavier and heavier; there isn't a single Head of School that isn’t burnt out to some extent. One thing we are confident in is that the mission of Christian education is important to the heart of its leaders, who love what they do. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult. Loving what you do may not be enough to keep you in a job where you have had to deal with crisis after crisis and aren’t sure how much more you can take. Especially when we thought we were done and now we’re going back into yet another school year affected by COVID, with some schools getting little to no guidance from local authorities. People are exhausted and frustrated.
And yet, we also see significant resiliency. It’s clear in the current culture that Christian education is more important than ever, and we have to carry the mantle. But for a lot of leaders, they can only come to this conclusion after having an emotional overflow, allowing themselves to process and release. So let yourself emote, be frustrated, and grieve the loss of what these years could have been. And then move onto the mission. This calling is too important to let ourselves fall apart.
2. The upcoming CESA Symposium and restoration
As leaders, we need to be restored spiritually, relationally, and intellectually. After a very difficult year, we were hoping to be on the other side of this by now, but we aren’t quite there yet. Things like strategic plans and exciting vision-casting have had to be put on hold as we’ve had to focus on so many issues that aren't foundational to our missions. That is why the topic of this year’s CESA Symposium is Restoration. Pursuing restoration is critical as we move ahead and out of the chaos of the last 18 months. The increasingly dominant place that secular narratives hold in our families’ lives means that our leaders are craving the ability to talk about the foundational, mission-focused things. Now is the right time to think about the grander themes in terms of our own leadership and in terms of how we can create a cohesive, Biblical narrative within our schools and communities.
3. Building a Gospel narrative for your community
It is essential to recognize that we tell an implicit story and create implicit definitions whether we want to or not. People will hopefully walk away from the symposium reflecting on the lens and the narrative they are creating in their schools. What is the narrative we are creating, and how is it going to impact the life decisions that our students make? If we do not help them find definitions for the things that truly matter, they are going to define these terms on their own. Begin to consider now what you are communicating. Ensure that your school’s goals, mission, and definitions of key topics are Biblical, and that their meanings are clear to your staff, students, and families.
Also keep in mind that we have to be pouring into our faculty the ability to consider our definitions as we think about the stories that our schools are telling. Your teachers, especially, will spend the most time directly with students. Equip them with the ability to define their terms well, before competing cultural forces get a chance to do it first.
4. Final encouragement as you head into a new academic year
What you are doing matters, eternally. Very few people are equipped to do that so well. But you don’t have to do it alone- you have earthly colleagues, yes, but Jesus is advocating on the throne in the presence of the Father for us. Katie advises that everyone, whether in education or another Christian field, take time to read the brief J.R.R. Tolkien story Leaf by Niggle. It is only a few pages, and you can read it in less than an hour. This story is a powerful reminder that though you may want to leave a personal legacy when you step away one day, what you are able to leave behind is limited. When you take time to look at your work with an eternal perspective, a cohesive Biblical worldview, may you be reminded that all of these things are coming together to make a masterpiece. Even the many challenges-- the people who are unkind, those who don’t understand what we are doing, the chaos, the COVID crises, the political disunity, and the burnout-- all these things work together for the good of those who love Christ.