Our family has experienced the very best, the very worst and everything in-between in our experiences with Christian education. My husband and I are products of 16 years of Christian education. My parents were both Christian educators. Our kids have volleyed between Christian and public schools with successes and defeats. We have toured, inquired, sat across board room tables and finally, just last year, landed in a Christian school of belonging. We intentionally exited the religious denomination that was ingrained in us and continue to wrestle with the hurt and lack of belonging felt through that process. It’s been a sticky, freeing, growth filled journey of exploring the heart of Jesus and deconstructing pretty much everything we grew up assuming to be true.
Upon finding a place of belonging in a Christian school at NorthPointe Christian in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we can now speak into the heart of an inclusive space, utilizing the wisdom that comes through experience, listening, leaning in and a thirst for advocating for all children. Many Christian schools are on forward paths to true belonging. Many already exist in that realm. And many do not. As an advocate for inclusion and belonging, I’d like to challenge Christian schools to consider 10 ideas/practices that have power to shift your culture. Because without a shift in culture, belonging is not possible.
10 Ideas/Practices Toward Belonging
- Christian education, by definition, is a kingdom of God’s children joining together to learn. There are no checklists, screenings or assessments required in order to be enveloped in the arms of Jesus. He says, “Yes and welcome.” He then walks with us, guides us, gets his hands and feet dirty, struggles with us and bangs his fists from time to time. He also embraces us, loves us, challenges us, learns with us and promises not to let go. Christian schools are to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Struggle and fear and questions of how it all works aside, we are to say yes to all God’s children. It’s God who calms the waters and points us in due course. He lights the way. Saying “yes” is on us.
- Consider the difference between “inclusion” and “belonging.” Inclusion means you make room for, accommodate based on. Belonging means you invite in and plan around. Who needs to be invited into your fold? Who’s missing? What colors, abilities, cultural backgrounds, experiences and perspectives are missing from your kingdom of children and staff? Don’t wait for them to ask to be included – INVITE them. Tell them they are NEEDED and WANTED and VALUED and let God work His magic. He is pure magic friends. Offer him a diverse kingdom and allow Him to demonstrate.
- Inclusion is a culture, not a special program. It’s not a room where some students go for math. It’s not a separate space where special teachers do things differently for some kids. Inclusion is in ALL classrooms, in the hallways, in the conversations between students and staff and administrators. From the superintendent to the janitorial staff to your teachers, your parents, pre-schoolers and high school seniors, inclusion rests on everyone’s shoulders. It has to be a complete culture or it simply will not work. The mascot? That’s my kid. Within one week of starting at NorthPointe, he was designated the school mascot. He shines in this role. And then he joined the basketball team. As a fully embraced and valued member of the team. No, he can’t dribble. The kid on the floor, far right? He’s legally blind. He’s on the team and scores points. Fully included, valued and embraced. Inclusion friends. It’s breathtaking.
- Shifting from a narrative of “dis”ability to “special”ability is a vital element for a culture of belonging. What are the special gifts and talents of each student and how can teachers use those gifts to aid in the challenges? By naming and honoring abilities first, students will shine in who they’re created to be, grow in confidence and offer creative solutions for learning. Consider allowing them to be experts on themselves. Their ideas might just alter the ways you operate your classrooms.
- By learning about & celebrating where students come from rather than focusing on where they’re expected to arrive, doors will be open that can launch the course of their futures. Learning outcomes can and should be differentiated based on the child. We can’t expect students to learn the same things in the same ways. Allow their God-given creativity to drive their outcomes and expose what is important within themselves. This requires asking intentional questions about who they are, what gets them motivated and excited, what type of sensory learning is most effective, what they choose to fill time doing, what fears hold them back, what hurts they’ve lived through, etc. Rather than getting to know students as the year goes by, why not ask them before school starts, eye ball to eye ball. Yes, this requires slotted time, but the leg up is worth it.
- Consider the question, “What does intelligence mean at our school?” Perhaps start with, “What skill sets do students need to grow into their God-given abilities and the role they play in the kingdom?” The focus on academic rigor can’t be top dog. If that sounds like heresy, I would ask you to consider what issues need the most attention in our world? If your answers point to academic rigor, please carry on. But I suspect they point to compassion, tolerance, collaboration, creative thinking, mental health, advocacy etc. Our children need to learn how to be followers of Jesus first. How to love unconditionally, listen well, wonder often, disagree respectfully, lead with integrity, ask questions that don’t have clear answers or answers at all, sit in spaces of conflict gracefully, and invite belonging. All students can do these things in ways meaningful to them and the takeaways will benefit every realm of this planet. No academic rigor involved.
- Less focus on student behavior and more focus on the environment and expectations. All “behaviors” are reactions. No student or adult WANTS to draw attention for negative behaviors. Are you asking what the roles of the environment and expectations are playing? What’s leading into the challenging reactions of the student and rather than punishing or heaven forbid suspending/expelling students, what’s the SCHOOL’S responsibility in the challenge? What extra steps can be done to dig into what’s underneath the reactions?
- Do all students have a safe adult in the building – someone they trust and who is designated to check in on their emotional health? Not an academic counselor. A mentor. Is someone telling each and every student that they belong at school and in God’s kingdom, regardless of their past and present reputation?
- It’s not about changes you need to make for “that one student.” The changes implemented for one student work for all students, either directly or through example. If we can shift the mentality that inclusion is about accommodating the few into the lens of inclusion benefiting the entire body, the administrative yeses will flow freely. Learning alongside people who experience the world from different angles and diverse backgrounds benefits everyone in the building. These kids leave and enter society, where they will encounter and do life with all God’s children. Our schools need to be mirror images of what the rest of live will offer.
- Inclusion isn’t about your budget. I know, you believe very firmly that you don’t have the funding to support a program of inclusion. I’m going to firmly respond that budget is not the reason you don’t have an inclusion program. You don’t need to hire unicorns to support all kids. You have amazing people on your team who will do that work and help shift your culture. There are experts who can come alongside you and support your team through that process. Allocate a small portion of your annual budget to learn from these experts. Humble yourself to allow people on the outside to come in and speak into your areas of weakness. You have them and it’s okay to admit that. It’s essential to admit that and you’ll gain trust and respect by opening your hands.
Please open your hands Christian schools. Families are waiting for you to do so. It shouldn’t be a question of “if.” There’s no “if” in God’s kingdom friends. A good place to start? www.allbelong.org. They’re ready for you.