7 Pitfalls of Christian Schools

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A couple years ago, I wrote a post entitled The 9 Pitfalls of Homeschooling. At that time, in a fine display of even-handedness, I promised that there would be a follow up post outlining the pitfalls of Christian schools. I said:

“Please allow me to say that there will be a follow-up and parallel post on the pitfalls of traditional classroom instruction. This is a post of pastoral cautions for parents, not an exercise in pedagogical partisanship.”

I said this because our kids were not homeschooled, but all went through Logos School, a classical Christian school. The choices that parents have with regard to the education of their children are choices that bring in different sets of potential pitfalls. I do not say necessary pitfalls, but it is necessary—everywhere you go—to watch your step.

Unfortunately, I was then bushwhacked by the flow of life, not to mention some of life’s hired thugs, and didn’t get around to the follow-up post. But then, various times over the last few months, I was reminded of my duty in this regard by some loyal readers, and so here I am.

At the front end, I would like to make the same qualifications with regard to Christian schools as I did with homeschools. I have been involved with the resurgence of Christian education for about 40 years now, and have seen some roaring successes and some flaming disasters. I have seen this range with homeschooling, and I have seen it with brick and mortar Christian schools.

So these pitfalls are not predictions for each and every Christian school. But they are, I believe, standard temptations.

“Rather they should be considered as a checklist of things to watch for, things to be cautious about. When you see a pilot walking around the tarmac, checking out the plane you are on, looking at particular things, this does not unsettle you, but rather should reassure you.”

So if things start to wobble in a Christian school, where might the wobble start? The thoughtful reader will notice that some of my categories here map onto the same categories I listed as homeschool pitfalls, but when this happens consider the temptation as coming from another direction.

Creeping Professionalism

Of course there is a sense in which you want your kids’ teachers to be professional. You know, courteous, competent, all of that. But there is a tendency for schools, particularly long-established schools, to forget the doctrine of in loco parentis, which means that teachers are functioning as servants to the parents. They are standing in for the parents, and have been hired by the parents to do so. In this capacity, they answer to the parents.

Now because a school is answering to a large number of parents simultaneously, it is unreasonable for one set of parents to come in and ask for some service that would discommode all the other parents. Just because it is the parents’ responsibility to feed their own children, that does not make it okay for them to walk into McDonalds and order a Wendy’s burger. So parents shouldn’t do that.

But neither should a school climb up high on their dignity as experts when parents make a reasonable request. Too often high-horse-educators act like the waiter in a high-end restaurant when a patron asks for some salt for his steak. “I am sorry, sir, but your steak does not require salt. It is done to perfection.” Only philistines put salt on their steak, he adds silently.

Government schools quit treating parents like customers a long time ago. Private schools that are long established, and which have waiting lists, can also forget that they are a service industry, which means that continued success requires a servant’s mentality.

Division of Labor

The great advantage that educators in a school have is their ability to take advantage of the division of labor. Your math teacher can hone his abilities in math; your Latin teacher can pursue expertise in Latin; your music teacher can do the same. A math teacher of 20 years will likely know a lot more about math than a harried mother of five, trying to remember her high school algebra.

But unless teachers guard themselves in two areas, that harried mother is much to be preferred.

The first problem is when the “expert” teacher gets settled into a position, and then finds himself in a position where he can just phone it in. He knows more than all the students, and he will always know more than all the students, and so he can just show up. Instead of trying to refine his knowledge and his skill in teaching year after year, he becomes a 98.6 carbon unit in the front of the classroom. It is an indoor job with no heavy lifting.

The other problem arises when the teachers are not lazy, but rather give themselves to an ideological pursuit of their discipline. They throw themselves headlong into whatever the discipline is, but do so in such a way as to become very provincial in their understanding of that discipline. They don’t see how it fits in with the rest of the world, or to the other disciplines in the school, or to the wishes of the board, administrators, or parents. They are the expert, and so they feel free to march to the drummer of their own opinions, their own pedagogical school of thought, their own quirks.

Peer Pressure

In a school, you have gathered a fairly large group of (immature) kids together. When this happens, two cultures will develop. The one is the public culture, the culture of the school at large, the culture that includes board, staff, parents, and students all together. You see this culture at graduation ceremonies and assemblies. But there is a second culture also, the culture which includes the students alone. The students will have their own code, their own leaders, their own customs.

This second culture cannot be eradicated (nor should it be), but wise administrators will want that student culture to “map onto” the general culture of the school in a recognizable way. In other words, in a healthy school cheating will be as despised by the students as it is by the faculty. In a healthy school, you wouldn’t have the kids who don’t smoke pot covering for the kids who do. You can look at the student population and easily envision the time twenty years out when some of them will be on the school board.

Most Christian schools have something like a split in the 60/40 range (and the 60 and 40 can belong to different groups), and the divide is between those kids who are on board with the education being offered them, and the kids who don’t care yet. The disposition of one group or the other will become the personality of the entire class, and this is the consequence of whichever group contains the natural leaders.

Let’s say a particular movie is all the rage in the sophomore class—Stupid Movie III, for example. Forty percent of the kids have seen it, and are raving about it, and sixty percent are keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. The impression that class creates is that “all the kids” have seen it. If the leaders were in the other group, forty percent would have seen the movie still, but wouldn’t talk about it—because they would have run into the rough justice of a class that mocked them for their stupid movie choices.

This is because peer pressure is not a bad thing. We are supposed to exert peer pressure, and this means that kids have to learn how to exert peer pressure. Peer pressure is only bad when it is used as an enticement for sin. But when the pressure is running the other way, pressure aimed against sin, this is something our children absolutely must learn how to do. And a Christian school is a great place to practice—but the opportunity is frequently missed, and usually lost.

One of the reasons America is in the sad shape it is currently in is that all our grown-ups don’t know how to exert peer pressure. They have never tried, never learned.

Sexual Energy

After adolescence, classrooms are full of sexual energy. The boys and girls are very aware of one another, and there is absolutely nothing that can be done to make this go away. Pretending that everybody is simply “a student,” where respect is expected to run along egalitarian lines, is a pipe dream. There are two things the school needs to in order to keep this problem from galloping away from them.

Parents should want, and the board of the school should insist upon, an environment where the differences between boys and girls are recognized and honored, and where they have a very public place in the consciousness of all. The manners and customs of the school should demand it. For example, establish little customs like girls exiting the classroom first, and then the boys. Encourage boys to hold the door open for girls. You know, all the things that feminism taught us to sneer at. Establish sexual courtesies in the school. This will have a shaping effect on the outlook of everyone.

Secondly, the school should require (in its best iron fist mode) no visible pairing off of any kind. If a guy wants to take a girl out, he certainly can do so. That is the business of the families involved, and none of the school’s business. But the school can insist on this. If a guy has taken a girl out on Wednesday night, there needs to be absolutely no trace of it in the halls or classroom of the school on Thursday morning. No displays of affection, zero, zip, zilch.

Keep life simple. Avoid unnecessary draaaama.

Boys and Girls are Different

In a related but unrelated department, the school needs to recognize—and many schools fail to recognize—that the differences between boys and girls have an impact on how each group relates to the school.

Assume you have two groups of godly kids—ten boys in one, and ten girls in the other. The piety of boys and girls looks very, very different, and it is genuine piety in both instances. The piety of girls tends to be far more institution-friendly than the piety of the boys will be. Not surprisingly, institutions like this. They like it so much that they draw erroneous conclusions from it, and give all the faculty commendations to girls.

A teacher is walking down the hall, and asks Suzy what she is doing. The reply comes back that Michelle was looking a little down that morning, and so Suzy was leaving a little note of encouragement in her locker, a note with a Bible verse on it. The teacher thinks aawwww, and moves on. A bit later down the hall he sees Billy push Charlie against the locker, and he hears the words, “You chump. You blockhead.” He moves on. It never occurs to the teacher than the second situation was as much a display of piety as the first. Billy had just found out that Charlie had taken out a non-Christian girl the night before, and he was simply admonishing him.

Institutions (like Christian schools) are often vaguely threatened by masculine piety, and they consider it a problem, or at least a potential problem.

Teachers are Men and Women Too

Before we leave the general subject of sexuality at school, let us not forget that the teachers are also male and female. It should therefore go without saying that a school must maintain high scriptural standards of propriety. And it is not enough to simply “maintain” them on paper. As the years go by, it will be a border that will need to be policed, and there will be instances where discipline must occur. Discipline in this area is not a sign of failure, but rather of success.

But my point here has to do with all the other kinds of variables that go with this reality. Let me give two examples, one for the women and one for the men. The classes (which contain boys and girls) will either be taught by a man or a woman. This presents two sets of challenges.

Women have to maintain discipline in the classroom, often dealing with boys who are a foot taller, and they have to do this without sacrificing or surrendering their femininity. That can be a real challenge. I don’t believe there is any scriptural problem with a woman teaching math to a fifteen-year-old boy, but there are creational challenges in it. It can be a rodeo.

And a male teacher has to make sure he understands the dynamics of his own heart as well. Too many men teach their classes like they were the bull elk in the herd, and when a male student challenges the teacher on some point, instead of taking it as a glorious opportunity for instruction, which is what he is there for, the teacher responds as though it were an ego-battle for the admiration of the females.

This kind of thing is not sexual in an overt sexual temptation kind of way, which causes many instructors to discount the sexual element entirely. This is a mistake. We are men and women everywhere we go, and the boys and girls are future men and future women everywhere they do. Treating everybody as a carbon-based “student unit” is glorious route into confusion and self-deception.

This happens a lot.   

Community and Mission Drift

My son Nate has formulated a rule that I believe more boards and committees should be aware of. He has said that “in any meeting that lasts over twenty minutes, someone will propose something which, if implemented, will ruin everything.”

A successful school will have hundreds of people involved in it. Lots of people going in all kinds of directions. It is an organization of people, and if it is organized well, it will function like a body. As a body, it will have lymph nodes, and when a cancer arrives, it will go for the lymph nodes.

When you are homeschooling, it is just you. The success is yours, the failure is yours. When you enroll your kids in a thriving Christian school, you may not know a third of the board members, and you may not know (yet) half of the teachers. And depend upon it, when you have a school that size, somebody is up to no good.

The school may be great for five years, okay for two, and mediocre until your third kid graduates. It may be great the entire time. It might be steadily improving. But if it is steadily improving, it is because somebody is doing it on purpose, not because that kind of thing happens all by itself. What do you need to do to get a garden full of weeds? Absolutely nothing, that’s what.  

So somebody gets elected to the board because they have money, and they also have a tenuous understanding of the importance of Latin. A couple parents clash with the Latin teacher, the one with an over-inflated view of Latin. Naturally. The clueless Latinist on the board takes up their cause. One of the board member’s kids is a premier pill, and no discipline ever seems to land anywhere near her. The state legislature passed a “let’s-bribe-all-the-Christian-schools” bill, and you have talked to a couple board members who don’t seem all that concerned about it. In short, something bad is always developing.

So if you have your kids in a Christian school, it is no sin to ask questions. And it is usually some kind of sin not to.