Today’s Fail-Safe Students – Students – The Chronicle of Higher Education

An excellent read about the question of how failure can motivate a student – or derail her. It’s easy to blame helicopter parenting for today’s risk-adverse, success-obsessed students. But the story is more complex that that…
Today’s Fail-Safe Students – Students – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“These students are going to live through the second digital revolution, and they are not ready for it,” says Mr. Levine. “This is a high-risk world. The notion of building in opportunities for failure is really important.” If young people don’t experience meaningful failure in school or college, they’re bound to face it in adulthood, where it could paralyze or derail them.

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Apologizing "for real"

Blogger, educator, and parent JoEllen published a wonderful piece called A Better Way to Say Sorry a few weeks ago. Shout out to my friend & M.Ed. fellow student Niki for punting out such a great read.

JoEllen suggests, wisely, that the typical way we adults handle childhood disputes leaves out the hard work of reconciliation. It’s “simple” to make kids go through the motions of “saying sorry,” but everyone is left the poorer afterward when the wrong-doer escapes with a halfhearted mumble and the wronged party knows that no one was actually sorry at all.

Redemptive teaching suggests that teachers need to 1) recognize biblically normative practices for human relationships and 2) encourage those practices in our classrooms via 3) aligning our procedures to reinforce the idea of loving God and neighbor, rather than trying to implement “rules” or a “process” that can somehow magically erase problems.

JoEllen came up with four basic steps to use as a pattern for apology with her 4th graders. This pattern is true for all humans, not just kids — and we would accomplish a lot as educators if we chose to follow the same steps when we find ourselves needing to apologize to our own students.

From her post (please do go read the whole thing)

A Better Way to Say Sorry:

1) I’m sorry for…: Be specific. Show the person you’re apologizing to that you really understand what they are upset about.
2) This is wrong because…: This might take some more thinking, but this is one of the most important parts. Until you understand why it was wrong or how it hurt someone’s feelings, it’s unlikely you will change.
3) In the future, I will…: Use positive language, and tell me what you WILL do, not what you won’t do.
4) Will you forgive me? This is important to try to restore your friendship. 


JoEllen’s classroom experience corroborates mine: If you model biblical thinking and action in front of your students (whether they’re 6 years old or 16), you will see positive change among your learning community.

Rules cannot accomplish nearly as much as following the Great Commandments do in our hearts (and you don’t have to be teaching in a “Christian” School to model loving God and neighbor for your students.).

Link: Tullian Tchividjian on Grace

This is an incredible article, and I highly recommend.  Tullian Tchividjian is a young(er) PCA pastor in the pulpit of one of the denomination’s flagship churches, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida (formerly pastored by Dr. D. James Kennedy).

In this interview, Tchividjian explains why Grace makes us so angry, and how the Evangelical Church seems to have lost its grip on Grace:

it seems that the good news of God’s grace has been tragically hijacked by an oppressive religious moralism that is all about rules, rules, and more rules; doing more, trying harder, self-help, getting better, and fixing, fixing, fixing–—ourselves, our kids, our spouse, our friends, our enemies, our culture, our world. Christianity is perceived as being a vehicle for good behavior and clean living and the judgments that result from them rather than the only recourse for those who have failed over and over again.

Full article:
Billy Graham’s grandson takes Christians to task: An interview with Tullian Tchividjian

My experience in Christian education makes me agree:  nothing will piss people off like choosing Grace over Law.   Legalism is safe and fair and predictable.  Applied in a school setting, it offers rules and guidelines to follow.  Not the messy uncertainties and ambiguities of Grace.

It will always be easier to make a rule about something than to attack the heart of the issue, which is that our behavior always stems from who we are and our relationship with God.  The God-man relationship must be a relationship of Grace. And there’s the rub.

Discipline that Restores

“Restorative Practices”: Discipline but Different
from Education Weekly (URL)

Public schools are realizing that zero-tolerance discipline doesn’t work. If your goal is to educate students, then arbitrarily setting automatic penalties like suspensions and expulsions for what often takes place in much more nuanced situations forces principals to treat kids like criminals rather than emerging adults (if you’re dealing with teens).

I’m glad that the idea of discipline rooted in community, and within a positive teacher/student relationship, is coming to the fore.  Nothing is more powerful than a positive relationship. When a student and teacher have invested in one another, there’s something to lose if the relationship goes south. And the teacher begins to save up a significant pile of “relationship capital” that backs up her behavioral demands in the classroom.

“It’s about building relationships and having [students] do what you want them to do because they want to do it—not because they’re afraid of what the consequences are,” said Rhonda Richetta, the principal of City Springs, which has 624 students. “We really want kids to change.”

The article talks about “restorative discipline” as a new thing.  …. How have we come so far down this road of rule-based schooling?

The Law never works to change us into righteous people. All it can do is show us just how horrible we human beings are on the inside. 

Once you go relational, you’ll never go back.

Is it harder to discipline in grace, and teach relationally?  Well, that depends on how you define “hard.”  Loving another human being always costs something. Grace always costs the Giver.

But I think it’s a much better cost than the stress and negative emotion associated with trying to manage a classroom full of kids who don’t care for your lesson, your subject, or you.

Schools and Rules: Authority

Yesterday I mentioned the case of the kid in Vermont who was suspended for the remainder of the year by  his Christian school because of his essay challenging the school’s rules for behavior and dress code. I used that as a jumping off point to think about how we should handle challenges to authority within a Grace-based school.

I certainly don’t have it figured out.  Kids challenge authority all the time.  Adults challenge authority all the time. We sinners hate boundaries.

But I can leverage a little experience and theology to offer a couple thoughts…. here’s the first.

1. Obedience to a human authority should not be equated with obedience to God’s Law.


I’ve heard this syllogism a lot:  God must be obeyed as our ultimate authority; His Law is absolute and without question. God delegates authority to parents and pastors and governors and teachers (etc). Therefore, human authorities can demand the same level of obedience for their rules as God expects for His.

First off, that’s a terrible syllogism (from the standpoint of logical structure).

Secondly, it’s not a biblical statement of obedience or authority. We can’t add corollaries to God’s Law and call them holy. Human rules are just….rules.

Yes, Scripture commands obedience to church elders and to parents and to our government officials, even when we don’t like them. But derived authority does not also endow us with the power to bind people’s consciences to non-biblical rules. People with authority need to be careful of the limits they choose to set for behavior when dealing with the tender consciences of kids.

I realize that the kid who wrote the essay at Trinity probably just wanted to grind his ax about the rulebook. That can grate on the nerves of adults who see a bigger picture than “I don’t like wearing khakis and a polo every day.”   Cynical skeptics are a drudge — they don’t offer any constructive solutions to a problem, they just sit back and tear apart whatever’s been built.

But if we can’t defend a rule from a biblical mandate (“modesty” doesn’t demand a “school uniform”), then authorities need to take steps to unlink “following the dress code” from “keeping the Law of God.” They’re not the same thing.  Call it a policy, give students a voice in setting their communal rules, and work toward consensus.

(Personally, I’m glad the “I-hate-the-dress-code” theme has toned down a lot at NCS during my 10 years there. The people who determined the dress code have made a lot of really good adjustments over the past several years, and I think that we’ve got a good balance of a functioning school uniform combined with dress-down Fridays — and those dress-down days exist on purpose to reinforce the idea that our dress code rules are not God’s rules for clothing. Students aren’t thrilled about it, but they mostly just don’t care. School clothes are just that — school clothes.)

My classroom rules are mine. God’s Law is far more difficult: Love God with everything you have as hard as you can all the time, and love your neighbor like yourself.  If I’m doing my job, I can tie my class “rules” back to the Great Commandments as illustrations of loving God or neighbor in a community of humans … but I also need to be honest with kids that some of my rules are just idiosyncratic, and they deserve to be changed if kids point out legitimate problems with their implementation or function.

Note that a lot of student frustration arises out of adults shutting kids out of the process. By the time a student reaches adolescence (and definitely by the time they’re in high school), he/she should be given a voice in the school structure for which s/he will be held responsible. It diffuses a lot of griping, and it’s a much more respectful way to deal with students as human beings who are about to be “adults” and legally responsible for their decisions/actions.

This approach demands patience and work by adults to involve students, downplay immature suggestions, encourage half-baked good ones, and guide the whole mess toward a coherent and useful outcome. Welcome to education.

more to come….

Cross-posted to my personal blog

Schools and Rules: An Introduction

A few weeks ago, a junior at a independent Baptist Christian high school in Vermont was suspended for the remainder of the school year because of an essay. His paper (which avoided topics on the teacher’s “banned topics” list) challenged the school’s dress code rules as ineffective and inconsistent. Citing a yearlong attitude of “rebellion,” the school board chose to suspend him because this was a ‘last straw’ moment of bad attitude.

The incident rapidly hit the blogosphere, especially among ex-Fundamentalists, and later caught the attention of the local FOX News affiliate in the school’s town. Outraged supporters of the student founded a Facebook page calling for the school to “do right” and apologize. A few days ago, the church leadership surprised the school community by announcing that the school would close its high school at the end of the school year, naming low enrollment as the cause.

Having taught for a decade, I can sympathize with beleaguered educators like the people at Trinity. I’ve encountered plenty of folks who don’t comprehend the mission of NCS, leading them to badly misunderstand what we do or misrepresent us to others (sometimes with the best of intentions). To teach is to invite criticism and often condemnation.

On the other hand, the student raises a major question for school life. What about the rules? Should schools arbitrarily set policies without input from students? Is is disrespectful to question or reject those rules? Can questioning become “rebellion”?

I started thinking about how I’d handle a challenging student in my classroom at NCS. This is a good test case for Grace-based education. Our theology reveals itself most clearly when someone has the nerve to challenge it.

I’ve become a lot less defensive as I’ve grown in personal maturity Definseiveness i amark of insecurity, which ought to be a trait of immaturity. Scripture doesn’t present Yahweh as a defensive authority figure. God doesn’t “earn” credibility or respect from us; He deserves it by default. His dealings with humans are incomprehensibly gracious (the overwhelming theme of the Old Testament stories).  I’d like to suggest that godly authority is patient enough to allow for critique and challenge, even when the challenger cops a nasty attitude.

Truth is a Person — Jesus Christ (Jn 14:6).  I’m not responsible to save people or convince them on an intellectual level of biblical truth. The Holy Spirit illuminates minds and the Father draws people to the salvation won by the Son through his vicarious sacrifice. That’s a freeing set of principles, believe me.

In Milton’s great treatise against ineffectual censorship, the Areopagitica, he famously writes that Truth, on an open field, will always win the battle. I tell my students, “Never be afraid to ask hard questions. If what you believe is actually the Truth, it can handle any challenge you throw at it.”

(And a corollary for parents: Calm down. Smart kids question a lot of beliefs. Trust the Covenant promises and believe that God is at work in your kids, especially when they are skeptical.)

Why do so many adults react badly to being challenged?

Is it because we have blindly bought into a system of thought without doing the intellectual or spiritual heavy-lifting to make it our own?

Are we secretly afraid that our own faith, authority, or level of integrity is too weak to be challenged?
Are we too proud to appear ignorant in front of people younger than we are?

Have we found ourselves stuck in a system of rules that we can’t agree with either, so we try to keep the subject from arising?

Grace-based education seeks to apply Gospel norms to the structure and methods of education. (IOW: you can talk about the Gospel all you want, but if your structure and rulebook and attitude toward your students undercuts the Gospel message at every turn, you’re going to impress hypocrisy onto their minds more than anything else.) How can a committed Christian community of learners approach skepticism, questioning, and intellectual freedom with both strength and grace?

…. I’ll take up that question tomorrow.

Cross-posted to my personal blog

Two Is More Than Enough

I think I’m beginning to understand in a TINY way how ridiculous it is that life boils down to Two Great Commandments. Love God with everything in you as hard as you can all the time, and love your neighbor like you love yourself. 

Such a straightforward mandate really scares some people, the folks who really want a school defined by a large number of very clear rules, a structure prepared in advance to handle any situation that could arise, a holiness code that guides all students in all situations.  

They are afraid, I guess, that God underestimated man’s sinfulness or our need of rules to make us better people or whatever, and we need to help Him out by creating a few more than His ten. 

Joey and I were talking today (it’s time for me to wrestle a class schedule into place for the upper school) and at one point it occurred to me that his job demands much servant-hearted love from him to us, the teachers and students and parents. I mean, teaching is heavily relational at NCS (a style that I am bold enough to call biblical, and perhaps normative) but we teachers aren’t called even to the level of sacrifice that Joey is. 

I thought of the verse in either Matthew or Mark where Christ tells the disciples that while the Gentiles make a big deal of leaders by lifting the up, Kingdom leadership is marked by self-sacrificing servanthood. “Truly, I say to you, he who would be the greatest among you must be the servant of all.” “Except a corn of wheat fall in the ground and DIE, it cannot bear fruit.” 

This love stuff isn’t for sissies. 

As a teacher, I can’t really help a student unless I “own” his problems as my own. Human nature says, “Sink or swim, kid, I gave you the tools, now make it work.” Grace-based education says, “Even the classroom must model Christ as the Master Teacher.” And that means I can’t just leave behind a set of directions and walk off. I have to get into the trench, shoulder the load, invest the time and attention to determine the right course of help.

Truth is, I’m a terrible lover. I love all the wrong things: my own comfort and happiness, my satisfaction and success, making things easier on myself, the easy road, the whim of the moment. To actually keep the Great Commandments is going to rip my heart out. 

And that’s the Grace of it. A new heart is exactly the point.

Biblical living isn’t rocket science. It’s putting myself out in order to work actively on someone else’s behalf (not merely “do no harm”). 

It means DIE so that I can live. 
But I don’t want to “die”……..not like that, anyway. I want a death with glory and pizzazz. There’s no pizzazz in plodding along, loving people. It’s hella inconvenient, messy, difficult, unrewarding at times, thankless, exhausting. Did I mention inconvenient? 

Oh, God. Who is going to save me from the bondage of this death? 
Thanks be to God, there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are IN Christ Jesus, who walk not in the way of the carnal nature, but in the way of the Spirit. 


Love God with everything you are as hard as you can all the time.
Love your neighbor like you love yourself.

That really does encompass it all, folks. 
God help us all.