Over the years, I have often heard people refer to their schools or workplaces as family, as in “We are just like a family.” I understand the sentiment and the beauty of those comments because belonging to communities where we are loved, accepted, comfortable and safe is wonderful. I believe we need to work, play, worship and learn in communities where we can be authentic, real and “who we are meant to be.”
My wondering about the use of the term “family” for the workplace or for schools is a fear about a lack of clarity around professionalism and boundaries. Schools are places where people learn and work; families are places of ultimate trust and vulnerability—places where we can let our hair down and be ourselves in a very different, intimate, profound way. When we use the word “family” to describe schools and workplaces, there may be confusion on the part of students and between employees and their employers. School and the workplace contribute to our “place” in community but are not ultimately where we find our meaning and purpose—who we are. Our characters shape our contributions to the school and workplace, but confusion can happen if what we contribute comes to define who we are. We can gain much personal and professional satisfaction and meaning for work well done, and the people that we work with can bring us much joy, support and community. However, issues arise when our work is the only—or the main—place we experience community and meaning.
Now, many of us grew up in the reality of the “three-legged stool”: church, home and school. And so for many of us in Christian education, it may have been difficult to tease out the boundaries of where family, church and school begin and end. It would be still difficult in some communities to separate these distinct places, and yet I think we need to at least consider doing so in real, concrete ways.
If our goal is professionalism in the workplace, we need to talk collectively about what that means, how it can be experienced and what opportunities this type of dialogue affords us as we continue to embrace what it means to be Christian educators for the public/common good. We all need community, and it is important to cultivate close friends and community outside of our work. Often extended family, church and friends are those close community connections that support us and give us meaning outside of our work.
When answering the question “Who are you?”, our role as teachers, principals and educators is going to be close to the surface; however, ultimately that vocation is one part of us and can’t be the only thing that defines us. It sounds cliché, but developing friends outside of school, having hobbies or volunteering for other meaningful organizations are important for a balanced, rich and outward-focused life. You are more than just being an educator, just as your students are more than learners in your classroom. Let’s not confuse our personal and professional needs.
(The Edifide board has presented its membership with a new “Edifide Statement of Ethics and Standards,” which gives more examples on issues that teachers face in the arena of professionalism and community. Edifide encourages you to read, discuss and provide feedback to the board. We look forward to your comments, questions and feedback. It is attached to this newsletter.)
Last week marked the sixth year of the Bell “Let’s Talk” campaign to raise awareness about mental health. Regardless of whether you think the campaign creates less stigma or not, talking about mental health and getting the topic out from the shadows creates space for all of us to engage in this most important issue. The campaign itself will not solve the problem of access or the high cost of treatment. Creative efforts like it, however, could do much to promote communal questions about how to support programs in anti-stigma, care and access, workplace health, and research.
Thankfully, small steps are happening to help our communities provide help for those who need it. One of the biggest hurdles is having a simple way to access people with whom you can have a conversation. Many churches have adopted a “CAP” program (Congregational Assistance Plan), which provides counselling for those who would like confidential, anonymous, professional assistance with qualified therapists. This program is run across Ontario by the Shalem Mental Health Network, located in Hamilton, Ontario. Some of our Christian schools have adopted a similar program for their students.
Canada is a leader in talking about workplace health. It has developed the Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (see link at end of paragraph). The underlying philosophy of the standard is to provide a framework to create and continually improve a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. We strive to make our Christian schools such places of organizational health, places where struggling staff and students are offered support and education during difficult times.
Each year, Edifide encourages both teachers and principals to become better educated on the issues of mental/psychological health not only for our students and their families but also for our workplaces, our colleagues and ourselves. One of the strands of learning at our upcoming annual convention will once again focus on mental health.
Many of us are used to focusing on healthy living as eating right, exercising regularly, being part of a faith community, getting enough sleep and having rest (or Sabbath) from our work. Deepening our awareness of psychological or mental health allows us to realize the importance of dealing with our issues (and we all have them) or making sense of our lives (no matter how dysfunctional). Every person deals with brokenness, grief, hurt, unhealthy relationships in some manner: this is a function of being human. Andy Crouch called it our “vulnerabilities.” As educators, we must have courage to face and talk about these things and to frame them as the normal things we deal with in life. We may seek healing and healthy approaches to our brokenness, but the wounds are often still there and the scars still visible. And yet, how do we move forward? How do we talk about our journeys? And where are safe places for us to tell our stories? Close friends, mentors, pastors, therapists and family members may all be possible solutions. As educators and leaders, we need to be wise about boundaries and confidentiality as we make sense of ourselves.
My hope for all of us is that we embrace our own brokenness in order to be healthy enough to help our students and our communities embrace theirs. The journeys are personal and unique, and yet creating frameworks where conversation about these important issues is encouraged will (I believe) allow our schools to become places of health, strength and flourishing.
All the best research in organizations, families, schools and generally in people’s psychological health seems to suggest that agency, or having a say in what is going on or in what affects you, is extremely important. It is extremely important to overall health and well-being for people to feel that they have a say or that they actually feel heard. Parents who do everything for their children rob them of the development of ownership and pride in contributing to the family. Parents who continually tell their children what they should do give them no opportunity to grow their own problem-solving skills. The result is similar between students and teachers in classrooms as well as employers and employees in the workplace.
In actual fact, it is not really good for us to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it continually. We become passive, and we assume that others always have the good ideas. It might also grate on us because someone else is taking responsibility for our actions and we have no agency (which is “built” into us as image-bearers). It is also unhealthy for us to have everything done for us. We begin to feel that we are not capable or that we wouldn’t be appreciated for our contributions anyway, because we wouldn’t do it the same way as the other person.
In the creation story, God created man and woman in His image. He gave them choice; He fundamentally built in the opportunity for humankind NOT to obey Him. I am sure that God hoped that humankind would be able to see all that He had done for them—creating a Garden, providing an opportunity to walk and talk with our Maker—but in the end, humankind did not appreciate what God had done and made a choice to break relationship with Him. And so begins our search back to God, if we so choose.
Agency also reminds me of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. God as the Father in the story waits for his son to return. He doesn’t go out to haul him back. He waits. And He celebrates when the lost son comes back to take responsibility for his actions and to apologize to his father for not realizing how good he had it. How do we as parents, educators, and leaders in our communities create ways for our students, our children and our colleagues to also make choices (knowing that sometimes they won’t make good ones)? Just as importantly, how do we create hospitable cultures where mistakes are recognized and forgiven when responsibility and accountability are acknowledged?
In different situations, it might mean that things get a bit messier than we might like. Relationships are always messy! We know that. Teaching students, parenting kids, or leading employees/colleagues is a messy process. People do not conform to nice neat boxes. The reason for this is agency: people are living, breathing, thinking, acting humans who by design want to participate in what is happening. Sometimes this participation is healthy and joyous and other times it is destructive and unhappy. In either case, it is participation; it means they feel agency. We need to be much more worried about those children who are ALWAYS compliant, who seem not to care, who do what they do because you are telling them to do it. Perhaps they don’t think their voice or ideas would change anything; perhaps they have given up.
Teaching is an amazing adventure. Each day, you need to be open to the surprises that happen: the lesson that goes sideways, the student who suddenly shares something sad or something amazing, the laughter, the frustration of things not accomplished. In the end, our goal as educators is to engage students in learning where they “lead their own learning,” where they become agents and take responsibility.