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Many teachers, parents, students, and school leaders are looking forward to the end of this school year. I often hear the sentiment, “I can’t wait until this school year is over. I am done with anything dealing with 2020!” During the months of February, March, and April the increasing anticipation for the end of the school year is normal, but when you add on a global pandemic and all the challenges that come with it, everything is heightened. The desire to return to “normal” or even a sense of normalcy is understandable.  

My encouragement to all educators would be to not unlearn what you have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will miss the true mark if this push for familiarity overrides the discipline of reckoning and consideration. As a Christian school leader during a pandemic, I continue to wrestle with the words of James 1:2, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” I have come to the resolve that I can count all things joy because God is working all situations, even the most challenging ones, for personal and collective sanctification and his ultimate glorification. 

It is important to take the future into account when counting it all joy. The best way I know how to keep this perspective is to journal my thoughts. I remember starting my first teaching position as a seventh grade social studies teacher in a public school in Wilmington, Delaware. My principal at that time, who was also one of the pastors of my church, gave me some of the best advice.  She said, “The best teachers and leaders are those who are active students after they finish their lesson.” 

She would always encourage me to take at least ten minutes at the end of every day and answer the following simple questions in my professional journal: 

  • What worked well today? 
  • Who do I need to encourage or “see” tomorrow? 
  • What do I need to do differently moving forward?  

The disciple of writing these brief thoughts down have given passionate purpose, clear direction, and sustainable pace to my days—particularly during this pandemic. Thanks to the insights I’ve gained from my journal entries, I’d like to share three major lessons that I can’t unlearn from 2020.

The First Lesson

The first lesson that I can’t unlearn—and wouldn’t want to unlearn—from 2020 is that “less is more.” Prior to the pandemic, many of our schools’ calendars were filled with very busy days, months, and an entire year. I have seen how this pace is not healthy for the students, teachers, parents, and our ability to fulfill the overall school mission. The pandemic has shown many leaders what they really didn’t need (even though they thought they did). Many things we stripped from the daily routines of all people globally. Specifically for educators, the way we have been doing education for the past 100 years was abruptly disrupted. It created an opportunity to do things differently. I have often described this as a “problemtunity” (something that presents as a problem, but which we can consciously turn into an opportunity). Doing less to gain a greater reward seems counterintuitive.  

The lesson I learned was doing less, but doing it well, is much better than doing a bunch of things subpar. A great example of this is one of my favorite cheesesteak establishments in the city of Philadelphia. This “hole in the wall” only makes cheesesteaks and fries on Thursdays through Saturdays. They have made it clear what they put their attention toward: cheesesteaks and fries. There is always a line outside their restaurant, and I often find myself craving a good cheesesteak on Sundays when they are closed. They know and clearly define who they are—and they continued to thrive even through the pandemic. 

The mind shift that was necessary in my personal leadership was to create three priorities during the pandemic. The goal was not to abandon the school’s core commitments, but instead give all the school stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, board members, donors) measurable and obtainable objectives. Similar to the typical Baptist sermon, these memorable priorities enabled everyone to focus on three areas well, instead of many areas with only a fleeting glance. I landed with Community, Curriculum, and Connected. I would include these priorities in every communication that I had with school constituents, whether via email, letter, video, and so on. Studies show that it takes ten to twenty exposures to a concept before it sinks into a person’s mind. With our rush to get back to “normal,” I found it necessary to repeat “less is more,” because our tendency is to return to the ways we have always done things.

A few questions that could assist us to maintain a “less is more” mindset are:

  • What practices did you cut during the time of the pandemic that should not return?
  • Who was most affected because of the changes you made during the pandemic?
  • How can you do things differently moving forward? What prevents you from doing that?

The Second Lesson

The second lesson I hope to never unlearn is the benefit and necessity of addressing ethnicity, culture, and race within our schools. During 2020 there was much racial unrest in the United States, which found its way into our classrooms. There was much commentary about ethnicity and race taking place on social media, television outlets, professional athletic events, church pulpits, and even at many dinner tables. For some educators it was all-consuming and overwhelming, which contributed to a “let’s not talk about it anymore” mindset. The first danger with that perspective is our students will continue to talk about it, sometimes parroting what they hear from oftentimes misinformed sources. The second danger is if educators don’t have these hard but necessary conversations, we leave it to others to inform our students of the beauty of diversity within God’s kingdom. To say it another way, by not talking about it, we miss out on a “problemtunity”: the problem is there are many voices speaking to this topic all with differing perspectives and values; the opportunity is that Christian educators can acknowledge and celebrate the differences among people, while providing students with the tools to learn how to think (not specifically what to think).

I never want to unlearn the value of cultural representation, because of the words I heard from a third grade student at The City School. As I was trying to quietly observe a class, I noticed a cute third grade student staring at me in the back of the room. The student then called me over to his desk and asked, “Are you Mr. Gaines, our new head of school?” When I replied yes, he proceeded to tell me he watched every virtual chapel every Friday but didn’t realize I was a “real” person. I assured him I was real, and I was proud to be the new head of school at The City School. He then shared that he didn’t know if I was real because he never saw an African American man in that role and didn’t think that was possible. He later shared he too wanted to be a head of school someday. 

Research shows that black men make up 2 percent of the teaching profession nationally; that percentage is even less for black men as heads of school in the Christian school sector. I took advantage of the opportunity to speak life into this young scholar by telling him I would gladly support him in being a head of school. Despite the fact we both had masks on, the brightness of his eyes—and the smile I was sure was underneath the mask—was something I will cherish forever. I hope one day he applies to be my replacement. The benefit for all children of all ages to see, hear, study, learn, fellowship with, celebrate, and be exposed to a myriad of ethnicities and cultures is what true education is about. I believe this is hard work—but good work—that benefits all of us as God’s children.  

A few questions to ask yourself, your leadership team, or your school community:

  • What are the “problemtunities” within our school context as it pertains to race, ethnicity, and culture?
  • What resources would be beneficial for your school in starting, sustaining, or going deeper into this conversation?
  • How has the school’s hiring, curricular, discipline, and governing practices been informed by race, ethnicity, and culture within your school community?

The Third Lesson

The last lesson I can’t unlearn is the importance of self-care. I categorize self-care under the umbrella of shalom. Shalom is more than just a Jewish greeting. Shalom embodies the understanding of completeness, wholeness, reconciliation, restoration, and flourishing. The lifelong pursuit of shalom is captured well in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” For my self-care, I am seeking what is good. Scripture tells me the way I can obtain the true, fulfilling good that I seek. It is also true that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Therefore, my self-care starts with my shalom with God. Staying connected to the vine (John 15:1–17) is what enables me to enjoy his love and be able to pour it out to others. 

A key part of my personal self-care is shalom with others and shalom with creation. I gain energy from being with people with positive energy. These new and old relationships are life giving and empowering to continue in this challenging yet rewarding work. There are also times that I need to retreat to be with God’s creation. I thoroughly enjoy taking a walk near a body of water or planting new flowers in my small garden. Shalom with myself is at the core of my self-care.  When I am reminded of why I am in this work, I quickly recite one of my favorite Bible verses, Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Being in right relationship with God, others, creation, and myself leads me to experience fulfilling self-care and enables me to flourish.  

As we look forward with hope to a post-COVID world, we can all consider what lessons we don’t want to unlearn from 2020 (and into 2021). We can ask ourselves what the “problemtunities” are in our school communities, how we are helping all within our school communities to flourish with equity, and how we are engaging in self-care so that we are flourishing alongside our communities. As we look forward to Converge 2022 next spring, let’s plan to share the lessons we don’t want to unlearn with our colleagues, friends, and Christian education family from around the world.

Joel Gaines

Joel R. Gaines serves as Head of School at The City School in Philadelphia. He is married to Tia and has one son, Josiah, and three daughters, Hosanna, Eliana, and Adoniah. Joel has served in multiple roles for nearly 20 years in both Christian and public education, and in both urban and suburban settings.

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