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School Building (How to Succeed as a Steward of a Classical School)

Probably the biggest obstacle to the growth of classical education is the panic that arises when we lack confidence in its power. Sadly, this panic often comes from the parents through the leadership into the school.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the board of a classical school is a board of stewards. Members of a board have been entrusted with the governance of a classical school. If they don’t believe in classical education, they do not have the right (even if the majority of the parent population urges it) to make the school something other than a classical school.

There is a still deeper root to this problem, however.

When a classical school is growing, it seeks to validate its existence – rather like an adolescent with unloving parents. Lacking a well-formed identity, it will gather that validation profligately. Thus arises an impulse to hang albatrosses around their necks (otherwise known as buildings), to drive non-selective admissions, and to surrender to the absurd, unbiblical, and unclassical testing practices of the surrounding culture. These actions, in turn, attract families for the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile virtually nothing is invested in board and parent development beyond the occasional conscience satisfying formal presentation. Little time is spent learning what classical education is, what its boundary conditions, what its spirit and ethos, and how it must be governed differently from what it is not, such as a business, a church, or even another school.

The result of this insecurity and quest for false affirmations is that people who don’t care much about a classical education but do want a culturally recognized education (and often mix up the two) are first, admitted to the school, then, given volunteer roles in the school, then, given leadership in the school, and ultimately placed on the school board, never having experienced or learned how beautiful and powerful a thing classical education is. The sequence of involvement is correct. What is missing is growth.

By all means, bring them in. Then, I beseech you, ensure that they are both systematically and organically taught the nature and purpose of classical education and how it must be embodied in both pedagogy and governance. Tie their authority and participation in the life of the school to that learning. If you don’t, you will become one of the growing number of nominal classical schools, which will do more harm to the classical renewal than any opposition could. I’m not infrequently asked, “What are the biggest mistakes schools make?”.

I don’t like to come across as a critical person because that is the weakness my arrogant character so easily falls into. But if the reader can forgive me, I would like to offer the following as things to think about. If you are a board member of a classical school, please accept these as an offering of warnings, perhaps even a set of implied standards, by which you can examine your board, yourself, and your activities within the school.

Easy mistakes to fall into when you govern a classical school:

  1. Not investing the time and mental energy required to learn the nature, purpose, and form of this thing you are governing. In short, failing to learn deeply what a classical education is and how it is being embodied in this particular school.
  2. Not defining the role of the board and not limiting its actions to that role. Boards should govern, not manage. They should focus much of their attention on the only employee of the school that they should recruit, hire, train, and support: the headmaster. They should also support the school financially (directly and indirectly). They should set long term objectives. And they should pray. A lot.
  3. Not praying humbly. If you don’t pray a lot and humbly, don’t try to govern a Christian school. You won’t want to answer the questions on that great Day of Assessment (I do not refer at this moment to grandparents’ day).
  4. Not adapting the board’s role year to year as the school grows and matures. For example, the first year of a school’s life pretty well necessitates board involvement in the managing of the school. However, a plan must be put in place by which the board will remove itself from management and focus on governance and policy. Failure to do this is the main reason why most headmasters are fired or quit by the fourth year of a school’s existence.
  5. Not developing a succession plan. You are a steward and your days are numbered. All that you invest in the school will be lost if you do not start thinking immediately about who will follow you. I believe that the first task any person in leadership should initiate is the identifying and equipping of potential successors.
  6. Not developing a board development plan. It is common for board members to be on three year cycles. This is good if your goal is to keep board members from becoming too powerful or factious, but it’s only by the third year that most board members are beginning to understand what it is they are governing. Members should be on longer, spend more time in training before and during their role as board members, and spend more time mentoring new board members (see 4 above). I might add that if a board’s role is defined, it’s good for them to be “powerful,” though never factious.
  7. Not making plans for the inevitable. List them. They aren’t hard to identify. Then prepare for them.
  8. Not learning what classical education is. A classical school is different in nature from the schools around us, which are rooted in metaphysical foundations of which they are usually unaware and that cannot sustain education. You cannot transform a culture by conforming to it, especially in its standards and modes of assessment. You also can’t transform a culture by trying to succeed within it on their own terms.
  9. Giving too much weight to parents who were admitted for subordinate reasons: parents who do not understand what classical education is or share its goals.
  10. Being led by financial reports instead of leading them. Finances dictate what we are able to do today and as such they are a tool God uses to keep us humble and patient. But they do not and cannot have the wisdom to know which path we should take or where we are trying to go.
  11. Being pressured by the demands of the culture in the mouths and checks of the families. If you can’t add a high school and remain faithful to your vocation, don’t add a high school. If you have to stay small, stay small. Your measure of success is your fidelity, not your growth. If you have grown by proving the virtues of a classical education, then you have grown honorably and might be able to survive it with your integrity. If you have grown through effective marketing, you probably just sold your soul. Most of the growth you just experienced will need so much training in the classical dream that your resource manager won’t allow it. So your growth will prove to be a bubble. You have “supernovad”. Your school won’t matter because it sought to matter for the wrong reasons and too soon.
  12. Internal focus. A school equips students to leave. In my view, it should also be equipping its faculty for growth in every area of life. While I love stability, if I have a talented person on my team and there is no place on my team that will help him reach his potential, I need to let another team develop him. We’re all seeking the same end.
  13. Poor planning. Administration is a spiritual gift too. It should be honored. Planning demands BOTH clarity of vocation and daily fidelity to that vocation. All four of these perspectives or factors must be included for planning to be effective:
  • Resources (do you have the resources, including time, energy, financials, etc. to do what you are called to do? If not, how will you get them, sustain them, and direct them?)
  • Good will (growing in favor with God and man, which can be done when the First is first)
  • Learning (is everybody in the school learning what they need to learn to do what they do effectively and to be what they are called to be? This includes parents, board members, headmaster, administrative staff, faculty, students, and anybody else who touches the school in any way.)
  • Operations (are processes in place by which information is where it needs to be when a decision needs to be made, by which energy is where it needs to be when work needs to be done (please don’t forget that work can’t be done without energy), and by which the right people are occupying the right roles to fulfill the right responsibilities with rightly understood relationships, supplied with the right resources? And are their rights honored (such as just remuneration, respect, etc.)?
  1. Panicking. Classical education, when it is allowed to be what it is, goes so far beyond what the culture examines itself for as to be embarrassing. But many board members of classical schools only know their own school, their own community, and their own families. They don’t grow in their understanding of classical education. As a result, since a steward is judged only for one thing according to the Bible, and that one thing is faithfulness, my caricature of a board member disqualifies himself from success by not learning what it is over which he must faithfully serve and allows himself to be blown around by misinformed parents, financial pressures, cultural demands, and poor planning.
  2. Forgetting that “all things are yours” in Christ, thus falling into envy, strife, and division because we are always inclined to seek the changing and the temporal instead of the unchanging and eternal. If we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all these things will be added to us. We have the Holy Word of our Holy God on this.
Forgive me, my friends. I have committed all of these sins. I have rendered myself less useful to you than I ought to be today because of my fears and insecurities. But perhaps we can all grow in these areas and watch as Christ does a work beyond anything we can imagine.
Let us give Him the confidence He deserves and let us do the same to the world.

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