Editor’s note: This is an article written by FRCS Head of School David Cooper for an upcoming issue of CSE Magazine from ACSI. This issue of CSE asked the question, “Is your school a safe place to fail?” This article is Mr. Cooper’s response to the question as it relates to Front Range Christian School.
Is Your School a Safe Place to Fail?
I am not sure the question is the right one to be asking, at least not for Front Range Christian School. The culture we pursue is one where risk and innovation are an expectation. Any time people risk innovation, failure is always a possibility. It is a possibility that is neither desired nor celebrated, but it is embraced. These cultural expectations are not set by students or programs but by actions ⎼ actions by teachers. As Christian educators, we are in the discipleship business. This demands that we do more than just tell our students the truth. We must show them what it looks like to walk in it and then invite them to follow.
If you want students to follow, you need to know where you are going. For us, that started with identifying the ten virtues of a Front Range Christian School Scholar. These, in essence, are our expected student outcomes, not written in the stale words of “eduspeak,” but using the noble words of timeless scholarship. They have become a part of our everyday conversation ⎼ in the workroom, hallways, walking to lunch ⎼ they flavor how we look at what we do. One of my faculty members put it this way, “We have a lofty agreement of what we want education to be. The way we talk about education is about how we do, why we do, what we do.” Creating opportunities for our students to gain these virtues drives all we do, yet to instill them in our students means we must possess, or at least pursue, them ourselves. How can we call our students to courageously persevere after truth where risk exists if we don’t first stand? How can we inspire our students’ creativity if we are not first creating culture? We cannot. They will not follow where we are not willing to lead.
No one leads alone. Our culture finds its strength through deliberate collaboration. The conversations noted above don’t happen by accident but by design. Our schedule includes department “Nexus” times during the school day, usually two per week, designed to foster conversations about what, why and how we do what we do. These times have opened up the informal conversations that occur over coffee and while we play together. These times of collaboration allow for ideas to be vetted, strengthened and corrected. They bring a sense of safety when taking educational risks while being pushed toward excellence. The feeling of our faculty is that they don’t fail alone, or take risks alone, but that the accountability is personal. It is through that personal accountability that collaborative reflection leads us to improved innovation. An implemented idea that wasn’t successful isn’t a failure ⎼ it is merely the first iteration in the process. Failure would be if the attempt was forgotten and not perfected.
This all falls apart without authenticity. Our students need to know that in our own teaching, our own learning, we wrestle with the same challenges they do. If we put up a facade of perfection they will be frozen by their own imperfection. They need to experience a faculty who, in spite of their own frailties, perseveres and finds triumph. This looks like an English teacher who realizes she needs the voice of her Bible department colleagues in her classroom if her students are to fully understand Milton’s Paradise Lost ⎼ not because of some shortcoming in her students, but because she has understood her own. Her humble confidence will allow her students to engage the text with integrity freed from the notion that they need to have all the answers and empowered by the example of a mentor’s pursuit of understanding. We need only look to Christ’s example in the garden of Gethsemane to see this truth in action. Facing His own sacrifice, Jesus confesses to His disciples that His “…soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He then pleads with the Father to “take this cup from me.” In the end, Christ chooses submission to the Father’s will and in so doing models for His disciples, and us, how to walk out our faith. Christ, showing this glimpse of human frailty, brought strength to His disciples. The same will happen for our students if we teach with that same authenticity.
Unexpectedly, it changes everything. The most significant impact has been a shift in how faculty looks at teaching. It has become a framework in which teaching is learning. Failure is not measured merely in the efficacy of a program but is more personal than that. Teachers believe that if they are not risking and innovating they are not learning. For them, stagnation is failure. Isn’t that what we are called to as followers of Christ? We should be ever pursuing a deeper relationship with the Father through Christ and desiring our ongoing sanctification. Shouldn’t the same be true of the vocation to which He has called us? It is for us.
This is a process. Six years ago our faculty culture was very different. The school was coming out of some divisive times, there were multiple leadership changes and our committed faculty were in “survival” mode. It started with deliberate conversations with a few who were willing to trust and try. This has led to a critical mass of teachers who now set the cultural expectation of risk, innovation, and growth. It has impacted their colleagues and students. It is a process, a slow process, but the change is lasting.
I have often told our faculty that the best place to stand is on the precipice of epic failure. It is teetering on that peak where one can get a glimpse of greatness and, at times, grasp it. Climbing to those heights cannot be done alone, without purpose or fidelity. When it happens, an encouraged and empowered faculty will do more than just teach students. They will lead them to be transformed because they too have been transformed.
Is our school a safe place to take risks and innovate? I think so, but not because of policies, programs, or support structures. It is because our faculty have created a culture that authentically models it for the students they disciple.