October 22, 2002
Dear IN TOUCH,
Last year I taught at Trinity School River Ridge in Bloomington, Minnesota, a Christian school for grades 7-12. I loved Trinity. I wish that more people could experience the Trinity culture. My year there gave me a vision for learning and education and changed how I see the world.
I was attracted to the school culture from the moment I entered it. Smiles are all around. The undefensive posture of the students shows that they feel safe. Students treat one another with respect and inclusiveness, and put-downs are rare. Athletic posters are positive, rather than demeaning the opposition: "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." Walking down the halls, one observes students discussing what they are learning. The school culture is pervaded by earnestness, sincerity, a passion for learning, and a passion for truth.
This type of school culture did not arise by accident, but has been deliberately cultivated based on a defining vision and a defining set of beliefs which I came to share.
It was our belief that education is about living a full human life. As a school our purpose was to equip the minds of young people to participate in what God is doing to build His kingdom. ("Building God's kingdom" was understood to mean extending God's wise rule throughout creation and establishing His presence in the Christian community.)
At Trinity we sought to build a community of learners that is patterned after the body of Christ. We saw this as our role in God's "kingdom-building project". The faculty was the core of this community into which we sought to draw the students.
I think I could talk for hours about all the distinctive things about Trinity School that I so much believed in and loved. I loved the school culture and the way they did things. The key question that became instilled in my mind was, "What are they learning?" Issues were evaluated and decisions were made on the basis of reason grounded in the fundamental beliefs and purposes of the school, rather than in response to circumstances or political pressure. The school minimized distractions from its primary goal of learning by having an extremely simple structure. Fundamental, structure-defining decisions were made and communicated in a careful, clear, deliberate manner.
All the faculty had their desks together in a single room. This made a tremendous difference in the connectedness of the school. Spontaneous conversations about Christian faith and every area of academic inquiry were frequent. There were also many practical benefits to the arrangement. Information flowed rapidly, and we could quickly make transactions.
I loved the way the school did evaluations. My evaluation of a student was to be a written, professional assessment of what the student had demonstrated that he knew given the opportunities available to him. Each student's teachers discussed their evaluations orally in the presence of the parents. Upper-class students were required to evaluate themselves before hearing our evaluation.
Learning was emphasized and grades were de-emphasized. We avoided comparing students or engaging in practices that would encourage the students to compare and rank themselves against one another. We did not want to be a school for the elite, but a school "where ordinary students do extraordinary things." I was consistently impressed with the accomplishments of the general student body, including students of ordinary ability, in the full range of academic study -- the humanities, the fine arts, and the natural sciences.
Students were instructed to study diligently but reasonably. My 8th grade algebra boys were expected to spend 20 minutes on algebra each night and then quit, whether the homework was done or not. Likewise, upper-class students were expected to spend about 30 minutes per night studying for each of their six classes.
Boys and girls are educated separately. This seems to make students less self-conscious, more focused on academics, and more willing to participate, especially in the case of the girls. Having women teach the girls and men teach the boys also helps give the students role models of their own gender.
Trinity School is a Christian School because it is run by Christians in a Christian manner. School staff are required to be practicing Christians. Neither the students nor their parents are required to be Christian. (The school is not run by the parents.) Non-Christian students are required to behave according to the Christian moral standards of the school, but are not expected to express agreement with Christian beliefs. They are required to be respectful during prayers but are not required to participate verbally. I think that this kind of arrangement allows a Christian school to include non-Christians in its outreach while still maintaining its Christian character.
One of the things I believe I gained from my experience at Trinity was a fuller sense of the "big story" of scripture. What is God doing in history? One answer we might give is that He is saving people -- and this certainly is central to what God is doing. But we might also wish to know: What are we being saved for? What were we created for? What will we be living for in the eternal glory?
Trinity School seemed to hold that in His relationship with man, God has a two-fold purpose in past (creation), present (redemption), and future (eschatological) history -- to dwell with man in material creation, and for man to govern the creation on His behalf. Salvation history is the drama in which God is accomplishing this primal purpose.
This understanding of the story of scripture is summarized in a well-known paragraph by N.T. Wright that has profoundly affected my thinking, and which I can practically type from memory:
"Reality as we know it is the result of a creator god bringing into being a world that is other than himself and yet which is full of his glory. It was always the intention of this god that creation should one day be flooded with his own life, in a way for which it was prepared from the beginning. As part of the means to this end, the creator brought into being a creature which, by bearing the creator's image, would bring his wise and loving care to bear upon creation. By a tragic irony, the creature in question has rebelled against this intention. But the creator has solved this problem in principle in an entirely appropriate way, and as a result, is now moving the creation once more towards its originally intended goal. The implementation of this solution now involves the indwelling of this god within his human creatures, and ultimately within the whole creation, transforming it into that for which it was made in the beginning."
(I'm not sure why he avoids capital letters here. I think that he tries to write in a way that accurately communicates the Christian story to an unbeliever without pre-assuming agreement.)
I think that this summary of the story of scripture is accurate, although I think that it is not complete (nor intended to be). For one thing, it merely alludes to the "central mystery" of salvation through the sacrificial atonement of Christ; it emphasizes instead the larger context in which this drama of salvation occurs. It doesn't address the nature of man's rebellion, the opposition of the fallen angels to this plan, or the eternal state of those who by virtue of their own choice are ultimately shut out of redeemed creation.
What it does address is the meaning and purpose of history, which I had not thought much about. It gave me a basis for answering questions like, "Why doesn't God just take us to be with Himself the moment we receive Him?" "Why does God use people to do His work when He could do such a better job Himself?" "Why should a Christian care about this world?"
More centrally, I came to have a more "incarnational" view of the world. The incarnation of Christ wasn't simply a temporary means to an end (vicarious atonement). It is central to God's purpose of dwelling with man in material creation. Jesus took on a body made of the matter of this world, and he remains eternally an embodied man. God has thereby bound Himself inextricably to this creation. Jesus is "God with us." He is the temple. He lives in us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to abide in us and unite us into a single entity, the body of Christ, which is the temple of the living God. It is our hope to dwell with God in resurrected bodies in a reconstituted, sinless creation in which God is manifestly present.
Although I loved Trinity and enjoyed teaching there, I experienced a mixture of success and failure as a teacher. I have difficulty responding to people quickly, especially when distracted, and this made it difficult for me to interact effectively with my 10th grade boys. They often need a quick, off-the-cuff response rather than a lengthy, in-depth explanation. In the middle of the second semester I was dismissed from teaching precalculus, and another teacher was appointed to help me teach physics. He is an excellent teacher, and watching him teach gave me insight into how the minds of sophomores work. I had more success and fewer problems with other grade levels (8th grade algebra, and junior/senior Greek).
It was the judgment of the headmaster that I did not have the characteristics of a high school teacher, and many expressed to me the opinion that I would be more effective working at the undergraduate or graduate level, possibly doing research. I have come to accept this assessment. It has been difficult to resign myself to abandoning high-school teaching, however, since I feel that helping to redress the crisis in American secondary education is one of the most important efforts a person can be involved in.
Nevertheless, I have no regrets about teaching at Trinity, and I felt that God led me there. I want to share with other people what I learned from my experience at Trinity. I believe that they have something that many others could learn from. I also hope that other people can learn from reading about my successes and failures.
I believe that God is working in many places, and wherever we see God at work we should rejoice, be encouraged, and learn from what we see, regardless of whether God is calling us to be a part of what He is doing there.