Choosing the Right School Leader
Even the most casual observers of the Christian education movement in the United States tend to see a limited pool of quality leaders, particularly at the school level. That must be of concern to college and university leadership who prepare individuals for this ministry. It must concern the leaders of the national associations of Christian schools. It must concern pastors of those churches involved in the education of children.
It is generally agreed that personnel decisions are the most critical decisions to be made regarding a ministry and that is certainly true of the Christian school movement. In fact, the most critical decision to be made by a school board, a church board, or a pastor concerning a Christian school is the choice of a leader, a principal, an administrator.
People making the decision about school leadership are concerned with knowing the essential qualifications of a person leading a school. What is needed in a leader? Qualifications are of two types: The first type is related to the spiritual dimension. The second is related to the professional dimension.
There are certain "givens" in the spiritual dimension, viewed as spiritual qualifications, that must characterize any person being considered for a leadership role. Without any of these, the person should not be selected regardless of the professional qualifications possessed.
- The candidate must be characterized by high commitments to personal integrity, to fairness, and to high ethical standards in his personal life.
- The candidate must exhibit a high commitment to the Lord, showing strong conviction to spiritual things, and possess a working and application knowledge of the Bible.
- The candidate must be able to show a strong commitment on the part of his family for his involvement in the ministry.
- The candidate's family must not be a source of embarrassment to the ministry, but must be able to fully participate.
The movement is blessed with many people who possess the necessary spiritual qualifications. There is even a pool of people with these qualifications who are committed to this movement and who are just waiting to become active in leadership roles. The void of leadership is in the professional dimension. The movement is simply not producing people with the professional abilities to move it forward after some thirty years of significant progress. Professional qualifications might be viewed in the following ways:
- The leader must be able to develop, implement, and sustain a vision for the Christian school.
- The leader must be able to develop, promote and sustain a school culture or climate that is conducive to curriculum development, faculty improvement, and student learning.
- The leader must be able to manage the ministry in its daily operations and its resources both efficiently and effectively.
- The leader must be able to work with parents and church leadership in responding to constituents and in taking advantage of the skills and expertise that are present within the parent population.
- The leader must understand and be able to respond to, and even influence, the larger political, legal, and social context impacting Christian education.
Leaders of Christian schools must have a vision for that school and for the movement in general. And there are two aspects of that vision. First, the leader must be able to direct a total staff in building a proper foundation for the school, including a workable philosophy of Christian education, clear and definable general goals for the school, a written vision for the school that identifies how the staff would like to see the school characterized five years into the future, written commitments on the part of the staff to do what is necessary to achieve the vision statement, and the identification of target areas and the assignment of responsibilities that direct the staff for the first year of work, the second year, and so on. The leader in a Christian school in the year 2000 simply must have that vision and must be able to lead others in attaining that vision. Where there is no vision (revelation), the people perish... (cast away restraint). So says Solomon in Proverbs 29:18a.
The vision statement should address all aspects of the school curriculum, achievement, personnel, graduation rates, college attendance rates, fine arts, athletics, school plant and all other aspects of the school. It should be updated annually so that it is always current.
Second, there is also an aspect of vision that might be defined as "seeing the possibility of God working in the lives of the students that He has placed in a ministry." Without that, there may be little to keep a staff motivated and focused.
The impact which a school leader has on a school would be difficult to overstate. Research clearly shows that the factor having the greatest impact on student achievement is the expectation of the school leader and how that expectation is operationalized. The person having the greatest impact on school climate is the school leader. With the stage of development which presently characterizes the Christian school movement, the leader must be able to plan for learning: directing the staff in working on curriculum, leading staff in the improvement of the quality of the instructional system, and in maintaining the proper focus upon students. Those are the demands of constituents. Those things are found in quality schools. Those things are glorifying to God.
Purchasing textbooks does not equate to curriculum improvement. Faculty members must be challenged in ways that will promote proper communication and collaboration in giving attention to learning expectations for students, in sequencing the curriculum in ways that promote the achievement of those expectations, in studying various instructional techniques and strategies that will contribute to warm classrooms, and in showing the proper degree of concern for the learning of all students. The movement demands leaders with these skills and abilities.
Excellent management skills are essential to the efficient and effective day-to-day operation of a Christian school. Good management is essential to the testimony of a Christian school and that responsibility falls to the school leader. The wise principal will be able to create an organizational structure that utilizes the skills of the people involved. The structure will distribute responsibilities equally and utilize the strengths of persons in effective ways. It will establish proper lines of communication and clearly define responsibilities.
In the same way, management of the finances of the school will be handled efficiently by capable and knowledgeable people and will enable the leader to keep current with the financial resources that are available at any one time. Management of the budget is critical. There is no excuse for leading a ministry into bankruptcy.
Issues of safety will be addressed by the strong leader. And, the plant will be managed in ways that promote the provision of an effective learning environment for the children enrolled. Maintenance schedules will keep the issues of attractiveness and safety before the leader at all times.
The greatest resource of any school is personnel. The management of personnel is viewed by many as the most critical aspect of the principal's role. Sustained organizational improvement for a Christian school can only come about as personnel are built into a "learning community," where communication and collaboration are evident, and where there is a freedom to examine current practices and to probe new ways and new ideas. People skills are among the essentials for the effective school leader. The effective leader will not fear the expertise of others.
There are clear benefits to creating an effective partnership with the parents of students enrolled in Christian schools. This is not to suggest that parents have a role in designing a Christian school. It is to suggest that parents need and deserve information about the school and that they have much to offer within a volunteer framework to make the school successful. Parents have the first responsibility for their own children a responsibility assigned by God. But the school can help them with that task through parenting seminars and seminars to explain to parents how to help their own children achieve. Parents should be told what student expectations are for the various levels of the school program.
Parents should be viewed as partners in the education of their own children. But that is not all. The wise leader of the Christian school will make the ministry a vital part of the larger ministry of the sponsoring church, working with the church pastor and the other church leadership. Neither will the wise leader ignore the community in which the school is located.
This last vital area of professional competence is often ignored by leaders in the Christian community. It should not be. Christian schools do operate within a political, legal, and social context. The wise leader will make it a point to become knowledgeable of that context and the impact that context may have upon the Christian school. Christian schools in all states are governed to some extent by legislation. They are impacted by local customs and culture. The wise leader will become aware of the local mores, the customs, and the general culture and weigh those factors in light of the Word of God. In short, the wise leader should know when to fight and what to defend; when to get involved and when to stay home.
It is well to invite legislative and political leaders to the campus, simply for the purpose of showing them how the public interest is being treated within the ministry of the Christian school. It is also well to invite community leaders to the campus as issues of development and promotion are considered. It is well to promote the Lord's work in this way and to display how the Lord's work is revealed in the lives of students enrolled. Political and community leaders want to know.
In summary, the Christian education movement must begin to develop leadership that is able to take the movement beyond present levels. That demands continued attention to the spiritual dimension of leadership, but it also demands increased attention to the professional dimension of leadership as the pool of available leaders is expanded.