The Single Most Important Question to Ask in Choosing a School

Choosing the right school for your child can be a challenging decision for any parent.  There are a multitude of important things to consider from environment to test scores to reputation to facilities etc.  But by far the most important criteria involves the quality of teachers.  Luke 6:40 succinctly states the mission of a true teacher: “A student, when he is mature, will be like his teacher.”

The Mission of a True Teacher

The mission of a true teacher is not just to “teach a subject,” (assuming they are still allowed to do this as opposed to “teaching a test”).  Neither is it a matter of diligently pouring factoids into empty-headed receptacles. The mission of a true teacher is nothing less than to shape and mold the hearts and minds of students into his or her likeness.  This is why James bluntly states: “Not many of you should become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

True teaching is a high and noble calling and nothing — not facilities, rankings, test scores, sports opportunities, or financial considerations — is more important than ensuring the unimpeachable integrity and quality of your child’s teachers.”

Missing the Mark in Education

The widespread obsession with peripheral matters of education at the expense of the one thing most needful is yet another symptom of the way in which our culture so often misses the mark in its approach to parenting and education. Sadly, in my experience, dads tend to be the worst offenders in this regard. They’ll often expend more brain power researching the next car or truck they want to buy than the kind and quality of teachers who will shape their children’s lives 180 days out of the year for 18 of the most formative years of their lives.  It is a sad truth that far too many dads neither know nor care who is teaching their children.

Given the enormous responsibility we as fathers have towards our children, is anything more important than making sure we make wise decisions about who we allow to mold and mentor our children?”

School administrators and teachers themselves are not exempt from this criticism either.  Far too many professional educators are way too obsessed with credentials. The truth is that a graduate degree or a certification paper does not a good teacher make. Our nation’s schools are bloated with people with “education degrees” and “teacher certificates” (because degree programs in actual subjects like history, literature, or math are too demanding) who couldn’t teach their way out of a paper bag.   But the most egregious abdication, in my mind, is the failure of many Christian parents and educators to even consider the negative impact non-Christian teachers have in shaping and molding the worldview thoughts and attitudes of students.

The Impact of Non-Christian Teachers

I have sitting on my desk a copy of the book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church which I recommend every Christian parent read. The book is based on the National Study of Youth and Religion — the most ambitious study of American teenagers and religion to date, involving extensive interviews of more than 3,300 American teenagers between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. The study’s results are an indictment of a generation of church leaders, parents, and teachers who have done little to cultivate “consequential faith” by modeling and intentionally “passing on” the kind of mature and passionate faith we say we want young people to have. Instead, the faith most teenagers exhibit is a loveless version termed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” which bears little resemblance to historic, biblical Christianity and is fast supplanting biblical Christianity as the dominant religion in America.  To quote from the book:

“In short, the National Study of Youth and Religion provides a window on how well American young people have learned a well-intentioned but ultimately banal version of Christianity offered up in American churches. Most youth seem to accept this bland view of faith as all there is — nice to have, like a bank account, something you want before you go to college in case you need to draw from it sometime. What we have not told them is that this account of Christianity is bankrupt. We have not invested in their accounts: we “teach” young people baseball, but we “expose” them to faith. We provide coaching and opportunities for youth to develop and improve their pitches and their SAT scores, but we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis, emerging “when youth are ready” (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to, say, algebra).

Given the enormous power and influence of teachers in shaping the thoughts and attitudes of students on the most important matters of faith and life (i.e. religion, politics, ethics, economics, history etc.), parents need to weigh carefully the potential influence of non-Christian teachers.”

What I Look for in a Teacher

When I hire a teacher at Annapolis, I am much more interested in the type and kind of person they are than the certifications they hold or the degrees they’ve earned. Not that professional credentials aren’t important (I require them as a bare minimum), but what I’m most interested in is a teacher’s experience with children (do they enjoy being around them?), how many and what kind of books they read, how developed a philosophy and theology of education they possess, how well they understand and live according to a biblical worldview and life view, the extent of their involvement in a local church (Easter and Christmas attendance vs. leading weekly Bible studies and getting involved in their church’s children’s ministry). I am interested in their hobbies, their relationships, their political and ethical views, and their personalities (nothing kills learning faster than a boring teacher with a bad personality!). Why do I care about all this? Because it’s all of this that goes into a child when a teacher is teaching. The best teachers “teach themselves.” They passionately and articulately love learning out loud and in front of their students. They put themselves on display — their lives, faith, ideas, opinions, passions, joys, desires, and knowledge — becoming vulnerable and telling students, like Paul told his disciples, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

Teachers with this kind of courage and calling are rare indeed. There is no perfect teacher and no perfect school. Nevertheless, my challenge to all of us is, in the words of the greatest classical teacher who ever lived, the famous gadfly of Athens, Socrates, who urges that

Every one of us should seek out the best teacher whom he can find, first for ourselves, who are greatly in need of one, and then for the youth, regardless of expense or anything. But I cannot advise that we remain as we are….Let us then, regardless of what may be said of us, make the education of the youths our own education” (Laches, 201).