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Sabbath Practices and Well-Being in Christian Schools

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted virtually (pun intended) every aspect of life. Education was no exception. Schools have adapted to a new normal—a shift that led to higher levels of stress among all school community members, including school leadersteachers, students (herehere, and here), and parents. Christian school communities were not immune. A study about ACSI schools during COVID-19 shows that many Christian school leaders expressed their concerns about staff and students’ mental health during the pandemic.

In this challenging time, rest and wellness are more important than ever. Research, predominantly from the field of psychology, consistently documents a positive relationship between rest or “leisure” and mental health (for examples, see herehere, and here). But as Christians, how do we respond to these disruptions? How might Sabbath practices and resting from our labors (Exodus 20:8-11) be related to the wellness of Christian school community members, especially during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic?

In seeking the answers to these questions, we surveyed Christian school communities in the U.S., Canada, and Indonesia from January to March 2021, with almost 8,000 individuals, including heads of school, principals, teachers, students, and parents responding (see full report in ACSI’s spring issue of Research in Brief here).

What is “the Sabbath”?

Before discussing the key findings, it is important to note that there are a wide range of theological views on the Sabbath that are held within orthodox Christianity. We found this reflected across the participating Christian school communities in the study, as we asked about respondents’ beliefs relative to the Sabbath. Some of the strongest points of agreement include:

  • God commands we should keep one day in a week holy by resting from our labors (94%);
  • Sunday is the Christian Sabbath to commemorate Christ’s resurrection (83%);
  • Sabbath-keeping is a priority in their schools (82%); and
  • Recreations are permitted on the Sabbath (74%).

For all remaining questions, participants responded with their own definition of the Sabbath in mind (for example, a specific day of the week, versus any time of rest chosen). This is because our study is not intended to promote particular views on Sabbath practices or prescribe specific behaviors, but rather to describe the Sabbath practices and policies of members of Christian school communities and explore any correlations with well-being.

Key Findings: Burnout and Well-Being 

Our first finding was that Sabbath practices are strongly and positively associated with mental wellness. There is a significantly lower burnout rate between those who practice Sabbath-keeping with those who do not practice Sabbath-keeping. This trend is observed in almost all categories of school constituents (see Figure 1). Our finding affirms a biblical truth that needs no empirical proof: we are created not only for work but for rest, bearing the image of our Heavenly Father, who in six days made the heavens and the earth and rested on the seventh day.

burnout frequencies

Differences between individuals who “keep the Sabbath” and those who claim they do not may provide us with hints as to why we see differential levels of burnout. Teachers who keep Sabbath practices have a lower likelihood than their counterparts in engaging in school-related work on the Sabbath (see Figure 2).

teachers and sabbath

If Sabbath-keepers are more likely to avoid work-related activities on the Sabbath, how do they spend their Sabbaths? Sabbath-keepers are more likely to engage in church-related activities, including fellowship with their family and other church members on the Sabbath (see Figure 3).

teachers and sabbath practices

Implications of the Findings

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of setting aside time to rest and pause. This truth also applies to Christian school communities. Our findings confirm that the act of resting through Sabbath practices make a difference in one’s wellness. More importantly, we know that observing the Sabbath through rest is an act of worshipful obedience to God, the Creator, and Sustainer of our lives and everything in the world.

Based on our findings, schools may want to prayerfully consider some of the following strategies:

  1. Think about your school’s main priorities. Might there be a tension between pursuing excellence and promoting Sabbath practices?
  2. School leaders may find it helpful to explicitly communicate any guidance or policies around setting aside the Sabbath day for their teachers and staff. At the same time, it is important to consider whether we are creating working environments that make it manageable for teachers to take Sabbath rest.
  3. Teachers should be thoughtful about how their classroom policies may create opportunities for students to remember the Sabbath. A good question to ask is whether we are shepherding students to develop spiritual disciplines, including Sabbath practices.
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Rethinking Assessment: A Tool for Learning and Spiritual Formation

What a school decides to measure is particular to each school and expresses what that school community values in the realms of academics, social, physical, and spiritual development. What you measure influences what your students pay attention to. But how we assess carries more subtle and influential implications for our identity in God’s story, because it influences how students see themselves and their God. 

We believe that amidst the growing complexity of assessment vocabulary—formative, summative, diagnostic, interim, performance, standardized—the most important words in assessment are the prepositions: of and for. They define the purpose of the assessment and how it is used. We recognize there is a place for both types of assessments in our schools, but each has implications for learning and for spiritual formation. 

Assessment “OF” Learning

Assessment of learning (sometimes called summative assessment) refers to the assessments we are perhaps most familiar with. Assessment of learning asks the question, “Have students mastered the content and skills expected in this course?” According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, assessment of learning is the “process of collecting and interpreting evidence for the purpose of summarizing learning at a given point in time, to make judgments about the quality of student learning on the basis of established criteria, and to assign a value to represent that quality.” The audience is policy makers, program planners, supervisors, parents, other teachers, or students themselves. It happens after learning has occurred. The teacher’s role is primarily to administer the test carefully, report the results to parents or the district, and in some cases, to create the assessments. Often schools are guided by state standards when it comes to these assessments.

We need to think deeply about the learning experience of students and what are we conveying about God, if assessment of learning is the predominantmethod of measuring student achievement. The student studies everything in the textbook and their notes, hoping they are focusing on material that will be on the test. There’s no way of knowing for sure, and too often little guidance is given in this regard. They take the test, and it is returned to them, wrong answers marked in red. The student breathes a sigh of relief if the score is acceptable; he crumples the test up and tosses it if it is not. No redemption is possible. “I’m just not good at math,” whispers the voice of shame to this despondent one. “You’re a genius!” boasts pride to the “successful” one. Both result in what Carol Dweck refers to as a fixed mindset, which holds that all of us are born good at some things, and not good at others—and there’s nothing we can do to change that.

What image of God does assessment of learning convey? How does it shape the way we understand our relationship with the Creator? God (like the impersonal SAT scorer somewhere in the great beyond) is the “Judge in the Sky” looking down on all our works. We’re not exactly sure what is going to be on the test—probably everything. We stand before Him, trembling on the day of the final exam. “I know I prayed and went to church and we sent our kids to Christian schools. We tithed (most of the time). I did get that divorce, but I wasn’t a Christian then, so maybe it’s OK. Did I study the Bible enough? I never did visit anyone in prison and I usually ignored the homeless. There were all those people at work I never shared the Gospel with. But I did accept Jesus as my personal Savior! Isn’t that enough?” And then it will be thumbs up or thumbs down—dwelling with Him in heaven or… The test is pass/fail. 

As importantly, in the system of assessment of learning, what motivates students to do their work? Grades! Middle and high school teachers lament the predictable chorus that often follows any assignment they present: “Are we going to be graded on this?” “Is it going to be on the test?” “What do I have to do to get an ‘A’?” The prize in assessment of learning is a good grade. And as much as teachers would like to prevent this obsession with grades, a non-graded assignment is code for “this doesn’t really matter.”  Is there a correlation between working to earn good grades in school and trying to earn God’s favor through works in life? We’re not suggesting we do away with grades, but rather to create a culture that runs on godly motivation, not peripheral incentives. Grades should enter like grace, not through the front door of external rewards, but through the back door of work done well as worship. Rightly used, grades are the natural response to our work, not the stimulus. God knows our motivation. God knows what is on the inside, no matter how good we might look to the world. 

Assessment of learning tends to create a system that basically runs on B.F. Skinner’s toolbox of rewards (good grades, awards, parent praise, stickers, pizza parties, etc.) or punishments (bad grades, summer school, parent disapproval, grounding, no video games for a week, etc.). How can we instead use assessment to create a culture of intrinsic motivation, responding to the role God is calling them to in His story? How can we create a school culture that runs on curiosity to learn about the world and discover God in it, or even just the joy of learning something new—fitting another piece into the great puzzle of Creation? We want to build a culture with a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset, where “if I work hard I can get better.” If I make a mistake, I can learn from it. Assessment for learning addresses these questions.

Assessment “FOR” Learning

Assessment for learning (sometimes called formative assessment) comes closest to the original meaning of the word “assessment.” It comes from assidere, Latin for “to sit with.” It suggests the idea of sitting with a piece of student work, appreciating its strengths, identifying ways it could be improved. Assessment for learning serves to promote learning and takes place while the student is still learning. Assessment for learning asks the question, “How can I use assessment to improve student learning?” 

According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, it is the “ongoing process of gathering and interpreting evidence about student learning for the purpose of determining where students are in their learning, where they need to go, and how best to get there.” The audience is students and teachers. The information gathered provides feedback to students to focus their learning and for teachers to adjust instruction. Examples are rubrics, self-assessments, descriptive feedback, and student-led conferences. An important component of assessment for learning is students reflecting on themselves as learners. (Some educators refer to this as assessment as learning). They determine where they are in relation to the learning target and what they need to do to reach it. Assessment for learning encourages students to accurately assess their own progress and take responsibility for their own development. 

Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black (1998) found evidence that shows the effectiveness of assessment for learning in raising student achievement. In particular, they found teachers who effectively employ assessment for learning strategies have an effect on students equal to or better than the effects of individual tutoring! And furthermore, these strategies have a greater effect on low-achievers, including students with learning disabilities and English language learners. 

What is the learning experience of students and what are we conveying about God when assessment for learning is the predominant method of measuring student achievement? Students know what is going to be on the test because the learning targets have been made clear. They study their text and notes focusing on those targets. They take the test and the teacher returns it with specific feedback on strengths and weaknesses. They analyze the results to identify what they need to learn or practice in order to meet the target. They notice some errors were careless, and others were misunderstandings. If only students could get help with the concepts they did not understand, be more careful, and take the test again—when assessment is used for learning, they can! 

When assessment is used for learning, we meet a God who instructs, teaches, and counsels us in the way we should go with a loving eye. God is with us step by step, forgiving, correcting, encouraging, patiently presenting the lesson again in a new way until we master it. He calls us to be reflective and to participate fully in this process as sons and daughters, even as friends. In assessment for learning, failure invites growth, not self-condemnation and shame. In our spiritual lives, failure can bring us into deeper humility and greater dependence on a God who does not condemn us, but presents us with opportunities for growth. 

Suggested Strategies

We suggest the following eight strategies to assess for learning, which in turn shape a very different understanding of our relationship with God than assessment of learning (adapted from Stiggins et al. 2004):

  1.  Provide a clear and understandable vision of the learning target. When God instructs us, the “learning target” is crystal clear. Think, for example, of the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. These are “learning targets” to become like Christ.
  2.  Examine examples of strong and weak work with students. The Bible is full of examples of weak and strong characters and they’re in there, at least in part, for our edification.
  3.  Provide descriptive feedback. The Holy Spirit gives timely, specific, descriptive feedback. The Spirit points a laser at our souls convicting us of where we failed to live up to the character of Christ. “You just gossiped about that parent,” the Spirit might say. It is specific, and timely.
  4.  Teach students to self-assess and set goals. God calls us to examine ourselves and see if there is “any sin in us.” And Paul describes the goal for every devoted follower of Jesus:“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
  5.  Design lessons to focus on one skill, concept, or strategy at a time. God generally deals with us on one issue at a time. Trying to improve too many things at a time usually results in not improving in anything.
  6.  Teach students focused revision. God lets us practice over and over, putting us in similar situations until we receive the grace we need to be changed.
  7. Engage students in self-reflection and let them keep track of their own progress. We are called to reflect on our ways: “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28, NIV).
  8. Use assessment information to refine curriculum and guide instruction. God’s instruction is wisely and lovingly tailored to what each of us needs. In Psalm 32:8-9 (NIV), God tells us: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.”

If we use assessment for learning strategies well, students will be prepared to do well when it is time to do the assessment of learning. More importantly, they will come to know the lovingkindness of the Lord, and trust that with God, all things are possible—even acing that math test!

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Christian Education Snippets March 2021

Dear Colleagues, 

He was my soccer coach, my swimming coach, my mentor, role model, and most importantly, he was my Grade 6 teacher. I don’t think he was a Christian but then neither was I. He had a love for young people and a deep desire to impact them for the good! I was one of a group that used to hang onto every word he said. I can remember how I used to look forward to getting my end of term report from him simply because it mattered to me what he thought of me! His comments were incisive and invariably accurate – he seemed to know what we were thinking about and whether this was good for us in the long run – he was not afraid to call a spade a spade! My parents recognised the value of having someone like him in my life. If they threatened me with a visit to Mr.W. I would modify my behaviour quickly and do whatever it took to avoid the latter! Such is the power of a good mentor! 

A few years after Gateway Primary School started I was sitting in my office finishing off some things that I had to do before the next day, the secretaries had gone home and the school was quiet. I heard footprints coming towards my office, a head popped round the corner and there was Mr. W. as large as life! 

He happened to be in the area and had heard that I was the Headmaster of a new school and decided to see if he could catch me before I went home. We chatted together for a while catching up on the many years that had elapsed since our last meeting. He was about to leave the country for the UK. That was the last time I saw him. 

In my school days teachers of his calibre were rare, and to think that I just took his influence for granted! I wish I could see him again for five minutes to thank him for the impact that he had in my life! Is there a teacher in your life who has helped you to become the person that you are today – a Mr Fish or a Mrs Betani? Why don’t you write them a note or email them to thank them for being the people that they are/were and for being the positive influence that they have been in your life! 

If you are currently teaching in a school, pause and reflect on the positive impact you are having or should be having on the pupils you teach or coach. As Christian teachers we have a God-given opportunity to make a difference in these young lives, for eternity. Don’t let us waste one precious moment. As C.T. Studd said, ‘Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.’ 

K.M. Ricquebourg 

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Letter From The Chair January 2021

 15th January 2021 

Dear Christian Educators, 

Transformed leaders transform schools. This was an encouragement from a recent PSI training I did and it has challenged me to think what does a transformed leader look like? 

As we begin our new year, I am sure like me you had many plans and expectations both personally and for your school community and then lockdown and covid continues and we are thrown off our track. We have to rethink our plans. We need to relook at creative ideas to teach, learn, and build and encourage our community. Then as I ponder, what is Jesus asking of me, I am reminded that in Him all things were made, all Truth comes from Him, the source of all Truth and all creativity is God, and He tells us that when we lack wisdom we can ask and He gives generously without finding fault. In other words, I can go to God, not because I am worthy, but because He is faithful and wants to bless and use us, just like Jesus did with His disciples. 

So what do transformed leaders look like? The disciples! Jesus took ordinary men and did extraordinarily things through them. A few fishermen, a tax collector, a doubter, all became men on a mission for Christ. They met Jesus, followed Him, learnt from Him, saw His resurrection, knew His forgiveness and experienced His promise of the power of the Holy Spirit, and obeyed Christ’s call. That too can be our experience, right now, right where God has placed us, in our schools in Zimbabwe in 2021. 

Let us take courage from Jesus’ invitation – all who are weary come to Me. Let’s go to the author of ALL Truth, ask Him for new creative ways to teach our subjects, to build community, to make His name known. 

Many times in my capacity as a mother, a teacher, a nurse, a pastors wife, I have felt overwhelmed or felt I have needed creativity in my lessons, and as I have prayed and sought God’s presence I have found ideas and joy and excitement far beyond my own capacity. May this be your story too. Share with us how God gives you new and fresh ideas and ways to do things. We look forward to hearing from you! Learning is a lifelong gift. Let’s be good students, learning at the feet of Jesus, staying in His Word, relying on His grace and strength and as we learn, so we can be equipped to teach, and transform our schools as Christ transforms us. God is near. 

Blessings 

Sarah Cross 

Board Members: 

Sarah Cross (Chair), Caroline Chirume, Charmian Deysel, Tavonga Goto, George Faneti, Tungamurai Mashungu, Lenard Mudiwa, Daniel Pswarai, Kevin Ricquebourg, Mark Warhurst 

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Christian Education Snippets June 2020

Dear Colleagues, 

I wonder if you have ever been in a situation where you get bad news followed by worse news, much like Job experienced losing his livestock, servants, his children and then his health in quick succession! 

Of the “righteous man”, Psalm 112 has the following to say: “He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.” Easy to say or write but a very different matter to do

Jairus , the ruler of the synagogue has much to teach us when it comes to having faith in tough times! 

We read in Mark’s gospel that his daughter was sick to the point of death. Despite the cynicism and out-right hostility that many of his colleagues displayed towards Jesus, Jairus was amazed by this man who could calm storms, command evil spirits to leave people and heal diseases. Finding Jesus was no problem as His exploits were on the lips of everyone. When Jairus found Jesus returning from the region of the Gerasenes, He was, as usual, surrounded by a vast throng. Not put off by this, he ran to Jesus, fell on his knees and pleaded with Him. He cuts to the chase immediately – “My little daughter is dying. Please, put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live”. Despite the demands of the crowd with its press-ing needy people we read of Jesus’s response to Jairus: “So Jesus went with him.” 

What do we learn from this? 

Firstly, we do not get the impression that Jesus felt interrupted. Taking care of Jairus’s daughter was part of His agenda for that day. Growing the faith of Jairus was also part of that agenda, as we can see from the events which followed. A lady, who had been haemorrhaging for 12 years and who was at her wits end, touched his garment and immediately brought proceedings to a halt. With no sense of rush or urgen-cy, Jesus, gave His undivided attention to another individual! We can just imagine how Jairus must have felt at this stage. When he left his daughter she was almost dead. And now this delay would surely prove very costly to him. As if to confirm his feelings some men from his house arrived and told him, “Your daughter is dead, why bother the teacher anymore?” From a bad situation Jairus’s problem has just moved to worst-case scenario. His daughter had died! If we were reading the account for the first time we would probably feel the same – it’s too late to fix this! I find what happens next most instructive. The narrative, instead of switching to Jairus, keeps its focus on Jesus and what Jesus does in this clash be-tween light and darkness. “Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’” 

There is much bad news out there today, right now, inviting us to believe it. It’s on our phones, in the newspapers we read, on the lips of our friends, on countless screens – everywhere! And what is its mes-sage? It is simple. 

There is No Hope… No hope… No hope… No hope! 

What is the solution: IGNORE THESE MESSAGES! TAKE GOD’S WORD AT FACE VALUE! TRUST WHAT HE SAYS,“DON’T BE AFRAID; JUST BELIEVE” 

Scripture says that we are transformed “by the renewing of our minds.” This is so important we need to pause for a few moments and ask ourselves if the problems we have living in this country at this time in our history are because we have let them enter our minds and rob us of our peace?! 

The solution is to believe God’s Word instead of our feelings. We may feel very afraid or discouraged, but the truth is that God is with us and He is sovereign over the affairs of men, and He has told us not to be afraid. Which are we going to listen to – the feelings or the Word 

K.M. Ricquebourg 

ACSI Zimbabwe Coordinator