‘Professionalism’ In Faith-Based Schools: A Brief Primer

Mar 5, 2019

When I ask small groups of teachers in faith-based schools why they teach “here and not elsewhere,” invariably someone says, “Because God called me here.” Often, more than one person in the same interview will claim divine direction as their fundamental motivation.

Erik Ellefsen, a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE), asks good questions. During our last conversation on his podcast, he asked me about the impact of professionalization on faith-based school culture and leadership:

“Schools are changing,” he said. “They used to be more community-based, but they’re becoming more professionalized… Boards are changing; the demands on boards are changing… If so, how does that impact a leader or head of school building and guiding their board differently than maybe ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, or maybe even when some of these schools were founded?”

Considering Erik’s question over the past few months and watching leaders work together in that context, a combination of ideas on school leadership have occurred to me that inform both the question and my answer.

To start with, teaching and school leadership have always been considered “professions,” but in faith-based environments, especially, working in schools has traditionally been equated with a “calling” to a form of spiritual ministry.

While the number of non-sectarian private schools is on the rise nationally, a huge majority of private schools were founded as educational advocates for distinct religious traditions. (In Texas, for example, more than 80% of private schools are faith-based.)

Christian denominations like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), one of the largest parochial systems in the U.S., still maintain what they refer to as a “call system.” Pastors of churches and teachers in LCMS schools are qualified by the Synod and recruited to serve through very similar processes. Being hired to teach fourth grade in many LCMS schools today, for instance, is equivalent to being called to youth or adult ministry in a church congregation.

Of course, the most prominent examples of the teaching as ministry concept are the Catholic orders, whose brothers and sisters are ordained individuals who constituted the bulk of American Catholic school faculty and administrative positions for at least one hundred years, up through the end of the twentieth century.

Blending the identity of teachers with spiritual vocation distinguished notions of educational professionalism from what were commonly considered “secular” professions. On the one hand, the blend socially elevated teaching in and leading schools above professions that focus primarily on commerce. There was (and still is in many sectors) a sort of vocational hierarchy in which a calling to teach is considered spiritually superior to the competent practice of law or accounting, exemplified by common statements like, “No one goes into teaching to get rich.”

In this economy, educators primarily rely on the non-commercial, spiritual value of their work to dignify their profession. Schools and the families they serve, rely on the educators’ sincere commitments to their calling to ensure that the teaching and leading meet the highest standards. And it worked pretty well until both of these notions came under scrutiny.

Two things happened at once over recent generations. First, in a secular-trending society, the social value of spiritual vocations diminished. Teachers in faith-based schools, while admired for their commitments to students’ needs and generally recognized for the difficulty of their work, are also often pitied, and even socially disregarded, because of their earning capacity.

This shows up in numerous ways, but two stand out. Increasingly, private school teachers work within environments that are dominated by high-income families. This has always been the case in some respects, but income inequality and the defection of middle class families from private schools has made the gap between a teachers’ lifestyle and those of her students that much more pronounced. The financial privilege (including five-figure tuition) lavished on a typical private school student can easily exceed a teacher’s annual salary.

More generally, teachers are among a class of workers whose incomes have not kept pace with costs of living. According to an NCES study, public school teachers (who typically make more than private school teachers) are five times more likely than other full-time workers to have a second job. Added to that, the notion that teaching is a “part-time” job—rather than an intense full-time occupation that requires an annual sabbatical (summers “off”) to stay fresh and competent—is seemingly widely held.

The juxtaposition between the educational service-provider and the customer (private school families and their students) has never been more stark. Meanwhile, client expectations for highly individualized service, time-consuming attentiveness, and top-tier academic and athletic outcomes are greater than ever.

Which brings us to the second evolution. As demands on schools grow, and as the cost of a highly regarded education rises, many faith-based schools find themselves susceptible to criticism for a lack of quality. In some instances, the criticism is well founded and can be caused by the private school’s over-reliance on the traditional, spiritually oriented professionalism.

While American parochial schools have longstanding and distinguished educational traditions, the connotation of the word—parochial—has morphed to mean small-minded and less than relevant. The negative flip side of an educator’s motivation to serve a calling can be that the calling itself becomes protection against demands for professional improvement, or even basic competence.

In the State of New York, new curriculum regulations were issued in December 2018 for all private schools, largely in response to complaints from ultra-orthodox Jewish high school graduates of Yeshivas that allegedly failed to teach them basic subject matter. As uncommon as examples like these might be, they nonetheless serve to erode the public’s sense that faith-based schools value conventional professional conduct.

So, to circle back to Erik’s question about the impact of professionalization on school leadership, a legitimate answer requires some historical context. It may be that rather than professionalism being introduced anew into faith-based schools, the definitions are changing. And as I will explore in the next posting, the new definitions may not be adequate for, nor relevant to, a school’s complex mission.

That said, how schools respond to the challenge will have much to do with the confidence with which parents entrust their children to our care.