My first experience in the world of Christian Deeper Learning was a conflicted one. Years later, my return to the site of that first experience was a delight. The difference was in the ways that Teaching for Transformation (TfT) had shifted things for me.
Consider the picture on the left, taken with my friend (and CDL Blog contributor) Matt Berka on the occasion of our first visit to Surrey Christian School outside Vancouver a number of years back (I’m the tall one who didn’t lose his lanyard both times). Our school (Southwest Christian High School in Chaska, MN) had recently begun its TfT journey. We were sent to attend a conference at Surrey Christian and soak up as much as we could from that school, home to Darryl DeBoer, the director and co-creator of that framework.
I spent those days at Surrey Christian feeling a bit overwhelmed by everything I was seeing. This was in part because my own teaching background was fairly traditional, and also perhaps because of some mild culture shock. There I was: a no-nonsense midwestern “sage on the stage,” walking through Surrey Christian School trying to figure out if all the student-directed learning that I was seeing, with its artistic emphasis and laid-back energy, was TfT in action, Canadian culture, or just the general vibe of the Pacific Northwest. Certainly I liked some of it, and I met some great people, but I also couldn’t shake the sense that maybe this just wasn’t for me. It was simply too different from what I knew how to do well.
In hindsight, it’s also clear that my own dysfunctional sense of having already “arrived” as a teacher caused me to feel uptight when faced with something that challenged my preconceptions.
I returned back home to Minnesota in a mild panic and reported to my boss that I wasn’t sure if this “TfT thing” was going to work for us (or, more specifically, for me). A few conversations with Darryl DeBoer and Tim Van Soelen at the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education persuaded us to continue on our TfT journey. We were encouraged that Southwest Christian shouldn’t try to mimic any other school; we were instead encouraged to discover what Teaching for Transformation might look like in our own school context when faithfully introduced to our culture and the skill set of our teachers. This message was empowering for us, so we carried on our journey.
Fast forward a few years to 2023. Because God has a sense of humor, I am now a Teaching for Transformation school designer. The culture of the TfT framework has soaked into Southwest Christian High School and my own classroom with profound results. Over these years, God led me through a number of personal and professional chapters that matured my understanding of my work as a history teacher and my role in empowering students to understand and live out their part in God’s story. I have been steadied by the ballast of these experiences and a deepened sense of my identity as an educator and a Christian. Significantly for my long-term health and growth, TfT also played a key role in loosening up my professional posture and receptivity to change.
Now go back and consider the photograph on the right. Matt and I got to return to Surrey Christian School this year for Christian Deeper Learning Conference. This time, my experience was joyful. The simplest explanation is God used the intervening years to shift my desires and priorities. Though at moments I still felt like a fish out of water, the different-ness I was struck by this time through was the difference in me. With delight, I admired the student leadership on display, appreciated the TfT Storyboards throughout the building, and marveled at the vision of God’s Kingdom that was so clearly alive in the school. I felt unified in purpose with the variety of educators I got to meet. In short, I was able to relax and not sweat the differences. I recognized that I might still be an odd fit with Surrey Christian in certain respects, but instead of that making me feel insecure, I felt wonder and curiosity. My body language in that second picture is more assured for a reason.
Parker Palmer once wrote, “Only in the heart searched and transformed by truth will new teaching techniques and strategies for institutional change find sure grounding.”1 His assertion explains what I experienced in the years between my visits to Surrey Christian School. The power of TfT is partly in the hope to transform our hearts as educators. What I get to do now is teaching from transformation.
(Also, yes, the hair in the first picture was an issue. Matt and I got it resolved. Thank you for your concern.)
Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983) p. 107-108