School 360, Part 6: Pro Tips for Educators

With Head of School, Pastor, and Author Sam Kastensmidt

Sam served as a high school Bible teacher for five years. During that time, he absolutely fell in love with teaching and showing people the beauty of Christ in all the Scriptures. During a trip to Israel, he was invited to teach at several locations, including the Mount of Transfiguration, Caiaphas’ house, and the Gardens of En Gedi. Shortly after his trip, he was offered the role of Headmaster at Bethany Christian School, which he accepted.  Since that time, Sam has played a key role in ensuring that his students are surrounded by teachers who communicate love and expertise in the classroom.  Sam has a natural ability to lead teams, and get people excited about what the school community is doing.  It is a great honor to have him speak into how educators can make the most of the school year.  Here we go!

What are the best practices for teachers in regards to communicating with parents and students?

The most important practice for a teacher in regard to communicating with parents, is to make significant investments of love into the lives of their students AND their parents. During my time in education, I have learned that — more than anything else — a parent needs to know that their child is loved and secure in the learning environment. When we make “deposits” of love and encouragement into the life of a student (and take the time to rightly praise a student for his/her achievements), the foundations for future communication are laid. Only when the foundation of trust is secure can you begin to build upon it. If a teacher (or administrator) has made positive investments into the lives of the family, it is much easier to make the necessary “withdrawals” when difficult situations arise. Administrators would tell you that the most difficult relationships to patch between teachers and families are the ones in which a parent begins, "My child thinks that the teacher doesn’t like him.” The bonds of trust are paramount to effective communication, and the maxim that “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care” holds true with both students and parents. 
In Peter’s first epistle, he wrote, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” I have learned that this counsel is profoundly true. Love almost always produces a bank of good will, and it fuels a parent’s willingness and desire to give you the benefit of the doubt in your communications. 

Do you have any tips on how teachers can work together to enhance each other's curriculum?

Oddly enough, the greatest barrier to effective collaboration comes not from the lack of good ideas, but a lack of genuine humility and open-handedness to actually carry them out. It is crucial for a teacher to remain a life-long learner with a general conviction that there is ALWAYS room for growth.

As both a writer and a teacher, I can admit that it’s painful and even frightening to hand over my work (my babies) to an editor or a co-author. After all, I’m generally convinced that my ways are best. I’ve worked very hard to produce my curriculum. It is hard putting my labors on the altar and allowing anyone else to raise a knife to them. Critiques or even suggestions can often feel like attacks on our identities as “good” teachers. Yet, if I am truly more interested in improving my students’ learning experiences above satisfying my own ego, then I should crave outside perspectives. I should be eager to marry the strengths of my curriculum with the strengths of others. As teachers, it is imperative that we are constantly reevaluating our methods with open hands. 

Each year, I tell teachers to dump out all of the lesson plans in their “curriculum buckets.” With empty buckets, I then instruct them to search for the lessons that were most effective and engaging for the students and put them back in the bucket. For the lessons that flopped, leave them behind and search for better material, seeking input from colleagues and learning from best practices. 

We all have blind spots (logs in our academic eyes), but only humility can enable our hearts to receive counsel from others to remove the logs and to truly get excited about delivering the collaborative lessons with passion, as if they were our own babies.  

How can teachers create fresh and effective lesson plans?

Collaboration is certainly a great way to keep things fresh and effective. We should seek to learn from others around us. In my experience, passion is crucial to effective lessons. If a student senses that YOU are bored with the material, they will check out. But if you present the material in a passionate and fun manner, they will be caught up in your energy. Before I present a lesson, I try to imagine various ways to make things relevant and engaging. If I’m teaching about exponents, I want to show them how compound interest can transform tiny investments into million dollar nest eggs. If I’m teaching about government, I want to have the students forming a mock government with each of the roles necessary to pass legislation according to the lesson. If I’m teaching a scientific concept, I want to think of ways to demonstrate the properties in front of their eyes. If I’m teaching on parts of speech, I want to select a passage of literature that is funny or engaging. And if I am teaching Bible, I want to make sure that they sense that the Scriptures are supremely precious to me. 

In short, if you can’t get excited about your lesson plans, don’t expect your students to be excited, or even engaged.

How does a teacher move beyond teaching curriculum to being influential in the upbringing of their students?

This question separates good teachers from life-changing teachers. In my experience as a teacher, I have found that the greatest inroads into a student’s life are very rarely made through curriculum or lesson plans. And I say that as a former Bible teacher. When I first started my career as a teacher, my friend Duane Mellor (assistant pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church) issued a challenge to me. He said, “Sam, if you give me just one week with your students on a mission trip, I guarantee you that I will have a greater impact on their lives than you will have made after a full year teaching behind a podium.” In the past decade, I have learned that Duane was absolutely right! 

The most powerful and transformative moments in my teaching career have come in the situations that are not part of a teacher’s job description. They do not typically happen during lesson plans. It can be something as simple as sacrificing your own lunchtime to sit and have lunch with a struggling student. It can be as simple as attending a game and cheering for your students. More often than not, these transformative inroads come in the opportunities to build up our broken-hearted and insecure students — extending love and mercy in the midst of a student’s failures or loneliness. These relationships are forged when a teacher wisely shares aspects of his/her life, revealing stories of weakness and showing your scars. That sort of prudent vulnerability gives a student great freedom from the thought that they are alone in their anxieties and fears. Finally, students may not realize it, but they are excellent lie-detectors. They intuitively know whether you genuinely love them beyond the classroom, and it’s typically your sacrificial efforts outside of the classroom that can offer that assurance.  

Why is a school's mission statement so important?

Simply put, it offers guidelines and signposts to ensure that we “keep the main thing the main thing.” It is not only prescriptive for all that we do as a school, but it is restrictive to keep us from running into the weeds. 

How does a school get families on board the vision and mission of the school?

“The mission of Bethany Christian School is to educate, equip, and encourage our students to reach their God-given potential and to impact the world for God's glory through a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.” 

I have found that the most effective way to get families involved in the school’s mission is to spread the aroma of Christ. Even our unchurched or skeptical families recognize that there is something profoundly different about the nurturing, Christ-centered environment at Bethany. This, more than anything else, propels people to get involved and invested in the school. They grow to genuinely love the school, because they sense that they are genuinely loved by the school. That’s Bethany’s big secret, and — in my arrogant opinion — Bethany is second-to-none in fostering a healthy spiritual environment for our students and families. 

Beyond that, I think parents will naturally desire to be more involved when they see the fruit of what the school has done for their children — spiritually, socially, and academically. When school becomes a joyous part of their children’s lives, parents will want to be a part of that. 

And there are numerous ways to assist us in carrying out this mission: being diligent in prayer, volunteering for school functions, offering financial support, giving encouragement to teachers and staff, volunteering as a room mom (or dad), referring students for enrollment, building relationships with teachers and other parents in the school, applying for a role as substitute, and so much more.

What are your favorite tips for school administrators and faculty on creating harmony within the school community?

When I first began my career as Bethany’s Headmaster, the former Dean of Students (Dr. Dave Ingram) led a beautiful devotion for our faculty. During that time, he pointed out that the Bible calls upon us all to be priests to one another. We are to shepherd one another, encourage one another, uplift each other in prayer, and want the very best for each other — always pointing one another to the beauty of Christ and His work. As we seek to exalt Christ to each other, the pettiness of prideful squabbles is put into proper perspective. If the God of the universe would humble himself, be tortured, and die for me, then who am I to withhold mercy from others? As one theologian once wrote, Christians should be the most forgiving people in the world, because we are the most forgiven people in the world. And if this God then calls me to love others — as He has loved me — then I have no excuse for perpetuating conflict. And if I consider my squabbles in light of how much I have been loved and forgiven by God, the Spirit will crush my fleshly desire to perpetuate conflict with others. 

The most important element in overcoming existing disharmony in a school community is an unshakable belief in the Holy Spirit’s power to breathe resurrection into dead or wounded relationships. However, resurrection always requires a death. That means that you need to let your grudges die. You need to let your offenses die. Your hatred and envy and your need to be right all need to die before your relationship can be raised to new life. Often times, I am called to mediate in these squabbles. The greatest impediment to harmony is a firm belief that “he/she will never change, and therefore, I am shutting down to protect myself.” If you fear being emotionally abused, trust in the wisdom of Matthew 18. If the other person is unwilling to waver from their animosity, trust the administration (whom God has appointed for that situation) to step in and defend you. Do not jump into the mud pit with them.

When you're hiring, what do you look for in people?

Beyond general qualifications, the three non-negotiable qualities that I must find in an applicant for any position at Bethany are (1) a love for Jesus, (2) genuine humility, and (3) a passion for their calling. If a candidate possesses these qualities, I know that they will be less prone to conflict; I know they will be teachable; I know they will be driven self-starters; and they will be eager to find their chief joy and identities outside of the job. 

It may seem strange for a head of school to say that he does NOT want his teachers to find their chief source of identity or joy in teaching. But I absolutely mean that with all of my heart — for the sake of my teachers and for the sakes of their students. In the past four years, I have had countless encounters with teachers who are burnt out, discouraged, and severely exhausted. Teaching is unbelievably emotionally taxing. Often times, you feel like you’re wasting your efforts. When you’ve poured your whole heart and soul into loving a student, nothing is more crushing than receiving a total blindside from an upset parent. If your identity is wrapped up in teaching, this is utterly devastating. I’ve been at this for a decade, and I still feel crushed when an angry parent questions my heart. In Jeremiah 2, God rebukes the people of Israel—saying that they had committed two sins. Namely, they were relying on their own strength and neglecting His strength. God says that it was as though the Israelites were storing up all of their water in broken cisterns (big holes in the ground) that cannot hold water. And they were choosing to die from their lack of water, when there was a wonderfully plentiful wellspring of life in their midst. I don’t want teachers to look to their cisterns (curriculum, lessons, reputations, etc.) for life. I want them to drink deeply from the ever-flowing wellspring of life found in Christ alone. 

As I’ve said hundreds of times, the most important thing that a teacher has to offer students is her heart. And I know that their hearts will be best nourished when their identity and joy is found in Christ. 

Are there any resources you would recommend to parents?

First, I would encourage all parents to plug into a local church. Beyond that, there are countless wonderful resources for parenting. I really like the lectures and seminars provided by Bob Barnes. 

If there is one big takeaway for our readers, what would it be? 

Always keep Christ first in your life. Jesus promised, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all the other things will be added unto you.” When I can keep my eyes fixed on Jesus (and the wealth of his infinite attributes poured out for me), my perspective on the rest of life is always better. It makes me a better husband, a better dad, a better boss, a better friend, a better pastor, and a better man.