I have a lot of books.

I mean… a LOT of books.  As a former classroom teacher (I’m still getting accustomed to saying “former”) I developed a religion curriculum and read somewhere close to 900 books in the process.  Often, I don’t remember the books I have read.  Sometimes I will read a book and get a few hundred pages in before I sit up and say, “Hey, I read this one before!”  It got to the point that I would highlight, underline, and annotate my own books so that I would not forget what I had read.

But other books stay with me.  One in particular that I enjoyed was “Sharpening the Sword” by Stephen Hower.  I read this book sometime around 2003 or 2004 while I just starting to find the wonderful world of leadership books.  One chapter in particular caught my attention; the chapter about tension.

Tension is something that we often avoid.  We do not like the feeling of being pulled in two directions.  Hower writes that tension is necessary in an organization.  Growth cannot happen if a board chairman has a board of yes-men (or women.)  Administrators can lead a school down the wrong path if they have a faculty that never asks questions or thinks critically.  Pastors can find themselves in trouble if church councils or elders sit passively and are not involved in decision-making.

Tension is quite evident in education today.  Consider:

  • National standards v. local control.  This debate has been discussed at length by many people far more intelligent than I, so I will not comment more, other than to say that it is important for people to read the standards before they form opinions.
  • Grading v. no-grades.  This may be a tension that you did not know existed. Grading has been the standard practice in education for… well, for as long as I know, anyway.  Mark Barnes and many others are advocating for teachers to throw out the grade book.  Their argument is–as was summed up at a recent conference I attended–“Grading kills the motivation to learn.”  Students do not actually LEARN material or competencies when they are obsessed with grades.  Instead, the higher-level thinking students quickly learn what they must do to get an “A” while most other students will simply do the bare minimum to pass… all without actually learning the material.  Most that I have run across in the “no grade” movement still believe in assessment, but believe that assessment should be (1) ongoing and informal and/or (2) should be authentic.
  • Similar (in some ways) is the tension between high-stakes assessment and everyone else.  We are all familiar with “high-stakes” tests that became very important in the wake of No Child Left Behind.  State-developed tests and testing agencies point out the importance of data-driven decisions (see below) informing instruction.  However, many different groups–from parent-led groups to teacher organizations–are calling for less assessment (or at least lower-stakes) and more instruction/time on task.

Two final tensions (though there are more out there) that are particularly important for Lutheran schools:

  • Teacher-focus v. student-focus.  In our Lutheran schools, we pride ourselves on having well-trained, expert teachers.  But is teaching about the teacher or about the student?  Is it about what I do–a performance art–or about what the students are doing?  How a person answers that question is foundational to how they view (1) what teachers should be doing in a class period; (2) what students should be doing in a class period; (3) policies and procedures, not only within a classroom but also school-wide; and (4) how assessment, remediation, and the role of extra-curricular activities are a part of student life.  The shift from teacher-focus to student-focus has faced some backlash from parents as well as teachers.

And then we get to our religion/catechesis.  By the very nature of the “subject matter,” Lutheran doctrine and theology must be “top-down.”  This is what we believe, teach, and confess.  There may be questions to explain it, but there is no debate over the primary fundamental articles of faith.  There is no “well, this is what Lutheran means to me…”  No.  And I understand that this may offend people.  We can still have student-centered learning and activities, but we must intentionally and deliberately frame that within the truth and authority of Scripture.

  • And that leads to the final “tension” I see often:  ministry v. data.  Education is increasingly relying on data to inform and guide instruction and administration.  This makes sense:  You want to do what works and you have to make decisions based upon the information you (should) collect.  But students are not just raw data points.  They are not test scores.  And so, there will be times when, for the sake of ministry, we make decisions that go against the data.  Maybe you accept a student into your school because the family needs to hear the Gospel.  Maybe you show grace to a student who recently had a loved one die.


Why do we fear tension?  Hopefully the topics I listed above stimulated you to some thoughts on the topics.  That does not happen without tension.

I think the answer is simple:  We fear unguided tension.  Tension with no goal in mind–with no direction–does not lead to growth, but to angst and discord.  If you keep the end in mind, tension is what will get you there.  Embrace it!  Promote it!  Ask for open feedback and have frank discussions!  Always keep the goal in mind so that–in the end–you have unity of vision.


2 thoughts on “Tension

  1. Very good points about all the tension that we daily encounter in tension. But you did forget to mention the tension that is associated with these books – mostly the tension that is involved in moving the books down the stairs and up the stairs and down more stairs. Then the tension in my back after moving those books…but if it helps you in the end, it is worth all of the tension. Let’s just not move the books for a while.


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