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Teaching at an Episcopal School: A Primer for Faculty and Staff

July 2014

When it comes to Episcopal schools, one size does not fit all. Like secular independent schools, each Episcopal school has its own culture and way of being. But amid their great variety, Episcopal schools share common characteristics and a set of core assumptions about human formation.

Episcopal Schools as “Independent” Schools

Regardless of corporate structure, most Episcopal schools operate in the independent school world.

At the same time, however, every Episcopal school exists in some relationship to the Episcopal Church. Parish, cathedral, seminary, and diocesan schools have a structured, corporate relationship to an Episcopal sponsoring organization, but all Episcopal schools, including those that are fully independent institutions, embody in various ways the values and theology of the Episcopal Church.

What does that look like? Here are four key characteristics of Episcopal schools that will help you to better identify and understand what makes your particular school “Episcopal.”

School Worship

Gathering for worship is fundamental to what it means to be a student or faculty member at an Episcopal school. A respite from the busyness of contemporary life, chapel is a time to gather for music, prayer, story, silence, and reflection. Its sacred purpose connects us to the awe, beauty, and mystery of the divine. It is a place of celebration at times of joy, a place for reflection and dialogue in times of difficulty, and the first place we turn in times of grief or crisis.

Chapel in Episcopal schools takes many forms, from the full liturgy of the Holy Eucharist to celebratory gatherings steeped in school tradition and informal gatherings of song, story, and prayer. Chapel can take place in a church, a cathedral, a school chapel, or a secular space used for sacred purpose. It might be held outside or inside and occur daily, weekly, or monthly.

Regardless of form or frequency, however, Episcopal school chapel is grounded in the rich liturgical life and practices of the Episcopal Church. Chapel explores Christian and universal moral values, celebrates our differences and our commonalities, and deepens our understanding of ourselves, one another, and God. Episcopal school chapel programs celebrate Christian feasts and holy days and, in various ways, honor the diversity within and among the world’s many faiths.

Teachers and students attend chapel together and each person is invited to participate. It is not uncommon for students, faculty, and staff of many faiths to serve as acolytes, readers, guest speakers, musicians, or to assist in planning chapel. You may have questions from time-to-time about chapel in general or about a particular chapel practice or service. This is only natural! Never hesitate to share your questions and chapel experiences with your school chaplain.

Community Life

Episcopal schools are places where relationships matter. The Rev. Barbara Talcott, Chaplain at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts once wrote: 

When Martin Luther King spoke of the ‘Beloved Community,’ he was speaking of a community where genuine sisterhood and brotherhood was the norm, where serving the community takes preference over serving the individual. This is, of course, a vision of a loving, egalitarian community straight out of Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God. The Bible gave the Rev. Dr. King his vision, just as it has given us educators in Episcopal schools ours.

At Episcopal schools we have a unique opportunity to build the ‘Beloved Community:’ to give our students and adults a taste of what a community can be at its best so that when we send them out into the world they will know, at the very least, that they need never settle for anything less. In Episcopal schools we have a unique opportunity to make that vision a reality, even if in the most intermittent and aspirational sense, and even as we face some formidable barriers to accomplishing it.

To teach and work in an Episcopal school, then, is to commit one’s self to creating and sustaining a school culture that advances the dignity of each person and promotes a genuine sense of belonging. Episcopal schools measure their excellence in large part by the quality of the lived daily relationships between and among all of the members of the school community—faculty, staff, students, and parents: how we speak with and care for one another, how we welcome newcomers, and how we honor each person as a child of God, even in moments of difficulty or disagreement.

The faculty and staff lead the way. As schools become more and more busy and technology replaces face-to-face interactions with students, parents, and colleagues, it is important to recommit ourselves to sustaining genuine relationships of care and connection. This always has been an enduring hallmark of an Episcopal school.

Religious Study and Spiritual Formation

In Episcopal schools, the study of religion is considered part of what it means to be an educated, culturally literate person. As schools that embody a Christian heritage, Episcopal schools continue to give the Bible a central place in the religious studies curriculum, not as indoctrination but as an invitation and as serious, scholarly study. Knowledge of biblical subjects provides powerful roots for understanding art, music, literature, and history. Equally important is the degree to which the Bible speaks to contemporary issues and conflicts.

A sophisticated understanding of the traditions of the world’s great religions is also part of a quality education. Responsible global citizenship, a goal found in the mission statements of so many of our schools, requires an understanding of the many modes of religious expression in the world today and an appreciation of the many ways religion has an impact—positively or negatively—in the shaping of world events, cultural attitudes, individual beliefs and practices, and religious conflict or cooperation.

Finally, education is, in and of itself, a moral enterprise. In Episcopal schools, study of religion includes an academic discussion of philosophy and ethics, including an opportunity for students to examine practical situations and think through their moral and ethical implications. By exploring moral issues, students begin to evaluate critically their own beliefs and biases, learn from the perspectives and experiences of others, and grapple with complexity.

Episcopal schools do not ask people to leave their religious identities and spiritual questions outside the schoolhouse. Rather, they embrace the study of religion as a way to deepen an understanding of self and others, one that offers all students the opportunity to explore ultimate questions of God, faith, and belief.

Service and Social Justice

The English word “charity” is derived from caritas, the Latin equivalent of the Greek agape. Agape can be found in the simple statement “God is love,” in the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, and in Jesus’ invocation to “love one another as I have loved you.” Agape and caritas embody Christ’s’ call to all humanity to become instruments of love, peace, healing, and reconciliation; to feed the hungry, free the oppressed, and tend to the afflicted.

This is why the call to serve has long been fundamental to an Episcopal education. Episcopal schools work hard to develop substantive, high-quality, and age-appropriate service-learning experiences that deepen students’ awareness of social issues and advance individual and collective action. Episcopal schools are doing exciting work in this area, from courses that blend social justice issues and social action to significant public-private partnerships either on campus or abroad, and sustained relationships with local, national, and global social-change initiatives.

As demands on students’ and teachers’ time increase, it can be difficult to agree on which service activities and programs will be given priority, resources, and time in the schedule. In Episcopal schools, these should not be "extras” or “add-ons” but integral to the school’s mission and program.

As stated by NAES, “Above all, Episcopal schools exist not merely to educate, but to demonstrate and proclaim the unique worth and beauty of all human beings as creations of a loving and empowering God,” guiding and challenging all students to “build lives of genuine meaning, purpose, and service in the world they will inherit.”

To teach or work in an Episcopal school is an opportunity to attend to the whole child: mind, heart, spirit. It is, in the end, a sacred calling.

Related Links

What are the principal qualities that distinguish a school as Episcopal?

NAES Principles of Good Practice

The Idea of an Episcopal School