The Commons: Our Blog

Timely, sometimes tough, questions and insights from NAES and Episcopal school leaders on leadership, governance, Episcopal identity, community life, and other issues.

Reflecting on God’s Time

As a chaplain, part of my job is to be a calming and peaceful presence in the midst of the chaotic storm that sometimes accurately describes modern education. In my short time as a chaplain, I have learned that I have a responsibility to push back against the harmful societal norm that is “grind culture” and to advocate that we make room for kairos (“God’s time”) in our lives. This is much easier said than done, and I would be a liar if I said that I was an expert in this area, but it is my duty to strive to do this and to advocate for my students and my colleagues to do the same. Sometimes that means changing my lesson plans to reflect students’ desires to engage in contemplation with God. Sometimes that means saying “no” to the many “asks” that come my way. Sometimes that means choosing prayer over completing my to-do list. 

As members of Episcopal school communities, the Episcopal faith provides us with the opportunity to make sense of our world via our engagement with Scripture. As people who desire to follow Jesus, we are lucky that Jesus provides so many examples of how to push back against the grind culture of his day. Reflecting on the Gospel of Luke, I realized that Jesus provides a particularly poignant example of taking time to prioritize our own needs in the midst of important work:

Once while Jesus was standing beside the Lake of Gennesaret and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

Luke 5:1-3

This is such a rich passage, but the part that sticks out to me is the second verse in which Jesus puts some distance between himself and the crowd. When I offered a reflection on this passage for the middle school students in our weekly chapel service, I did a fill-in-the-emotion exercise with them with Jesus in the Gospel reading:

“First off, at this point in Jesus’s ministry, he is becoming kind of a big deal. We know this because the text tells us that ‘the crowd is pressing in on him to hear the word of God.’ If you have ever been to a concert or holiday shopping or a sports stadium you know that feeling of a crowd pressing something or someone. If you haven’t, it feels like something intense is about to happen and it can be exhilarating or terrifying by the second. From a ministry perspective, I imagine that Jesus is hyped that people want to hear about God or that they care about what he is saying—honestly from personal experience that is a pretty cool feeling (I’m not gonna lie). BUT it is also a heavy burden because he is probably feeling inadequate to handle this insurmountable task–that the weight of the crowd is on his shoulders to do a good job for God.

“So Jesus kind of puts some distance between him and the crowd–he still teaches them and does his job but he also takes care of himself. I love this image of Jesus setting a boundary with all the people who need something from him because it reminds me that setting boundaries is healthy. I don’t have to give my whole self to people, I can set the terms of engagement. That move from the crowd to the boat probably gave Jesus a feeling of relief, safety, comfort, and some breathing room. That moment of prioritizing self, helped Jesus to be a better community member and a better teacher. And because of this cleansing break or moment of self-care Jesus was then able to perform a miracle and to call three more disciples (Simon Peter, John, and James).”

Not only did Jesus give himself a break, he called three more disciples into the work that he was doing. Here Jesus also shares the burden of ministry with his new followers. This is such a powerful image for all of us as we enter into a new school year. As the world and our schools are entering a post-pandemic era, we are faced with so many choices about how to carve out a return to ‘normalcy,’ but I believe that we cannot return to the world of pre-pandemic, nor should we try. We have all experienced the trauma of a global pandemic and we should be changed. Instead, we should focus on what we have learned about ourselves and the world around us, as a means to inform how we proceed. 

It is imperative that I am intentional and consistent about the choices that I make. For some of my students, I am one of the only ‘religious’ people in their life and I am an example of faith to them in all that I do—good or bad. For some of my colleagues, I am the first chaplain that they have worked alongside, and my “no” might empower them to say “no.” These are the burdensome privileges of chaplaincy: visibility and accountability. This is true of all educators who are given the opportunity to journey with young people in our schools. How we care for ourselves and whether or not we prioritize our faith matters. In the post-pandemic world, we have an opportunity to enter this time influenced by our pandemic experiences.

My takeaway from my first year of chaplaincy is that sometimes following Jesus means taking a break and encouraging others to do the same. So if Jesus’s example in the passage is not enough for you, please cite a new chaplain’s “wisdom” as your permission to say “no” to grind culture and “yes” to kairos.

Allison Harmon is Middle School Chaplain at St. James Academy in Monkton, MD.

Creating a Culture of Inquiry

“You have a question about our math program? We have a curriculum coordinator for that! Diversity in our curriculum? We have a curriculum coordinator for that! What’s an Episcopal school? Talk to the curriculum coordinator!” Four years ago, when I took the position of the first Curriculum Coordinator at St. Matthew’s Parish School, the job felt a bit like remodeling a house. There was a strong foundation as an Episcopal school and, like an old New England farmhouse, additions that had been incorporated over the years. But the rooms and additions were actually different parts of the curriculum, and my job was to examine the structure as a whole and build hallways to make connections and identify priorities for construction. Shortly after I started, St. Matthew’s began a strategic planning process that involved various constituent groups. What emerged from all of the observation, reading, and discussion was unanimity that we were a school fiercely committed to doing intentional work to develop good young people, but were less clear about our academic identity: Who were we academically, and how did certain themes connect our programs? Read More »

Noses In, Fingers Out

Heads of school will recognize immediately the goal of that first meeting: good governance. I think the three biggest areas of concern for schools coming out of the pandemic are student health, faculty retention, and governance. You probably have experienced a critical moment in at least one of those areas. The fast-paced, prolonged, and unpredictable disruption to our schools created existential demands about enrollment and operations. By necessity, the crisis required trustees to work nimbly with heads and administrators in an area of decision-making formerly marked by a clear separation of roles. Many schools may be discovering now that good governance is threatened when the Board or individual trustees linger in that place where they enjoyed being tactical instead of strategic. Coming out of the pandemic, therefore, is an excellent time to review good governance. Read More »

A Fresh Start

I love the start of a new school year! It is invigorating and exciting for me. I remember as a child my excitement about the first day of school. I’d ask myself who was my new teacher? Who was... Read More »

Inquiry as a Core Value

I received a letter the other day—an actual paper letter in an envelope with a stamp and a handwritten address—from a grandparent. The letter was what is becoming a familiar form these days, a rant: multiple, detailed paragraphs not based on firsthand knowledge or fact, just a simple rant. As these things do—as was intended—it upset me, it got under my skin. The writer is an Episcopal priest, his grandchildren attend my school, an Episcopal School, yet, he claimed, they knew nothing about Christian holidays or practices: “my grandchildren can tell me about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, the Celebration of Light, they know ‘jack’ about Christmas.” Read More »

Connections Between Chapel, Spirituality, and the Classroom

This is a quote from one 8th-grade boy who offered a homily on “Art and Spirituality” in our middle school chapel. Art has been a way for him to discover the gifts that God has endowed him with and to understand his relationship to God. This connection between spirituality and education is at the heart of Dr. Lisa Miller’s work at the Collaborative for Spirituality in Education based at Columbia Teachers College. Her research has encouraged me to find more ways to bring out the spiritual and religious dimensions of our students. One way in which we have done this at Campbell Hall is through our chapel program, where we are helping our students make connections between the subjects that interest them and their spiritual life. Read More »

God Makes Queer People, and It Is Good

Inspired by the NAES Statement on Inclusion and Episcopal Identity, I would like to describe our school’s vision of how Episcopal schools can play a unique and powerful role in the area of gender inclusivity. Many secular and Christian schools get this one wrong, so Episcopal schools are poised to play a crucial leadership role. Read More »

Thriving Through Interdependence

After we closed our school in March 2020, I did not return to my office in person until late April. After weeks of reinventing school as we know it and bringing a virtual platform to life from my kitchen, I was ready to go to my office to see if my plants were still alive and check in on our building. It was strange and sad to walk through the halls with no children and faculty in place. When in session, our school is normally bubbling with the sounds of joyful students from ages 3 to 11. The now eerie quiet added to my growing melancholy and malaise, feelings that were defining my early days and weeks of the Covid pandemic. After all, children are central to the work we do in leading our schools; in this new context, I was leading our community without their presence to guide me, and it left me hollow and searching. Read More »

Life Has Never Been Normal

I began teaching in the Fall of 2001. I was a 23-year-old graduate student, and with just about a week of training, I was thrown into a freshman English classroom to teach college writing to students not much younger than I was. So I had only been teaching a couple of weeks when the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded. Read More »

Where the Magic Happens!

When last school year commenced, I felt an unusually big relief. At that time it seemed as if we were getting ahead of the COVID 19 pandemic. Most of our school personnel had been vaccinated and many other states were following suit. I assumed that I would walk into the new school year with COVID in the rearview mirror. Read More »