In 2020, a qualitative school-based study coupled with my ongoing consulting efforts affirmed that, on the whole, long-time minority students at Christian schools grow in confidence that their teachers care for them but are increasingly hesitant sharing their struggles with them as they age. Ongoing qualitative investigation confirmed the trend and established that students feel that they cannot communicate the challenges of life as a minority to their beloved teachers because they are convinced it might disrupt the relationship. This phenomenon could have a variety of sources, but my desire is to offer a possible cause that is as widespread as the sentiment.
Christians schools go to great lengths to summarize characteristics of a growing believer in a succinct form of goals or principles that they intently instill in each student. This is a good thing because conventional wisdom is correct, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
The inherent challenge with imparting transcultural biblical values to others is the tendency to assume that a biblical principle is a property of the person’s culture who is imparting it—some have playfully called this “the cookie cutter.” This is particularly challenging when communicating and demonstrating these values to students from a myriad of cultural backgrounds.
The emergence of school wide–character qualities is relevant to my ongoing study in two ways: 1) a student’s home culture must manage struggles that are outside of the school’s dominant culture, and 2) their home culture might be prone to express biblical virtues in a contrasting manner.
Concerns Outside of the Cookie Cutter
As a student endures unique cultural challenges or struggles pertaining to racial brokenness, they feel as if their trials are not relevant to the portrayal of Christian faithfulness at school. Said differently, the absence of thought or encouragement in these areas gives the impression that these issues are irrelevant to the Christian life.
Today, society has forced students to think about life in a racialized world more than thirty years ago. The most attentive kid growing up in the 1990s may remember the Rodney King riots and the questions about race that loomed over the O. J. Simpson trial. The disparity with our current student’s experience could not be more stark. Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, today’s students have endured a string of Black deaths that made national news. Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice (2014), Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, the Charleston9 (2015), Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling (2016), and skipping to the most recent, infamously Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd (2020). It must not be forgotten that in 2012 current seventh graders were three years old, freshmen were five, and juniors were seven—these dynamics have marked their childhood.
This leaves an impact on all children, but especially on minority students. As youth grapple with images featured on social media, secular narratives attempting to make sense of violence, and the silence of Christian educators, students are left to wonder if their teachers are willing and able to “bear their burdens” in this way. Rather than risking a negative response, students remain quiet and grow distant. At worse, others may question the Christian faith’s ability to endure their trials at all. This dynamic causes some students to downplay aspects of themselves that do not cohere to the majority culture and maximize that which does. Over time, students feel as if they are veiling more of themselves from their teachers and feel less known despite their mutual affection.
Expression Outside of the Cookie Cutter
In addition to concerns outside of the norm, minority Christians feel accepted insofar as their faith is expressed in similar cultural trappings as the majority. Too often, students who worship in an environment outside of the school’s dominant culture may feel embarrassed at how their parents, family, and church express adoration to God. Because of the school’s daily impact in their life, some conclude that the school’s worship style is inherently more God-honoring than others. Within this dynamic, there is also a tendency to conclude that a certain vernacular/language is more appropriate for worship to God, and students can feel ashamed of the way that their faith tradition discusses their Christian faith.
For example, there must be space to be expressive and subdued in worship at your school. It is common for snickering to occur at Christian schools if someone’s hand is raised in worship or if a hardy “amen” is given when the Bible is being taught. Students who express their love for the Lord in an atypical manner bear the unique burden of choosing to worship God in ways they are accustomed with their family and local church at the risk of being marginalized at school. This ongoing tension ensures that students rarely forget their otherness. In essence, they are either choosing to be a chameleon (intentionally changing to fit in) or deciding to be an “odd-ball.”
In conclusion, while concerns and Christian expression outside of the cookie cutter does not account for the full scope of why minority students feel less confident to share their struggles with teachers they trust, it certainly offers initial explanatory power for this wide-spread phenomenon. In short, as students endure unique challenges and grow in their desire to express their faith, they would rather maintain strong relationships with their teachers than risk straining the relationship by operating outside of a school’s established Christian norms.
Dr. Strickland, Executive Director of UnifiEd, is an educator who hails from a long line of teachers. He has taken up the family trade as the Co-Founder & President of The Strickland Institute, Assistant Professor of Systematic and Contextual Theology at Southeastern Seminary, Assistant Research Fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre in Cambridge (UK). He holds a PhD in theology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. In addition to being a published author, he is a consultant, university lecturer, conference speaker, and itinerant minister. Dr. Strickland is married and has four children one of whom is awaiting them in glory.