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School Principals Can Be Agents of Hope
Many Christians who work in the public school system believe God has called them there and equips them for their job.

When students clamour off the buses to enter Salmon Arm Secondary School, viceprincipal Shane Coutlee is holding the door open to greet them. Back when he first started this 8 a.m. ritual, students at the public school north of Kelowna, British Columbia, were wary. But persistence paid off and, now, two years later, students are initiating conversations with him.

Beverley Muir, principal of Humberwood Downs Public School in Toronto, focuses on character education. Each month she selects a character trait to promote, such as perseverance or forgiveness. This allows her to quote from the Bible and other religious texts. “I think this is one step toward humanitarianism within the school,” he says.

Coutlee originally wanted to be a lawyer to defend other aboriginals. Later he decided education would be a better field because he could “put lawyers out of business” by influencing students before they took the wrong path.

That’s exactly what Steve Sider at Redeemer University College believes Christian principals in the public system can achieve. Sider is director of teacher education at Redeemer in Ancaster, Ontario, overseeing a program that certifies teachers to work in public and Christian schools.

In a culture that tilts toward negativity, says Sider, Christian principals can be “agents of hope.”

Hope for a godly culture

If you scan newspaper headlines about schools, “hope” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. God was shoved aside and replaced by a secular world view in most public school boards many years ago, it seems. Canadians often hear school-related stories about family breakdown, rising levels of learning disabilities and the negative aspects of the Internet.

It’s easy to believe today’s schools are very dark places. But when Faith Today interviewed Christian principals from public schools across the nation, that is not the picture they painted.

Trevor Connor, former principal of Hammond Elementary School near Abbotsford, British Columbia, emphatically says, “I’m not a sky-is-falling kind of person when it comes to public schools.” Talking openly about Christ may be off limits for a principal at work, he explains, but “if you’re comfortable with what you believe, it pervades all that you do.”

Steve Sider believes Christian educational leaders in the public system have tremendous opportunities because traditional Christian principles and today’s educational goals intersect in the areas of justice and mercy.

“Anti-bullying, restorative justice, issues of inclusion – these are all educational focus areas today,” says Sider. “These are also Christian issues. Christ modelled how we interact with those on the margins. We should be leading, being proactive, not reactive.”

It’s that idea of serving those on the margins that drew Paul Carew, principal of Legacy Public School in Markham, Ontario, to the public system. In the Christian school system where he used to teach, principals can choose not to enrol students with behavioural or intellectual challenges. (Christian schools in most Canadian provinces receive partial or no government funding and operate somewhat independently.) The public system, though, must serve even the marginalized, something that appeals to Carew’s Salvation Army background.

Humberwood Downs Public School in northwestern Toronto is another school leading the charge to promote justice and mercy, with principal Beverley Muir at the helm. Named one of 40 “Schools on the Move” by the Ontario government’s Ministry of Education, Humberwood has achieved three consecutive years of increasing test scores.

These achievements are largely due, Muir believes, to the changes she brought to the culture of the school. She instituted mandatory uniforms and has launched single-gender classrooms for junior high.

Since these changes, suspensions have dropped.

Muir has also championed a focus on character education. Each month, she selects a character trait to promote, such as perseverance or forgiveness. Addressing such virtues sometimes includes quotations from religious texts including the Bible.

These character trait lessons are common among all the principals Faith Today interviewed.

Jill Horsman has acted as principal in two small aboriginal schools in British Columbia. At Tsi Deldel, a school of 50 students from kindergarten to Grade 10, she invited community leaders to a potluck dinner to brainstorm about what virtues they wanted her to promote to their children. Engaging the community in this way made its leaders her allies.

Local businesses agreed to redeem coupons students could earn at school by displaying the virtues. The whole community was engaged in promoting the very values Jesus lived out.

Hope to withstand attacks

While character education can be used in these positive ways, Focus on the Family Canada has warned it can also bring with it questionable teaching about sexuality. In 2004, Pinecrest Elementary School in rural southeastern Ontario hosted homosexual activists as part of an anti-bullying campaign. Pamphlets they carried invited students as young as 11 to a homosexual youth group, even without parental knowledge.

Above: Steve Sider says Christian principals can be “agents of hope”; Jill Horsman finds some of the most meaningful times to share her faith in Christ occur with parents; Shane Coutlee tries to influence students before they take the wrong path.

Although everyone presumably agrees bullying should be opposed and prevented, some parents worry that such youth groups may teach sexual values they oppose.

Karl Boehmer, who served as principal in a northern British Columbia school, recalls another instance when a community health nurse conducted a sexual health workshop for students Grade 5 and above.

Questions from the students became very explicit, involving issues of technique rather than health. Such incidents are becoming more common as provinces attempt to redefine family and sexuality, and envision schools leading the way.

But most of the principals Faith Today interviewed have no major objections. Trevor Connor in Abbotsford agrees the curriculum could be hijacked by secular teachers to argue against traditional Christian teaching on sexuality but he says nothing inherent in the curriculum demands that it be taught that way. It seems that when Christian principals lead, fears about misguided sexuality teaching haven’t materialized.

Antagonism from other educational professionals occasionally becomes an issue for some. Connor relates an experience of a principal who was raising money for wells in Africa through a Christian organization. The principal presented the project at the school district conference but the teachers union distributed a communication to its members warning against contributing to the cause because of its Christian nature.

Karl Boehmer from northern British Columbia left the public system and entered the Christian school system after enduring six years of antagonism from several staff members who wanted to remove God from the national anthem and Christmas from the calendar.

“People might think public schools are value-free” and tolerant of all faiths, but they’re not, says Boehmer. He now presides over Penticton Christian School where “you are free to lead children closer to God and not just try to make them behave well.”

Hope in Jesus

All the other principals Faith Today talked with have no desire to leave the public system. Some do find it frustrating that they can’t share their faith openly, but they rejoice in the more subtle opportunities they still have to introduce Jesus. Wander the hallways at Paul Carew’s school at Christmas and you’ll see display cases with representations of the Nativity alongside those of Hanukkah and Ramadan.

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“I would rather see them all there than none of them,” says Carew. Beverley Muir takes a similar approach. “There is nothing in the education act or in the union’s collective agreements that says we aren’t to honour all faiths,” she states. About 86 percent of her Toronto student body is East Indian, with the rest mostly of African heritage. Yet every year she or a student tells the stories of Christmas, Easter and Passover along with Ramadan, Diwali and Holi, the East Indian festival of spring over the public address system.

“They’re all acknowledged. They’re all affirmed. They’re all included.”

Jill Horsman finds some of the most meaningful times to share her faith in Christ occur with parents. Especially when talking with parents of special-needs children, the conversations often become dominated by issues and challenges too huge to handle. If the parents feel comfortable, she offers to include their children in her prayers.

Horsman also reaches out to her staff, developing such close relationships that she and her husband led a language instructor to become a Christian. That teacher now leads the school in an ecumenical prayer each morning. Though Horsman is not aboriginal herself, she has immersed herself in the community.

And as the community has felt accepted, so they also have embraced the children’s Bible clubs that she and her husband host at their home.

Not all Christians admire these principals’ dedication to the public system. Christian colleagues have exhorted Muir to “come out” of the system because they claim it doesn’t honour God.

She vehemently disagrees. “This is not a job for me, nor is it a profession – it’s a godly calling.” Just last year she was asked by a group of Muslim women to present the ten most significant things about the Christian faith. “Where else would I get such a wonderful opportunity?” she asks.

Muir sees herself as “a woman of hope and an educator of hope.” Steve Sider of Redeemer University College would agree. All of these principals are the bulwarks protecting students from the secularism of our age and providing an alternative message of hope. And they give Canadian Evangelicals hope that the next generation will be touched by Christ – if more follow their call into the public education sector.

Sheila Wray Gregoire is the author of How Big is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life. You can sign up for her free e-zine at

To Love, Honor, and Vacuum : When You Feel More Like a Maid Than a Wife and Mother 
A must read for any woman who finds herself too busy, too tired and too frustrated to enjoy and cherish the most important blessings in her life mainly her husband, her children and her Lord.

How Big Is Your Umbrella? 
In this down-to-earth, practical book, author Sheila Wray Gregoire takes readers on a journey through many of her own hurts. From a broken engagement to the loss of a child, Sheila is well equipped to teach others about God's faithfulness in tough times.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2008.




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