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The Shepherd Teacher

Aug 6, 2023 | Kourtney Wright, WCA Curriculum Director & Teacher

I was thrilled to be invited back a second time to speak at the Association of Classical Christian Schools’ Repairing the Ruins national conference in June. My workshop, “The Shepherd Teacher: Gracious Classroom Management”, was aimed at equipping teachers to run their classrooms in a way that orients students to love what God loves. The purpose of Classical Christian Education is fundamentally different from progressive education, so it makes sense that the way we manage our classrooms should be fundamentally different, yet many teachers only know how to utilize behaviorism. Behaviorism reduces classroom management to control and compliance, while the shepherd teacher points students to God for rightly ordering their affections, which leads to true obedience. 

First, my workshop laid out the need for an alternative to behaviorism, which amplifies sin and produces only short-term superficial results. Next, I presented Shepherding as the alternative that allows changing students’ hearts, rather than their actions alone, to be the focus of classroom life. Finally, I broke down shepherd-led classroom management into relational components and practical components to help teachers apply it. 

In the relational components, teachers were exhorted to build meaningful relationships as the foundation of all classroom interactions. The reality that “The Teacher is the Curriculum” matters in classroom management because who we are and what we love is the lesson on display to our students each day. This requires the shepherd teacher to walk worthy in front of their students, committing themselves to continued spiritual growth. Following Christ should color our communication, our relationships with families and colleagues, and our reason for coming to work each day.

I highlighted the opportunities for shepherding individual students by helping them think through the heart attitudes that led to their actions. Our goal is to act as a mirror, revealing students’ hearts to help them see their own desires and behaviors through the lens of Scripture. While our goal is the changing of hearts, shepherd teachers recognize that we cannot do the work of the Holy Spirit; we merely create an environment that is ripe for the work of the Spirit. An authoritarian environment will quickly demolish hearts in an effort to destroy their sin. A behaviorist environment tries to remodel hearts, simply making the sin less visible and more palatable. Our aim is to patiently restore relationships that sin has damaged.

However, shepherding does not remove the need for rules or consequences, so I moved into the practical components. I shared the proper role of rules for protection, correction, and guidance in the shepherd classroom. Consequences are not withheld in shepherding, but they are also not used to earn forgiveness. The shepherd teacher has the option to use Grace, Justice, or Mercy in any situation. The only way to know which approach is correct is to know your students well and to pray. The boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. Justice will harden one child and soften another. Mercy will encourage one and make another apathetic. Grace will make one child wise and another a fool. Only a shepherd who knows what they are putting into the water will know what to expect coming out. 

A teacher who has not established clear expectations with their students cannot effectively use mercy or grace. Anything but justice will seem to condone the behavior if students do not recognize that there is a standard, and they have fallen short; this reflects our own struggles when we fall short of God’s standards. This led my talk to the importance of clear expectations, routines, and procedures. These may seem unconnected to the deeply relational work of shepherding, but they will either support or undermine the message. 

Throughout the workshop, I encouraged teachers to ask themselves to begin with the end in mind and continually ask the question, “How does my classroom management orient students to love what God loves?” This same question can serve us as parents if we substitute classroom management with discipline, rules, time management, etc. I told the teachers that students learn our priorities from our actions, not our words; they notice what comes first, what never gets missed in the schedule, and what idols of our own hearts cause us to sin. This same call applies to parents: our children know what we make time for, what we can always find money or energy to devote to, and which buttons they push that cause us to be less than gracious models of Christ. Just like the shepherd teacher, you, the shepherd parent must live worthy each day as your children study you to learn what a Christian parent looks like. 

Artwork: “Shepherd and Sheep” by Anton Mauve, Cincinnati Art Museum