Religion Is a Student Retention Tool

Retaining students is a challenge. Finding people who value religion is becoming a challenge. Paradoxically, religion can be a great student retention tool.

In fact, it can be more valuable for attracting and retaining the unchurched than it is for the churched. If that is true, it is among a parochial school’s most valuable assets.

Religion is complex and multi-faceted. Therefore, the first step in making it a useful tool is to focus on a segment rather than the whole. Focusing on a segment allows one to specialize. Since religion is an integrated whole, it is impossible to ignore elements outside the focus area.

Perhaps an example will help make this concrete. Let us assume that the focus is character development. Religion and one’s faith life are central to their character. Therefore, religion becomes a tool for developing the character of the students.

Almost every parent wants his or her child to develop a strong and healthy character. Talking about being a character building institution is far less threatening to the unchurched. Of course, the only tool your school has for teaching character is its religious writings. It is unnecessary to preach the religion because each day in multiple classes the teachers will be using the religion to form the character of the child.

If character development is treated like math, there will be a curriculum, annual benchmarks for progress, and a graduation requirement. The annual benchmarks and the graduation requirement are important for retention. When the parents agree with the benchmarks, they are agreeing to keep the child in school for one more year. When the parents agree to the graduation requirements, they are agreeing to continuity of enrollment.

Implicit in the assumption is that you have limited the enrollment to those families who want what you want for their child. Without the commonality of purpose, it will be hard to be successful. In addition, the lack of commonality of purpose limits the potential that character development will actually increase enrollment.

Character development is only an example. In some communities, it is a great example. If the Christian school down the street is also a subscriber of ours, they may adopt it first. If so, you will want to find a different focal point. In other communities, service to others or leadership or respect for the planet might be more important.

The Place Of Religion In The Public Schools

We find ourselves once again in a presidential election year. Already (as of May 15, 2008), religion has become a hot button topic. It seems that even the Democrats have finally discovered that religion can help win campaigns. It can also cause a candidate to lose support. Certainly, the current flap over Sen. Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Wright, has clearly demonstrated the truth of that notion.

The Republican Party has a strong base of support in the Religious Right. Still, it often seems that religion and politics do indeed make strange bedfellows. Witness the Rev. John Hagee’s endorsement of Sen. McCain. Rev. Hagee has a long history of making rather silly remarks, such as God wiping out New Orleans through the agency of Hurricane Katrina for the city’s moral failings. Being a representative of the Republican base, Sen. McCain seemed to welcome Hagee’s endorsement, but awkwardly. He has been courting the Religious Right in a guarded manner, calling the U.S. a “Christian nation.” Yet, he seems eager to retain his “maverick image.” It is a difficult tightrope for McCain to walk. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out as we approach November.

One position taken by the Religious Right, and often supported by politicians seeking votes, is that we need to get God back into our schools. They have attempted to achieve this through many and varied approaches. These range from the tried and true to the deceptive and pseudo-scientific.

The tried and true involves making a place for religion in public schools by calling for school prayer. Never mind that anyone can pray any time s/he wants to pray. (I sent a little one “up” just now. Yep! Still works! Even in a busy coffee shop!) The problems of school prayer are myriad. Who would pray? What prayer would s/he pray? If a teacher reads a prayer because s/he is required to do so, but does not believe, does it count? Furthermore, what about Jewish children, Muslim children, and children of atheists or agnostics parents? Will they be subject to prayer, or at least a form of prayer they do not desire?

All of this has led to the “moment of silence.” An official moment of silence is a thinly veiled guise for a “moment for prayer.” Moreover, once again it begs the question: Can’t anyone pray any time? If that is not true and a moment of silence is required, surely a “moment of silence” must be a publicly sponsored “moment of prayer.”

Leaving that attempt behind, we move on to attempts to teach the Bible in school. “Nondenominational” groups of theologians and scholars have devised just such a curriculum. Curriculums designed by The Bible Literacy Project or the National Council on Bible Curriculum claims to be even-handed, nonsectarian, and concerned with teaching about the historical impact the Bible has had on American society. That might seem like a good idea. Still, one has to wonder when the most vocal supporters are conservative Christian groups such as Concerned Women for America. With that in view, it does seem to appear as something driven by a conservative religious agenda rather than a burning desire for young people to learn about U.S. cultural history. What will we say about the contributions of non-Christian religious groups to American society? For example, what about the growing Buddhist community in the U.S.? Shouldn’t they merit mention?

One much more “backdoor” way that the Religious Right have tried to influence public education is through the forced teaching of creationism. By any standard definition of science as an observation-based endeavor, “creation science” is hardly “real” science. Perhaps intelligent design fares better. The jury may still be out on that score. However, it is a fine line from design to God. From there, where does one go? Which god gets the honor of being the “intelligent designer?” Will the Christian Right be satisfied to leave it at simply proposing creation may exhibit some design? We must also face the issue of who will teach about creationism or intelligent design. Will a non-believer or someone who accepts a more classical position on evolution perform to the satisfaction of conservative Christians? That is the position that most of the science teachers I know hold (and I have trained pre-service teachers for about thirteen years and know plenty of examples).

All of this seems to smack of the evangelical conundrum. They must evangelize. It is part and parcel to the evangelical position. They must preach the gospel even to those who do not want to hear it. They cannot take “not interested” for an answer.

What then; is it best to completely avoid religion? That seems like an unwise choice in a society that claims to value a well-rounded education. Maybe we can take an example from others who have found a way through these choppy waters. Modesto, California sometimes referred to as the “Bible Belt of California,” a politically conservative area with a vocal evangelical presence has found a unique answer to the dilemma. This region of the country, like most other areas, has seen increasing diversity, including religious diversity. A group of teachers concerned with issues of tolerance developed a program on world religions in consultation with leaders of many faiths represented in the community. The course avoids the teaching of religion, by strict control of content that teaches about religion.

Students explore six religion units covering the main religions present in the region, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The course gives equal time to each faith’s influence, history, and basic beliefs. Teachers follow a scripted program and cannot share their own faith backgrounds. All classes use the same district created textbook and content. Students are free to share their own faith perspectives and ask questions.

Parents can opt out of the program. At the time when the program was described in Teaching Tolerance (Kilman, Fall 2007), only a handful of parents had prevented their children from participating. It seems that even in this conservative environment, it is apparent the world and our nation are changing. Research on the program reveals that the level of tolerance and understanding of other faiths increased. However, those children with strong religious convictions maintained their religious outlook.

In a world of increasing religious diversity, we can scarcely ignore religion. Recent events in our world make it apparent that ignoring differences is not the answer. Understanding is the key. Tax-funded evangelism has no place in public education. The Religious Right must not get its way. The U.S. is a diverse nation and diverse religious groups deserve respect. “Religious respect?” That is a curriculum we can truly live by.

4 Strategies to Become a Transformative Educator

When you are assigned a class and students arrive, do you view yourself as a teacher, instructor, or educator? Is your role a function, one which completes tasks and responsibilities, or do you aspire to accomplish more with your students? Do you consider the instructional strategies you use now to be transformative in some manner, or would you like to somehow transform the students you teach?

A person enters the field of education as a profession, either full-time in a traditional academic institution or as an adjunct (or part time) instructor. A traditional full-time professor may likely be responsible for conducting research, teaching, and publishing scholarly work. An adjunct instructor may teach in a community college, traditional college, or an online school. When someone teaches students within the field of higher education, he or she may be called a facilitator, instructor, or professor. This is important as you won’t find a job title with the word educator in it.

Does this mean that everyone who is a teacher, professor, instructor, faculty member, or adjunct, is also an educator? What I have learned through my work in higher education is that everyone who is in one of these roles is doing their best to teach and guide a learning process, whether they are involved in undergraduate or graduate degree courses. However, someone who considers themselves to be an educator is a person who goes beyond the role of teaching and seeks to lead a transformational learning process. I have learned myself that becoming an educator is not an automatic process. It takes time, practice, and dedication to become an engaging and transformative educator.

A Basic Definition of a Teacher

Teaching is generally associated with traditional, primary education. Classes at this level are teacher-led and children as students are taught what and how to learn. The teacher is the expert and directs the learning process. A teacher is someone highly trained and works to engage the minds of his or her students. This style of teacher-led instruction continues into higher education, specifically traditional college classrooms. The teacher still stands at the front and center of the class delivering information, and students are used to this format because of their experience in primary education. The instructor disseminates knowledge through a lecture, and students will study to pass the required examinations or complete other required learning activities.

Within higher education, teachers may be called instructors and they are hired as subject matter experts with advanced content or subject matter expertise. The job requirements usually include holding a specific number of degree hours in the subject being taught. Teachers may also be called professors in traditional universities, and those positions require a terminal degree with additional research requirements. For all of these roles, teaching is meant to signify someone who is guiding the learning process by directing, telling, and instructing students. The instructor or professor is in charge, and the students must comply and follow as directed.

Here is something to consider: If this is the essence of teaching, is there a difference between teaching and educating students? Is the role of a teacher the same as that of an educator?

Basic Definitions of an Educator

I would like for you to consider some basic definitions to begin with as a means of understanding the role of an educator. The word “education” refers to giving instruction; “educator” refers to the person who provides instruction and is someone skilled in teaching; and “teaching” is aligned with providing explanations. I have expanded upon these definitions so the word “educator” includes someone who is skilled with instruction, possesses highly developed academic skills, and holds both subject matter knowledge, along with knowledge of adult education principles.

• Skilled with Instruction: An educator is someone who should be skilled in the art of classroom instruction, knowing what instructional strategies are effective and the areas of facilitation that need further development.

An experienced educator develops methods which will bring course materials to life by adding relevant context and prompting students to learn through class discussions and other learning activities. Instruction also includes all of the interactions held with students, including all forms of communication, as every interaction provides an opportunity for teaching.

• Highly Developed Academic Skills: An educator must also have strong academic skills and at the top of that list are writing skills. This requires strong attention to detail on the part of the educator must include all forms of messages communicated. The ability to demonstrate strong academic skills is especially important for anyone who is teaching online classes as words represent the instructor.

The use of proper formatting guidelines, according to the style prescribed by the school, is also included in the list of critical academic skills. For example, many schools have implemented APA formatting guidelines as the standard for formatting papers and working with sources. An educator cannot adequately guide students and provide meaningful feedback if the writing style has not been mastered.

• Strong Knowledge Base: An educator needs to develop a knowledge base consisting of their subject matter expertise, as related to the course or courses they are teaching, along with knowledge of adult education principles. I know of many educators who have the required credit hours on their degree transcripts, yet they may not have extensive experience in the field they teach. This will still allow them to teach the course, provided they take time to read the required textbook or materials, and find methods of applying it to current practices within the field.

Many schools hire adjuncts with work experience as the primary criteria, rather than knowledge of adult learning principles. When I have worked with faculty who do have studied adult education theory, they generally acquired it through ongoing professional development. That was my goal when I decided on a major for my doctorate degree, to understand how adults learn so I could transform my role and become an educator.

4 Strategies to Become a Transformative Educator

I do not believe many instructors intentionally consider the need to make a transformation from working as an instructor to functioning as an educator. When someone is hired to teach a class, someone other than a traditional college professor, they often learn through practice and time what works well in the classroom. There will likely be classroom audits and recommendations made for ongoing professional development.

Gradually the typical instructor will become an educator as they seek out resources to help improve their teaching practices. However, I have worked with many adjunct online instructors who rely upon their subject matter expertise alone and do not believe there is a reason to grow as an educator.

For anyone who would like to become an engaging and transformative educator, there are strategies which can be can be implemented.

Strategy #1: Transform Through Development of Your Instructional Practice

While any educator can learn through time on the job, it is possible to become intentional about this growth. There are numerous online resources, publications, workshops, webinars, and professional groups which will allow you to learn new methods, strategies, and practices. There are also social media websites such as LinkedIn and Twitter which allow for the exchange of ideas and resources within a global community of educators.

You can also utilize self-reflection as a means of gauging your effectiveness. I have found that the best time to review my instructional practice occurs immediately after a class has concluded. That is a time when I can assess the strategies I have used and determine if those methods were effective. Even reviewing end of course student surveys may provide insight into the perspective of my students, whether or not every survey submitted was positive. Students tend to submit a survey response either when they are happy or greatly unhappy about the course. Either way, I can learn something about what my students have experienced during the class.

Strategy #2: Transform Through Development of Your Academic Skills

I know from my work with online faculty development this is an area of development many educators could use. However, it is often viewed as a low priority until it is noted in classroom audits. If an educator has weak academic writing skills, it will interfere with their ability to provide comprehensive feedback for students.

For online instructors, this has an even greater impact when posted messages contain errors with spelling, grammar, and formatting. The development of academic skills can be done through the use of online resources or workshops. Many online schools I have worked for offer faculty workshops and this is a valuable self-development resource.

Strategy #3: Transform Through Development of Your Subject Matter Expertise

Every educator has subject matter expertise they can draw upon. However, the challenge is keeping this knowledge current as you continue to teach for several years. The best advice I can offer is find resources which allow you to read and learn about current thinking, research, and best practices in your chosen field.

This is essential to your instructional practice as students can easily tell whether you appear to be current in your knowledge, or outdated and seemingly out of touch. Even the use of required textbooks or resources does not ensure that you are utilizing the most current information as knowledge evolves quickly in many fields.

Strategy #4: Transform Through Development of Your Knowledge of Adult Learning

The last step or strategy I can recommend is to gain knowledge about adult learning theories, principles, and practices. If you are not familiar with the basics there are concepts you can research and includes critical thinking, andragogy, self-directed learning, transformational learning, learning styles, motivation, and cognition.

My suggestion is to find and read online sources related to higher education and then find a subject that interests you to research further. I have found the more I read about topics I enjoy, the more I am cultivating my interest in ongoing professional development. What you will likely find is what you learn will have a positive influence on your work as an educator and this will enhance all areas of your instructional practice.

Working as an educator, or someone who is highly engaged in the process of helping students learn, starts with a commitment to make this a career rather than a job. I have developed a vision related to how I want to be involved in each class I teach and I recommend the same strategy for you. You may find it useful to develop teaching goals for your career and link your classroom performance to those goals. For example, do you want to complete the required facilitation tasks, or would you rather put in the additional time necessary to create nurturing class conditions?

After developing a vision and teaching goals, you can create a professional development plan to prompt your learning and growth in all of the areas I have addressed above. While this strategy may require an investment of time, it is helpful to remember that we always make time for whatever we believe is most important.

Being an educator is not sustaining a focus on job functions, rather it is cultivating a love of what you do and learning how to excel for the benefit of your students. Becoming an engaging and transformative educator occurs when you decide teaching students is only part of the learning process, and you work to transform who you are and how you function, while working and interacting with your students.

When you transform your teaching or faculty role and become an educator, regardless of your job title, you also transform the learning experience of your students. You provide for them the critical element necessary for real learning to occur, substantive instructor involvement and engagement. More importantly, you humanize the learning experience and you can help to nurture their developmental needs. Students will leave your class transformed in some manner, having learned something they can apply to their academic pursuits, life, and/or career. You will be transformed and so will your students.