Beth Green: It's a delight to be with Diane Stronks and Elco Vandergrift, both long friends of Cardus and EduDeo, two organizations that I care passionately about.
Now you've just retired from your respective roles, Diane in Ontario, where you were the executive director of Edifide, and Elco in Alberta where you were director of the Prairie Center for Christian Education. So, you could be forgiven for thinking now is the time to hang up your hats and take life quietly. But once a teacher, always a teacher, right? And I know the two of you just recently returned from some quite exotic travels. What are you up to these days, Elco?
Elco Vandergrift: Well, it's interesting you would say retirement. I never really thought I would retire. And when EduDeo made a connection with me regarding the Walking Together program, and mentioned that it would be a position shared with Diane, I said, "What a gift to be invited into this learning journey and to carry on in my work as a Christian educator," which has spanned 35 years. So, to move into a different phase is an incredible honour, and it's been a gift to be able to keep thinking about it, and engaging in it, and sharing with others in this journey.
Beth Green: Diane, tell us what the Walking Together program is about.
Diane Stronks: Sure. I just want to reiterate that being invited into working with Elco is exciting, having met him over the years and thinking what a delight it would be to work with him. Being invited into EduDeo, and to be thinking about teaching and learning at a global level, was really exciting. I had volunteered for years with EduDeo in the Dominican Republic working with the COCREF (Colegios Cristianos Reformados) schools, and thinking about taking that experience to other partners across the world, and then working with Elco on that to affect change was exciting.
Beth Green: EduDeo has a mission to transform communities through Christ and for Christ in education. It’s using education as one of the means to do that. What countries are they working in, and what countries are you visiting?
Elco Vandergrift: I'll begin with the Africa story, mostly because that's how Diane and I have split our work. Not that it's hard and fast. But in Africa, Zambia is one of the core partners. There are emerging partnerships happening in places like Rwanda and Ghana, there are even some conversations with Burkina Faso. Ethiopia is one where we have ongoing conversations. I won't get into the specifics, but there’s some interchange between EduDeo and all of these countries.
Beth Green: So getting to know those countries…
Elco Vandergrift: Yes, and discerning what a partnership might look like, allowing both sides to say, "Hey, can we serve each other somehow?"
Beth Green: Diane, you've been to Latin America?
DS: In Latin America, EduDeo works in the Dominican Republic, in Belize with the Presbyterian Christian schools, as well as in Haiti. That is an emerging partnership. And of course Nicaragua’s ACECEN schools. I think there are 100 schools there. I had the privilege a few weeks ago of traveling to Guatemala and exploring the possibility of an emerging partnership with AMC Guatemala.
BG: So exciting. Now, excellence is a really global buzzword, isn't it? It can make teachers roll their eyes. It can dominate their lives in unhelpful ways. It can stand as a bit elitist and boastful. But it can also be a really important force for change for the better. So, Diane, I'm wondering what you think educational excellence should look like in the classroom?
DS: That's a tough conversation to have, but I believe excellence is something we have to strive for. I think it's in Corinthians that we talk about, "in the most excellent way." I've always tried to think about excellence as a way of showing love. And that love is to care for students, to create really robust learning communities for them. That excellence would mean I have very high standards for my students, high expectations. But at the same time, creating ways for them to be successful. I think excellence also means that we are giving them the best that we can as educators. The idea is they would use that to then serve their communities, both here and afar.
BG: Thank you for that reminder about love: "Now I will show you the most excellent way."
Elco, I'm wondering what excellence looks like in the global settings that you visit. Particularly, I'm wondering whether you think there are any things we have to keep in mind when we talk about excellence in education in that majority world setting.
EV: I think the understanding of excellence has an awful lot to do with building spaces of trust and mutual understanding. We do not go to other countries to say: "Hey, here we are. We've got the answers." We go there and we share what I would call a unique vision for Christian education, which has a key identifier of love, and trust, and space. When you begin that dialogue, when you share some of this visionary work, excellence looks an awful lot like: "Hey, we are going to begin experimenting with this. Let‘s try some of these things." Excellence is identified by a willingness to experiment with it, and a willingness to say: "We are not sure that what you are telling us might work the way you think it might work for us."
So, excellence is building trust, it's building sort of an understanding that we represent this unique vision, but there is an incredible amount of room for dialogue and understanding.
BG: As you both know, at Cardus Education we've been working with Christian schools in Ontario to celebrate the excellence in teaching and learning that we see in our schools here in the province, and telling the story about that practice. EduDeo is joining us in that partnership with the John Rozema Teacher Excellence Awards. They're going to sponsor a new excellence award category this year that’s called Excellence in Global Perspective Teaching. It's going to be an individual award, which recognizes excellence in the integration of global perspectives in the classroom. And I think in particular what we'll be looking for is teaching and learning practice that integrates what we can learn from and offer to communities in other nations.
Can I ask each of you in turn to tell me a little bit about why you think global perspective matters so much for Ontario classrooms?
DS: It goes back to your first question, Beth. When we begin our lives, we start at home. We see our world as (comprising) our parents, and our communities, our cities, and our churches and so forth. As we go to school, we move into bigger communities. We have the opportunity to understand ourselves as Canadians, we see ourselves nationally. But I think that as we continue to grow, we start to see is that we also live in a global community. The challenge today is that the Christian community is far-flung.
I'm sure Elco could say the same, that it's been so interesting to try to understand the Gospel through the eyes of other brothers and sisters in the Lord in other settings, in other cultures, in other communities. Any teacher that is creating learning for students, for them to practice hospitality, wants them to see a bigger vision of who is in: not "in" in the sense of in and out, but who could be part of what it means to be in a Christian community. When we say we love our neighbour, who is that now?
EV: I think when it comes down to global perspectives, it builds on what Diane has said. The notion of love we talked about earlier needs to be built around understanding diversity. If there is not any exposure to diversity and differences, it makes it pretty easy for kids to develop this perspective that who we are, and what we do, is the only way to do it. And that worries me sometimes when educational programs are not built around that diverse understanding of the world our Lord has created for us to understand, and figure out collectively.
By not having a global perspective, not understanding diversity, it's pretty easy for us to get fixated on our way being the best way.
BG: Can you each tell one story of excellence in the classroom that you've encountered?
EV: I heard a story (about) when we actually began to discuss with our brothers and sisters in Zambia what we would call a restorative approach to discipline, it was really the first time this group of schools was thinking about a restorative approach. Most of what had been employed was what we would call fairly punitive, that is consequence related. At the end of a restorative practice, there is a healing process.
It became clear that in one story, and this is a school in Zambia where the headmaster for some odd reason was actually away for a week, and the deputy headmaster was mandated to look after the affairs of the school. A student had gotten into some level of misbehaving that I think was affecting the school community in a pretty huge way. The response was: "Well, we have to dismiss this student from the community."
When the headmaster returned to school and heard about it, he was quite moved by the fact that, no, we want to employ something different here. Through an entire process of revisiting what had happened, the student was welcomed back into the school community. I think there was a buzz within that community of Christian schools, a "guess what happened?” buzz. It was such a different approach.
BG: They found a way to exercise love.
DS: It's fascinating when you're visiting the majority world, and we have all these regulations. Health regulations, and travel regulations, and so forth. Some of those things just go by the wayside.
My story is about a school in Dominican Republic, where the grade eight teacher was trying to figure out a way to connect really good science to learning about disease and how things are spread. It happened there was an outbreak in the village of head lice.
So as a way to connect for the students, they decided that not only was the community blessing the Christian school, the Christian school was going to bless the community. So they set up these wash stations outside the school. Here were these grade eight students, washing the hair of the children, and probably adults, with the chemicals that would then take care of the head lice.
I talked to the teacher who had put that project into place about the connection to health and hygiene, and honouring God's body, and doing good for our neighbour. His comment to me was, "What was great to see is that the kids were so excited about the fact that they could give back, and that they had agency to do something that was kind of gross, and kind of something that people would've said 'Ooh.'" But he connected it back, if you can believe this, to the Biblical story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. And he said, "It wasn't the feet, it was the head, or the hair."
BG: I'm really excited to see what the first nominations for this award in Ontario will be like. I'm even more excited for the day when we will be able to celebrate and honour the excellence in the communities that you're encountering as part of this award. We'll work towards that.
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