Teaching Teachers Well: Professional Development at a Classical Christian School

One of the tools schools across the country utilize to equip their teachers is Professional Development. Those two words are sometimes dreaded in educator circles. Professional Development (PD) can evoke images of long, boring lectures set in front of endless power point slides. At Westminster Academy, the administration carefully plans and schedules the PD curriculum each year to help teachers enrich their classrooms and grow in their knowledge and appreciation of classical Christian education (CCE). 

Two of the questions Westminster hopes to answer with PD are, “What sets a classical Christian classroom apart from other Christian schools?” and “How are the teachers at a classical Christian school differently equipped to enrich their classrooms?” Mrs. Emily Newman, incoming Head of Grammar School and current Academic Dean, notes, “As a teacher, PD provides a renewed sense of purpose and focus on why we are unique at Westminster Academy. We intentionally offer training in the big picture of CCE and also provide training in specific areas of curriculum.  Teachers always have to be on guard against the temptation to only focus on the curriculum, the tests coming up, the assignments.  We are always looking to fine tune the nuts and bolts of the daily job of teaching for sure, but we must not forget our higher calling to teach our students to reason, discern and apply truth by way of scripture and the classical liberal arts.”  

To answer the first question, Westminster brought in two different experts with Mr. Mike McKenna and Dr. Jonathan Pennington in the fall and winter, respectively.
Mr. McKenna, from Mars Hill Academy, came for two days of observation and dialogue. His focus was on helping teachers develop and improve on their Socratic teaching methods. Dr. Callus said “Teachers have to know how to ask hard questions so that students can learn to ask questions and provide thoughtful Christian answers.” Socratic teaching is an integral part of helping students reason and discern Truth in a classical Christian classroom, and Mr. McKenna’s visit helped teachers focus on improving their methods.   

Dr. Pennington, author of Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life, spoke to faculty and staff during the winter in-service.  His lessons were interactive, engaging, and dug deep into the important idea that true human flourishing can only be achieved by living God’s way, in God’s world. 

“The process of education, like the rest of life, is fraught with bumps in the road, struggles, and sin,” said Mr. Janikowsky. “Yet the Lord uses all of this to accomplish His purposes. It is easy to lose sight of God’s purposes – shaping and molding the whole person for abundant Kingdom life.” This is truly what sets the classical Christian classroom apart from other educational models. The aim is to “shape and mold the whole person for abundant Kingdom life,” whether that be in pursuing an advanced degree, seeking a certification for skilled labor, or serving in the home and church. These speakers helped the Westminster faculty and staff re-focus on the big picture goals of classical Christian classrooms. Dr. Callis noted, “If our teachers know how to think and articulate their knowledge in winsome and clear ways, then those skills will be embodied and modeled for our students.”

To answer the second question, “How are the teachers at a classical Christian school differently equipped to enrich their classrooms?” Westminster administration honed in on some specific skill training to help teachers achieve excellence in their classroom teaching.

Deepening their understanding of mathematical fundamentals was one priority this year, so the Grammar School administration brought in Ms. Shelley DuBoise, an expert in Singapore Math and the author of Math In Focus. Ms. DuBoise has helped train Westminster staff on three different visits, and she will return to finalize the training in March of this year. Her enthusiasm for mathematics and specifically the pedagogy used by Singapore is contagious, and Westminster Grammar School teachers have, in turn, deepened their love and understanding of the methodology. 

On the grammar side of things, Westminster is bringing in the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) for PD at the end of the year. Teachers in 1st – 6th grades currently use this method to teach writing to students. Mrs. Newman said “This training will help teachers gain a better understanding of the instruction our students receive throughout their time at Westminster, and how to help new students who have not had this experience at other schools.”

Westminster Academy aims to nurture and grow the faculty and staff of the school throughout the year by utilizing PD. The varying focus on the big picture of classical Christian education and specialized classroom training keeps teachers engaged and, in turn, benefits the students by expanding the teachers’ knowledge base and appreciation for CCE. Mrs. Newman confirms “In classical education, teachers are the curriculum.  Our teachers must be armed with not only training in their craft but also given the opportunity to be reminded why classical Christian education is so important for their students.  Students get the benefit of a well trained teacher who isn’t just doing a job but fulfilling a higher calling in the classroom each day.”

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