At Grace, we had accomplished most of what external markers say constitutes a “great school.” We had achieved high standardized test scores, and strong scores on our college entrance exams. We had earned exemplary accreditation and certification through ACSI and CESA. Our students were admitted into the colleges of their choice and, perhaps more importantly, flourishing once they got there.

Despite all these accomplishments, we felt unsettled, a lack of peace that we believed was the Holy Spirit’s prompting that, even though we were a Christian school, we were not teaching fully “Christianly.”

Our faculty, staff, and students all felt intense levels of academic-induced unhealthy stress beyond that normally associated with a good, rigorous school environment. Our teachers felt the press to rush through their curriculum. There was a continuous debate regarding homework load, how much was too much, and the feeling that students were being overworked with classwork that may or may not have been substantively effective. There was a heavy focus on pen-and-paper testing, fact-based, passive learning, less integration in the curriculum and less student collaboration in the work. School felt like something we were doing to our students, instead of with them.

Stressed out students were disconnecting, not participating in sports or fine arts out of fear of being unable to handle their academic load. Their relationships with each other suffered, because of not being able to spend time with each other. Year after year, parents would warn those behind them about how difficult freshman year would be, followed by the sophomore year, and so on. Key families would pull their kids from Grace, attending other schools, “because Grace is just too hard.”

As we prayerfully discerned what was happening to us, we summarized it as an overall lack of shalom– a sense of wholeness or completeness in our relationships with God, with each other, with creation, and with ourselves.  It would have been easy to stay on this course, convincing ourselves that all this is what “academically rigorous” schools are about. Schools everywhere do it all the time. But we were convicted that it would profit us nothing to gain a world of earthly success for the school if we lost our missional soul in the process. Our students could hardly be prepared to engage the world for Christ, when they had rarely truly been engaged in the classroom.

We then determined to move to a shalom-based learning environment- to regain shalom in our school. Our goal was to truly build disciples, and for student learning to be a form of discipleship in each student’s ongoing process of sanctification. We believed that we could do this without losing rigor, and if we did it well, we might actually increase it, yet it healthy ways.

We wanted to ensure we were pressing God’s Word into everything we do, the essence of biblical integration.  We set about looking for a partner, a way to think about redesigning curriculum and instruction that would help us more deeply integrate and restore shalom to our school. We discovered Teaching for Transformation, a biblically-centered approach to designing curriculum and instruction.

Teaching for Transformation (TfT) is a process by which the school and all its faculty designs the school curriculum and instruction according to the big story of Scripture: God’s creation of the world and of humans, the fall of human beings, their redemption through the work of Jesus Christ, Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and redemption through His Church, and the ultimate restoration of creation and making all things new. It is the lesson-by-lesson basis by which we teach Jesus.

Through TfT, every teacher articulates a deep hope for his or her class, an organizing aspiration for their course that drives everything they do in the classroom. TfT uses throughlines, or ways in which people image God or reflect His nature and character, as anchor points for every lesson throughout the K-12 curriculum. For example, students might engage in an art lesson through the “Beauty Creator” throughline, that God is a god who creates beauty and that humans do, too, as created in God’s image. Rather than passive learning strategies, lessons are designed to engage students to collaborate, participate, help plan and own the work in the classroom.

Students experience practical application through the learning process. Learning experiences are designed so that students actually engage and serve their local communities, making the connections between what they are learning and how God is using them to live for shalom by impacting and enriching the world around them.

This process requires deeper levels of engagement from students. It emphasizes that students teach, know, and are able to explain to their peers what they are learning, enabling more profound thought and learning. The TfT process promotes communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and practical designing, all of which are touted as “21st-century skills,” but which are necessary to be influential in any culture or era.

For our students, their work becomes not just about the grade, or the skill attained; they realize they actually can impact the world for Christ. Students do their work with a desire for excellence, because they realize that it has meaning and purpose, that it is for others. Because they see purpose and an opportunity to help others, students desire to learn more, developing a thirst for knowledge.

Our students’ greater desire for learning, deeper levels of learning and understanding, and the ability to articulate and apply what they’ve learned leads to greater content mastery, which, in turn, promotes better results on assessments (aka, higher test scores). Because learning happens at a deeper level, students will integrate what they learn into their lives, resulting in longer-lasting learning.  Because they will be better collaborators and critical thinkers, they will be better prepared for college.

Most importantly, they will be better prepared for life. TfT allows us to point everything back to God’s Word, His truth, our students’ identity in Christ, and their purpose as God’s people. Having a deep and profound understanding of these things helps restore shalom to our students and our community, and gives them a clearer vision of their calling. It is truly teaching Jesus.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.