Equipping and transforming. Those are two words central in the minds of Hamilton Christian School principal Shaun Brooker and his staff as they begin each day in Christian education.
A principal with a reputation for having fun, Shaun sits down for a chat about how God led him into education, his desire to always point students towards Christ and his love of rugby.
So, this isn’t your first job in education is it Shaun?
No, it’s not. I began my educational leadership journey in the Cayman Islands, where I was the head of an elementary department of an international school. We were there for three years. I’ve also been principal at a Christian school in Timaru and before I came to Hamilton, I was head of the junior campus at Auckland’s Elim Christian College.
You have a reputation as a fun-loving principal. I’ve heard that you travel to and from school on an electric skateboard?
In the summer months, yes. I enjoy the freedom. We live close to school so it’s nice to have something that gives you an opportunity to unpack each day on the way home. It allows me to separate the two zones of being Dad and husband at home and principal at school.
Ok, tell us about your journey with Jesus…
I was raised in a Christian home – I’m so grateful for that. When I think of my testimony, I think of the parable of the talents. I still have lots of areas to learn and grow in, but in my weaknesses He is strong.
When I was at school, I was top of accounting and maths, but I failed miserably in english, especially when it came to things like speeches and writing. It’s really interesting to me that as I’ve handed those areas that I perceive as my weaker aspects over to God, He takes them and uses them.
I love the institution of school, but, ultimately, it doesn’t define you. I keep coming back to the fact my journey is in His strength, not mine. God took me in a completely different direction to where the careers adviser thought I should have gone.
These days I get asked to speak at conferences here and abroad and I have lots of opportunities to write. I do find it funny that no one has wanted me for my accounting skills though!
Speaking of fun, you and your staff team bring a lot of that enjoyment to your approach to Christian education don’t you?
I think we sometimes take life too seriously. I love John 10:10 where Jesus says “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.”
The Pharisees had a kind of “if this, then that” kind of approach to life. It was so much about the law that it took their focus off Christ.
I believe that as a school we can’t accurately role model to students what a focus on Christ looks like if we are completely law bound and not in at least some senses relational and fun-loving. We need to love life and enjoy being here. Laughing together is just such a good medicine for the stresses that happen too. It builds relationships because people are drawn to it. A life following Christ is not a life of oppression. We want our students to know that as staff we’re here to walk alongside them to help them become more Christ-like and to understand that Christianity is a relationship in which we grow out of our desire to become more like Him.
In our digging around we found out that you’re an Apple distinguished educator. What’s that?
Apple has world-wide representatives who are recognised as using technology effectively to add value to the learning environment. When others look to utilise technology within their context in a similar way, those representatives can help them do so meaningfully. I’d say the use of technology as an educational tool is one of several areas I’m really passionate about – the others of course being education and, specifically, Christian education.
What would be your advice to parents who want to ensure their children use technology in an effective and safe way as part of their education?
Get to know your children’s device. Both Apple and Google have built some incredible tools into devices these days – and these enable parents to have control of the technology. Parents with particularly young children should maintain ownership of the device and not give their children their own iPad for school. It keeps that element of it being ‘mum and dad’s device that I’m allowed to use’. It’s a topic I’ve actually written a book about. It’s also about everything being in moderation and balance.
Here’s a big one – how would you summarise the value of Christian education, particularly in today’s society?
It’s huge. If you break Christian education down, it’s the ability to both educate and equip a child for the future and transform them for Kingdom good. Christian education is so much more than education with a side dish of Jesus. It’s a complete approach, understanding the world around us and the way God designed it through Christ’s eyes.
John Hull wrote a paper essentially titled “Aiming For Christian Education, Settling For Christians Educating”. Along those lines, as a staff team here at school, we’re constantly challenging ourselves and asking, “is the only point of difference for us as a Christian school that we get together and pray and have devotions? But then does the rest of our programme look just like the school down the road?” Because it absolutely shouldn’t just be that – we should in fact be markedly different in many ways.
What about Christian families with children in the public school sector?
I can only speak to my experience. I’m working in Christian education – and my own children are in Christian education – because I see the opportunity that exists for children to transform their world around them from a Christian viewpoint.
There are many reasons why Christian parents have their children in secular school. It can be because they want a different sporting opportunity, perhaps a perception of stronger academic outcomes at a secular school, or sometimes it’s simply that people struggle to afford it. In some cases, there genuinely is a lack of Christian education providers in their neighbourhood.
I think we should simply count our blessings in that it’s amazing that we even have the opportunity to send our children to Christian schools around New Zealand which will focus not only on academics in isolation, but authentic, holistic and transformational education.
What about homeschooling? Don’t you have some home schooling children involved in sports teams at your school?
In a similar sense to above, there are a lot of reasons why parents would choose Christian homeschooling as the best option for their individual situation. From our perspective, one of the things we see as a gap in that system is the sporting opportunities. Ultimately, we don’t exist to build a kingdom, we’re here to build THE Kingdom. So, for those Christian homeschooling families who don’t have the opportunity to send their children to a sports team, we are happy to help. It’s been a win-win over the years. They’ve strengthened our teams and it’s meant the school has had teams where we might not have otherwise had them.
Speaking of sport, we know you’re a bit of a rugby fan. Are you still playing?
I’ve been in 1st XV sides from an early age and I’ve continued to play right up until earlier this year when I was injured after being destroyed in a tackle.
My whole world is Christian – a Christian school, a Christian family, Christian trusts, a Christian church. I love that, but as well as the camaraderie, I also think rugby has been a great way for me to be salt and light.
St. Francis of Assisi said, “preach the gospel at all times – and if you must, use words.” I love that sentiment – making a difference for Christ wherever we are.
I also love my own kids being able to see me model things that I want them to do themselves, like being active and playing hard. Because I play No 8 though, I’m always getting in trouble with opposing teams.
We love your blog – www.christianeducation.org.nz – how did that come about?
I completed my masters about a decade ago. In that process I quite enjoyed being able to articulate myself through writing. Since then I’ve challenged myself to continue doing it and it’s been a vehicle for me to better express my thinking.
My blog brings a Christian view to a wide range of topics and it’s not that everyone even agrees with everything, but it causes them to think. It’s my ultimate hope that whatever I share strengthens people’s faith. As I mentioned, I failed English, so I do find it hilarious that these days publications – both here in New Zealand and overseas – often contact me wanting to use my material.
Can you tell us about your role with the New Zealand Association For Christian Schools?
I am the association’s current chairman – it’s a huge honour. I genuinely believe Christian education can bring hope to the next generation. These days there seems to be a whole generation of people who have removed themselves from church. And this new wave of people are saying “I don’t want to go to church, but I want my children to grow up with the values I learnt at church”. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why they’d like to send their children to a Christian school.
Our biggest waitlist is actually non-Christian families wanting to come to our school. I have to say though that while school growth is encouraging, having a waiting list is disheartening. I don’t think a Christian school should ever take the place of the church. Jesus – and in fact Paul as well – are very clear around the purpose of meeting together.
But I think it’s a fantastic thing that we have Christian education – hopefully what that does is rejuvenate the church. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if after we positively impact children’s thinking they leave looking for church? And we do see a good number of children from those families become Christians through the process of being at school here.
So, you see your role at Hamilton Christian School as more of a calling than a career?
I have deeply reflected on the fact that God doesn’t necessarily call us to a place, He first calls us first to a purpose. I believe He made it abundantly clear – through opening a series of doors – that coming to HCS was the right thing because I would grow. The motivation coming here was simply one of me wanting to be obedient to where I felt He was leading our family.
And you get to speak at conferences too. Do you enjoy that?
Yes – and it amazes me that God chooses to use me in that way, both here and overseas. I am blessed to be able to take opportunities that God presents to grow me. I love the saying “the quality of your yes is determined by the quantity of your no”. Keeping that in mind really helps when it comes to balancing all the opportunities I get approached with. I also seriously can’t underestimate the value of my amazing wife. We have four kids – aged 13, 11, nine and seven, and she is happy to stay at home with them whenever I go away to speak. Having someone like her in my life who believes in me and challenges me to always keep moving forward in Christ is a huge blessing.
How would you encourage parents – perhaps fathers in particular – in terms of supporting their children in their Christian education?
At school we do a lot of work looking at resilience. We have about 450 students on our roll. A couple of hundred of them are teenagers and we continually seek out what we can do to help them be strong in their character going forward.
From resilience research, we’ve developed what we call our “VIPS”.
These mean that we aim to help every child understand that they – and everyone around them – have value, we are all created in His image.
Secondly, they have an identity – God created them unique, with their own set of skills and giftings.
Then, we reinforce that we all have a purpose.
Strength is our last one – that they can do immeasurably more for His kingdom through His strength than they can through their own strength.
When we think about the VIP framework, I would offer encouragement to parents around how important it is that you remind your children that they have a unique identity and to be excited about who God has created them to be. The VIPs are really, really important to us at the school but they’re also great to bring into the home to reinforce that message in that context. And further to our earlier point, if there are parents out there who have children in public schools that’s where I’d be saying have those conversations with your children, because in that public school setting they’re likely being told other things as well around identity and purpose.
If I had my four children in a secular school at the moment, the VIPs messages would be the types of messages I would really be wanting to reinforce with them.
It would be naive to think that simply because you are a Christian school you don’t – at times – face some similar issues to those faced by any other school. But, how does having Christ as the foundation make a difference to your approach when those things surface?
There needs to be a range of approaches. One thing I’m always aware of in our context is when we get it wrong, we can get it wrong with eternal consequences. I’m forever considering Jesus’ approach to things and leaning on the Holy Spirit.
Can I just say, a Christian school is not populated by angels. We have human beings on a journey of becoming more Christ-like. And we’re all at different points in that journey. Teachers aren’t always going to get it right, nor are the students. But what we do as teachers and as a leadership team when students do get it wrong should be about pointing them to the cross not away from it. We talk a lot about the complexity of discipleship, which is in fact much harder than discipline. So, our interactions should always ensure that at the end of the process students are walking closer to Christ.
What impact has Covid-19 had on the learning processes at school and what lessons will you take away from the experience?
It’s been a really interesting journey. The biggest thing was obviously shifting all our learning processes home. I’m hugely proud of how everyone – students and staff adapted so quickly.
From an education standpoint, while the lockdown brought some struggles with it has in some other ways also been the most incredible learning opportunity. We knew what we wanted to deliver, and we are used to delivering a curriculum with a Christian message. But to completely have to change our ways of doing it was challenging. We’ve since sat down as a staff team and discussed what we might do differently in the future.
Much of that is around flexibility of timetables and learning – particularly with our senior students because, as they get older, they can begin to have more autonomy around that.
For our secondary school students, over that time we condensed our whole day’s timetable into a morning, freeing them up for other things in the afternoon. From the feedback we’ve received, not only did students really enjoy that, but they also flourished.
Any other nuggets you can share with us?
If you asked me what one of the key thoughts around Christian education is, the word ‘intentional’ comes to mind. When I reflect on Authentic being a men’s magazine, I ask what does being intentional mean especially as a dad, a grandfather, a businessman, or whatever spheres of influence we find ourselves in as men. As a dad myself, I am personally reflecting on how I’m intentional with what I want my own children to become in Christ.
What are those things we need to remove and improve to enable our intentionality as fathers and grandfathers to flourish? – because ultimately we’re aiming to build confident young Christian men and women who are not ashamed of who God has created them to be.
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By Jeremy Smith
About the author
Jeremy Smith is the assistant editor of Authentic Magazine.
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