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Who You Learn with Matters: Student Identity and Belonging

May 12, 2021 | Thomas Postema

This blog is co-authored by Abby Hall Choi, incoming Head of School (as of July 1, 2021) and Tom Postema, Head of School

Throughout our PreK-8 curriculum, over an entire Mustard Seed career, students holding many identities (Black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, multi-racial, white, Christian, LGBTQ+, male, female to name only a few) learn ways to engage with their differences to better know the God who made us. And better know and care for their community and world.

We are committed to learning about identity and challenging stereotypes along many dimensions. We want to read books and engage with curriculum and materials that build our understanding of God’s creativity and God’s love.  We engage with facets of our identity across content areas.  

We are learning how to more fully live into this commitment. While we unpack our learning, we carefully check it against our mission and best practices in education. We ask these questions: 

  • Do our practices align with our mission? 
  • Is our learning in line with child development and best educational practices?

What does the mission say?

Two years ago, various constituents–staff, board, families, friends and community members–gave input to a rearticulation of the Mustard Seed School mission statement.  As the Board of Trustees came together with staff to craft this revision based on the input gathered, the following Core Commitments were added to the Mission Statement to expand upon and to offer guidance around the articulation of the mission.  

The missional commitments invite us as a community to make space for many areas of diversity, especially with these words taken from those Core Commitments: 

  • We educate the whole child… 

We believe in creating unity as we embrace diversity. By engaging with our differences, we teach our students to genuinely know themselves, their neighbors, and the world. 

  • We are rooted in the Christian faith…

We gather for community worship daily and see each child as a beloved child of God. We teach our students that all are loved and valued. 

  • We remove barriers… 

We celebrate each child’s gifts.

You can find our mission statement and all of our Core Commitments here.

What does the handbook say? 

In the Mustard Seed School Parent Handbook, we define what it means to be a “community of welcome” at Mustard Seed School.  Included in that definition are these statements: 

  • Our curriculum and materials should act as mirrors and windows, allowing students to see themselves and those who differ from them through positive representations.  In our program, students learn to identify and challenge stereotypes in a way that supports the development of inclusivity in our community.  This is a way we remove barriers. 

 

  • Teachers are aware that there are varying beliefs and understandings which may affect our learning community.  Teachers are open to entertaining different points of view and allowing for respectful discussion among their students.  It is in this work that we fulfill our core commitments to “embrace diversity” by “engaging with our differences,” as we desire for “our students to genuinely know themselves, their neighbors, and the world.” 

How are we growing in diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI)?

Additionally, this year we have been working towards the aspirations outlined by Tania Oro-Hahn, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, in July 2020: 

When the school publicly committed to self-reflection and institutional examination, we promised that we would pray and do the hard work of reviewing our organizational practices, goals, and habits. We promised we would pursue “a more excellent way” of being a kingdom people and to that end we self-examine honestly and without fear for we know God is calling us. The call to continually seek a “more excellent way” is part of our institutional DNA. The goal to serve families with greater love, honor, and respect has always been our center and it has not changed.

(Here is the full post if you would like to read more.) 

As we have worked as an institution to grow our work in diversity, equity and inclusion and to more fully live into our mission statement and core commitments, we are seeing with greater clarity that we can do better in our efforts to create a community of welcome.   

And so it is our aim to expand on how we host discussions with our students in our classrooms.  We are growing our practice of holding and creating space for students to bring their whole selves to school with their beliefs and identities.  

Our great hope 

Our great hope is that all students experience belonging in their experience at our school. It is our firm belief that God’s grace will hold us together as a community of diverse beliefs and personal commitments, bound by love and care for one another. 

As one parent recently said to us, “A lot of our work in building faith with our children is to help them see that these differences should not discourage us, but should challenge us to continue to lay down our lives for each other and do the work of loving those with whom we don’t agree.”

We continue to have conversations around belonging, and we are constructing a foundation of curiosity and understanding. We work to provide professional development to faculty to better equip them to teach and hold the complexities around gender identity. And to host conversations among students where there is room for multiple beliefs to be present without judgment.

Growing the curriculum

We are examining and updating our curriculum in line with our NJAIS accreditation work and our strategic plan. 

Additionally teachers are bringing what we’ve learned from two years of DEI training to this ongoing curricular work. We are looking for ways to increase representation when it comes to the stories we tell, the authors we read, and the history we learn.   

A partnership with families

This growing and learning will come with moments of uncertainty. And there will be complexities that will challenge all of us to know more and do better. Our great hope that students will live into who God created them to be so that they may become change makers will take close and continued partnership. 

Throughout our work, we will hold on to the value that families are the primary educators of their children when it comes to values. We want to function as a partner with parents/caregivers in providing education so that we can work together to provide young people with honest, age-appropriate education. 

Thomas Postema

Head of School

An educator for over 35 years, Mr. Postema has taught math and been a school administrator at international schools in Japan and South Korea, as well as schools in the USA (New Jersey and Alaska). He taught at Mustard Seed from 1989-1991 when Mr. Cuervo and Mr. Johnson were MSS students!

Since arriving back at Mustard Seed in 2011 as Head of School, Mr. Postema has successfully led the school through the NJAIS accreditation process and the Together for Tomorrow endowment campaign, which raised over $3M to benefit MSS students. Mr. Postema loves to tell the Mustard Seed story and is passionate about the mission to serve families from all walks of life.

Mr. Postema’s three children attended Mustard Seed and he would love it if his three grandchildren lived close enough to be students at the school. An avid traveler, Mr. Postema has visited over 30 countries in his adventures abroad.

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