Jessica Burke, a former educator and writer for the Leadership Council of the ERLC, discusses the importance of faith in a child’s education, and how learning can help us all better know God through his creation. Burke also advises parents on balancing helping their children earn a successful education while growing a meaningful faith.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. While many of us are still in the throes of summer and summer vacations, students at year-round schools across North Carolina have already started hitting the classroom. Moreover, in just a matter of weeks, schools on the traditional calendar will be gearing up as well. Here in North Carolina, we’re fortunate to have a variety of K-12 educational options, including traditional public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools, and homeschooling. And with the growth of Opportunity Scholarships and other school choice initiatives, more and more parents in our state have a real choice to decide where their children go to school.
Of course, academics are a fundamentally important consideration as parents make these decisions, but many parents are also deeply concerned about the values and influences their children are exposed to in the school environment. This is especially true when it comes to matters of faith, and finding ways to support and encourage the development of faith in our children.
Today’s guest has worked toward that goal as a teacher, a missionary, and a mother and joins us today to offer some practical guidance on how to balance educational achievement, while at the same time supporting and fostering faith in our kids.
Jessica Burke is a former public school educator turned homeschool mom and middle and high school humanities teacher. In addition to her educational background, Jessica and her husband worked as missionaries in North Macedonia for three years before moving to North Carolina. She now draws from her experiences in education, motherhood, and the mission field as a writer and a member of the Leadership Council of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Jessica, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.
JESSICA BURKE: Thanks so much, I’m excited about this conversation.
JOHN RUSTIN: I am too. So Jessica as we begin, kind of a big question here, but when it comes to our children’s education, how do we properly balance our desire for them to achieve academic success with our desire for them to establish a meaningful and living faith? Certainly these two things are not mutually exclusive, but they can be challenging in today’s highly charged cultural and educational environments.
JESSICA BURKE: I think the first place to start is by being careful that we don’t think that education and school are the same thing. School is one way that we receive an education, but you know it’s not the only way. I don’t even know that it’s the most important. School will last us 13 to 17 years, maybe a little longer if you go on to graduate school, but our educations are supposed to last our entire life. We’re always learning and changing. As parents, we’re prone to focus on the utilitarian purposes of education and what we’ve just defined as success. But as parents, our first focus should be the heart. We have to make choices about children’s education, thinking about what person they are becoming. The type of school our child attends is not going to save them, but we have to consider what they’re being taught to love, and how it’s shaping their affections. We have to be humble people in these choices. I think a good education should be humbling because it reveals where we are lacking.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s really interesting and a great perspective. Jessica, it sounds like, of in a broader sense, perhaps even more importantly than what our children learn—the subject matter itself—is why they learn. I kind of get that from what you’ve shared already. Why is it so important for our children to gain an understanding and appreciation of the educational or learning process itself, in addition to the subject matter?
JESSICA BURKE: Children—well actually all people—we should be learning so that we might know God and enjoy him forever. I think that’s our purpose in life. All knowledge belongs to God, so through our learning about His world, about the way He’s ordered things, about His names or His design of creation, about His wisdom and kindness, you’re still learning about His world, we learn more about who He is. I think the more I learned about the stars in the sky, the more I’m praising Him as our creator, or the more I learn about patterns in math, the more I’m in awe of Him. The more I learn about how He intricately designed nature, the more I rely on Him as my sustainer and the giver of life. I think the more I learn, the smaller I feel and the bigger I realize God is. This is why we should learn. The Bible tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God, and I think there’s no higher commandment for education. And then Jesus said that the second commandment is to love our neighbor. So we learn so we will love God better and then we should put what we learned to work so we can love our neighbor better through service.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s a great thing to understand and consider. Jessica, you were quoting a part of Deuteronomy 6, which implores us, as you said, not only to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength, and to place God’s commandments on our hearts, but to also impress these commands on our children, and to talk about them when we sit at home and when we walk along the road, and when we lie down and when we get up. So basically, all of the time. From your perspective, how does Deuteronomy 6 really demonstrate education and learning and teaching as a form of discipleship?
JESSICA BURKE: I think Deuteronomy 6 is so important to us as parents. We’re given a great responsibility and privilege of discipling our children. An 18th century educator and philosopher put it this way with her motto that: Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. It’s the same with discipleship, like you said. It’s all the time. We need to teach them the Scriptures. We need to tell them about God’s faithfulness. We need to teach our children His laws and statutes, and teach them that we should fear God and serve Him alone. The warnings of not doing this are serious, so we’re supposed to teach God’s words diligently. Deuteronomy 6 makes it so clear that we should be pointing our children to God at all times. This means it’s part of their formal education and their informal education. So I don’t think that this means that we need to be delivering sermons to our children, but it should naturally come out of us because there’s nothing more exciting to us than sharing God’s story with our children.
JOHN RUSTIN: How can parents help children emphasize virtue over achievement, for example, particularly when it comes to school and education?
JESSICA BURKE: We start by, instead of emphasizing grades or test scores or other measurements, we should evaluate whether or not our children’s education is helping them love what they should. You know, achievement in school doesn’t reveal what the heart loves. I think even the most involved parents can’t understand everything that’s going on in the heart, nor should we. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. So, to encourage our children […] to focus on virtue rather than achievement. We should praise them for their growth and character and virtue. We’re really quick to praise them for grades and test scores. But if we’re praising our children for displaying genuine kindness, self-control, love, then we’re showing what really matters to us, and I think more importantly, to God. We have to focus on those things that can’t be measured. How our children are being changed by what they are learning.
JOHN RUSTIN: I think that’s an important lesson for all of us to consider because we, in our culture, can be so focused on achievements and works and things of that nature. Now, I know from a practical standpoint that school sometimes—and I was guilty of this myself—but sometimes kids can kind of check out at school if they don’t understand why a particular subject is important or relevant. So how do you deal with this? And how can parents help their children understand why it’s important to learn about a broad range of topics? Talk about that a little bit if you would.
JESSICA BURKE: A lot of students will ask—they’re learning something, or they’ll say that it’s boring or that they don’t need it. And those types of comments are done in grumbling, usually, because learning is hard, because the work we have to do is hard. And what it’s really showing is that they don’t know something. We often don’t want to admit that because we’re prideful. But we need to learn. I don’t think there’s an unimportant subject. Like I said earlier, all knowledge belongs to the Lord. So as you pursue knowledge, we’re learning about Him and His world. That’s pretty important. So when it comes to my kids’ education, I want to be careful that I don’t rate subjects by what I think is most important. […] We’re not programming robots, we’re educating humans and our children need a broad education. Really, we don’t know what is going to spark interest in them and what they’re going to pursue later in life.
JOHN RUSTIN: In speaking of pursuing things later in life, how can parents and teachers help children—and ourselves for that matter—learn the importance not only of education, but of work, which is really a vital part of the human experience. I think these principles very much apply to us when we are in K-12 schools and in post-educational learning. And then when we enter the workforce, we’re always challenged to learn and grow, and to expand our knowledge. So what are some of the principles that apply to us from the standpoint of work?
JESSICA BURKE: Regardless of what the work is, they need to do it to the glory of God. Whether it’s my 8-year-old working on subtraction, or my 14-year-old working on geometry, or whether they’d become a street sweeper or a neurosurgeon. If they’re honoring God and working with excellence, then they should be happy with their work. I always tell my children that they have no control over whether or not [some aspects of their lives], but they do have control over their attitude in their work and how they apply themselves to it. And I think we have to model this.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s a great encouragement. Jessica, for families whose children attend schools that don’t necessarily emphasize faith, how can parents help their children better understand how their school education really can foster their faith, and help them love God and love others better?
JESSICA BURKE: I’m going to go back to Deuteronomy 6. We can help our children make the connections as we share life with them. We can do this at the dinner table or while we’re taking a walk or even playing a game. We can show them that history shows us God’s faithfulness, and science reveals much about God. And the arts remind us that God loves beauty. You know, literature teaches us so much about humans and can remind us how sinful we are and how holy God is. So we should be talking about God every chance we can. And you know, I think that these conversations happen more naturally if I’m pursuing my own education in various ways so I can grow and learn and serve God better, and I’m modeling this for my children. Also I think we need to teach our children to serve others. There’s so many ways that my children can apply what they’re learning in school to service for the good of others. And it’s so good for them because as they grow, they need to be needed. They’re not working in school just for good grades, but they’re working so they can do good to others. You know, even the littlest ones can use what they’re learning to serve others.
JOHN RUSTIN: Absolutely they can. Jessica, unfortunately we’re just about out of time for the week, but before we go I want to ask if you might suggest a few helpful resources for our listeners on the topic of properly balancing faith and educational achievement, as we’ve been discussing today.
JESSICA BURKE: I really recommend Gene Veith’s book, Loving God with All Your Mind: Thinking as a Christian in the Postmodern World. I think it would be a great place to start. I think it’s probably going to be a book that my children are required to read before they leave the house. I also love the work that the Searcy [Leadership] Institute is doing, helping parents and educators see the real purpose of education, and I would recommend that people check out what they’re doing.
JOHN RUSTIN: Excellent. Jessica, thanks for those recommendations. We will be listing those on our website in the transcript of this radio program. So if folks go to our website at ncfamily.org and click on the radio show link, then they can get access to those resources you mentioned, and we appreciate you recommending those. With that, unfortunately we’re out of time for this week, but Jessica Burke, I want to thank you so much for being with us and for sharing all that you have with us on Family Policy Matters.
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