Education within the church walls. Director of an Orthodox gymnasium about children, parents and teachers
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Our topic, how to raise an educated individual, has another important aspect: a religious one. Which goals do Christian parents set? Do they have any additional complications and additional resources? Vitaly Kaplan discusses this with Archpriest Vladimir Shaforostov, Senior Priest of the Znamensky Church in Krasnogorsk, Director of the Orthodox Saint George gymnasium.

Father Vladimir, let’s start with typical mistakes of church living parents. They sincerely want to give their children a good education, but they are doing something wrong. What is it?

Today, in society, particularly in the church environment, there is a widespread belief that the state education system experiences a process of complete destruction. In my opinion, one shall not succumb to such sentiment. Yes, there are problems, but there is no complete destruction. There are a lot of wonderful teachers in standard public schools, and there are talented and faithful school principals. Therefore, there is no need to fall into hysterics (especially due to the fact that such parental panic makes an extremely negative effect on children).

Sure, you should not consider teachers (even imperfect ones) your enemies. On the contrary, you need to interact with them and the school administration as actively as possible, you need to support all the good that exists in the secondary education system.

Indeed, another mistake, more typical for believers, is an uncompromising struggle against a child passion for high technologies: gadgets, phones, Internet, computer games. Yes, we know spiritual dangers existing in these areas, but these dangers cannot be treated as an absolute criterion. Parents who are ready to forbid a child anything and everything for Orthodox reasons risk complete loss of contact with them after some time.

Also wrong are those parents who instill in the child: if you do not study, you would be a janitor or would go to the army (at the same time, forgetting that someone has to look after cleanliness, and military service is an absolutely necessary form of serving the Fatherland). In addition to the fact that such notations would not achieve anything, there is a mistake of goal-setting here. As far back as since Soviet times, our society has believed that you need to get a university degree at all costs, that parents must push their child to a university by hook or by crook. But after all, each individual is unique, someone really needs a university degree to fulfill their talents, and for someone it could distort their whole life, force them to follow detested occupation. In our country, university degree is valued not by itself, but only as a confirmation of a high social status. But from a Christian point of view, such ambition is a sign of spiritual ill health, it is pride and vanity.

Another mistake is a desire to send a child to an Orthodox school or gymnasium by all means. But it is not necessary at all! My own son went to an Orthodox gymnasium, and my daughter went to an ordinary school. Father Konstantin Ostrovsky, our assistant bishop, had all four of his children in an ordinary school, and they all have matured worthy people. Once again: Family is the basis of upbringing. And for believers, the Church as a school of love, too.

A similar mistake is to isolate oneself in the church environment and have no cooperation with people, albeit good ones, but far from faith. In the area of education, such cooperation is quite necessary. Alas, there are parents who are afraid of everything and prepared to keep a child within four walls, just not to send them to a children club or sport club led by a non-religious teacher. Thank God, such people are relatively few in the Church.

It also happens that believers underestimate the importance of general education subjects. They think: Well, who needs this physics, this algebra, this English... they should just grow up a good person, a church-going one! I must say that there is no strict, unambiguous answer here. Different situations can occur, for example, a child has a serious developmental delay (this applies to adopted children especially), and you do not need to torment them with sinuses, all the same, nothing would come of it... but even with such a child you need to do a lot to pull them, maybe not to a general school level, but at least to the level which is maximum possible for them. Here, sure, parents need the help of teachers, and in our parish we are already beginning to think about a systematic solution to this problem. But if we are talking about a healthy child, and parents deny the importance of general educational subjects for some “ideological” considerations, this is completely wrong.

In general, if parents understand that both physics and English are important, but the most important thing is for Christ to be among us, then Lord helps them to overcome all difficulties. And difficulties are inevitable, there are no big achievements without big difficulties. If parents themselves live in a Christian heroic act, even if it a minor one, and teach their children to follow, then these children would definitely become educated!

Father Vladimir, let’s then clarify what we mean by word “education”.

There is a humorous definition: education is what remains with you after you forget everything you have been taught. There is some truth in this joke: after all, when a child is taught, they not only put some knowledge into their head, but also shape their personality, shape their basic values, develop their natural abilities.

If you look at this from an Orthodox point of view, everything is pretty clear: each individual accommodates an image of God, namely free will, mentality, an ability to distinguish between good and evil, various creative gifts. But all this exists as a potential in a person, especially in a child, and how it would be actualized is a big question. Our task, it means the task of Orthodox parents, Orthodox teachers, is to discover this Image in a child, to influence the development of their personality, their mind, their moral qualities in such a way that the child, as much as it is possible in their case, was able to accept Christ into their soul, was able to live according to the Gospel. And all the knowledge, skills, cultural baggage that we give them is needed for this very purpose.

But talking is easy... This understanding of “education” has a downside: how exactly to achieve this? Experience shows that only an individual in whom the image of God is discovered would be able to discover it in others. Hence a huge responsibility of a teacher, educator.

Do you mean that only a deeply religious individual can engage in education of children, if education is viewed in the Christian sense as actualization of the image of God in a person?

Not necessary at all. Here, moral qualities of a teacher have the paramount importance. When I employ a teacher, I don’t ask them whether they go to church often, whether they fast, whether they observe the rules of prayer, although, of course, I am far from being indifferent to that. But first of all I try to understand what kind of individual they are, whether they live honestly, whether they love children, to what degree the image of God is discovered in them. By the way, it happened here that a non-church individual was employed by the gymnasium, and they became a church member in the process of teaching.

Notice how different it is from the secular view of education actively imposed on us in recent years. I mean the idea of education as a service, a teacher as a service staff, their task is to put a certain clearly defined set of knowledge into a child’s head.

Here it is necessary to say directly and strictly that such an approach is fundamentally alien to Christians. We consider education to be neither a product nor a service; we see not only a social dimension in it. For us, education is an holistic process of teaching, upbringing, and spiritual growth.

Do Orthodox people who want to give a good education to children have any additional resources and opportunities in comparison with purely secular people? All other things being equal, of course, namely the same social status, income level, and so on...

First of all, an Orthodox individual has a universal and powerful resource, God’s help received through our prayers. I understand that my words may seem unconvincing to an atheist or an agnostic, but any seriously believing Christian knows from personal experience: it is true.

If we talk about more “earthly” things, then over the past twenty years a system of Orthodox secondary education has already formed in our country, I mean Orthodox schools and gymnasiums. Maybe not always, but quite often believers have an opportunity to send a child to such a gymnasium. There are a lot of of them, they are different. Sure, not every Orthodox gymnasium is perfect, there are those inferior to normal secular schools. But if we consider the situation as a whole, then Orthodox schools organize moral education really better, they have much less of those problems that occur in ordinary schools.

I would repeat what has already been said: Orthodox parents are absolutely not obliged to always and in all cases send a child to an Orthodox gymnasium. Here you need to use reason, consider specific circumstances, weigh all the pros and cons. Often, an ordinary municipal school where conscientious teachers work, turns out to be at least equal to an average Orthodox one.

And what if believing parents are not able to send a child to neither a good Orthodox gymnasium nor a good secular school for various reasons, for example, financial ones or simply because of unavailability of such schools within a radius of accessibility? What should they do, then?

Now, it is the time to talk about the second, no less powerful resource: A church parish. We all know that the family shapes the personality of a child much more strongly than any institution for children. What is a good church parish if not a spiritual family? Therefore, in such parishes, it is customary to solve many pedagogical and educational tasks together.

For example, almost every parish has a Sunday school. A Sunday school means not only teaching children the Law of God. It is also a moral and general cultural development. In a Sunday school, various children clubs, studios, units can appear. For example, our parish has a choir, a military and patriotic club, theater studio “Slovo”, ensemble “Znamenskie barabanschiki”, a choreographic group. At the Uspensky Church in Krasnogorsk, there is no Orthodox gymnasium as such, but there is a music school, which is a Sunday one according to the formal status thereof. Hundreds of children receive a good musical education there.

I would point out that all of this is completely free.

This is more of a general development than a school education. Some people could object to you: How can a church parish help you with Russian, chemistry, algebra?

Well, it all depends on the particular parish. If it has people who are good specialists in some fields of knowledge and who are willing to spend their time and energy working with other people’s children, then problems with algebra could be solved. There are such people in our parish. They additionally study with children who have some problems with school subjects, and not only with school children from our gymnasium, but in general with all the children who are brought to them. Somebody is engaged in English, somebody in mathematics... We also have a female parishioner who helps children with their homework. Among our parishioners there are people who have adopted children (sometimes children with disabilities) with large educational gaps, and she works with such children.

Here’s an important thing: one cannot talk about teaching specific school subjects in isolation from the family situation as a whole, from the process of upbringing as a whole. For example, if the mother of a large family is in the hospital with the younger one, then who would take care of the older ones at that time? After all, dad most likely works from morning to night... Who would feed, who will bring to a sports club or pick up from school, who would check the lessons? If parishioners can do this, then it is not only social work, sometimes an indirect and sometimes direct influence on the education of children. But even if these parishioners cannot help with algebra problems or English exercises themselves, the very fact that children are not on their own improves their academic performance.

Simply put, a church parish, of course, does not exist in order to improve children in algebra, but due to a properly organized parish life, due to mutual assistance general educational issues are resolved, which, in turn, has a beneficial effect, among other things, on success in algebra...

And how can godparents help Orthodox people in the area of education?

Not an easy question, to be honest. It should be formulated as follows: how could godparents help? And they could help with this: help families of their godchildren not only in spiritual matters, but also in various daily difficulties, and, of course, help to communicate with children, to engage in their development, to become friends with their godchildren. Such godparents would read aloud for children, and go with them to the museum, and improve them in Russian, and talk on a variety of topics about God and about how bread is baked, and about why the stars shine... We know how much children, especially older ones, need such an adult individual whom they could trust and whose words can sometimes help them no less than those by their parents.

Alas, this is more of a theory. In practice, such godparents are quite rare. First, by agreeing to become godparents, people often do not understand what responsibility they take over. Second, they do not always have mutual understanding with the parents of their godchildren, and then all the godparent’s initiatives are suppressed. Third, in addition to a desire to help your godchildren, you also need to have certain abilities for this, certain spiritual qualities. I’m not even talking about the fact that godparents and godchildren often live far from each other and can see each other very rarely due to objective reasons.

Therefore, we can only hope that the importance of godparents in the upbringing of Orthodox children would increase. But it will not happen by itself, automatically, here we need a lot of perennial work on the parish level. First of all, our work, of priests.

A lot of parents believe that “rescuing of drowning people is the business of drowning people themselves”, namely they try to teach school subjects to children, both their own and children of their friends and acquaintances, using their own efforts. On this basis, various parental associations arise. Do you think Orthodox parents need to cooperate only with Orthodox Christians, or is it possible to join forces with any people?

I believe that we Orthodox Christians shall in no circumstances reject the good and healthy done by non-church people, particularly in the area of education. If people set the task correctly, i.e. to form a child as a highly moral individual, to give them good knowledge, then we and them have a common path, we can participate in their projects, help them and accept help from them.

I can say with whom we definitely do not have a common path, those who bring occult or anti-Christian ideas into education. For example, this is the so-called “Waldorf pedagogy”, these are some kind of pedagogical sects. But I believe these cases are quite rare, I have not come across something like that myself.

In general, participation in such parental associations would also be missionary work for us. And not even since we “take advantage of the situation” and start campaigning for Orthodoxy, but since people, seeing the light of faith in us, could reflect about many things, could eventually come to church. If only this light of faith was in ourselves! Sure, if help such people in some way, then we must do it disinterestedly.

And how exactly can we, namely the Church, help such parental associations?

For example, we could provide premises for the work of some children clubs, for school subject classes with children, for giving lectures. Say, there is some individual who is ready to study physics or Russian with other people’s children. But where? This is where we can help. If good, moral people come to us who are ready to work with children, that's great. Sure, at the same time, we must be in constant contact with these people, we must control how they are doing, whether they really sow the rational-good-eternal.

In addition, there can be people among our parishioners who are capable of providing methodological assistance. For example, this is an elderly experienced teacher of Russian and literature. They could have no opportunity to study with children in a church using their own efforts, but they could talk with their parents, give them practical advice, and recommend a proper literature.

But the main thing that could be done on the basis of the parish is to create a united pedagogical space. It means, an environment where children are interested, where they discover their talents, where they learn not only specific things, but also correct human communication with each other and with adults. Children clubs, activity clubs, clubs, a Sunday school, choir... And at the same time, of course, such an environment should be open to everyone, and not only to children from church-living families. This is what happens at our place, children from the parish bring their friends from school, neighbors.

By the way, such a united pedagogical space attracts not only children, but also adults who are willing and able to work with children. There are people who are capable of this potentially, but they simply have no point to apply forces, and we provide them with such an opportunity.

In a word, a church parish, if it really leads a genuine Christian life, not only can, but must attract every healthy, positive resource not only from its midst, but also from outside. The field for interaction with non-church people is huge. Sure, thereby this united pedagogical space also becomes a space of the Orthodox mission.