7 Questions with Karen Hooper

Name: Karen Hooper
Current title: State Executive Officer (Victoria)
Current organisation: Christian Education National

Karen has been working in Christian Education for 25+ years across all year levels, but mostly in the Primary area. She has grown in her passion for, and articulation of what it means to teach Christianly with an unwavering conviction that true Christian education is counter-cultural and transformational. Karen has grown up and served in the same local church for over 40 years, serving mostly as a musician and worship leader. She is married to Nathan and together they are raising three teenage sons.

1. What have you found most challenging as a Christian school leader?
It’s easy to fall into pragmatism when there are a plethora of problems to solve. The challenge lies in not focusing on circumstances or giving in to fear or worry, but keeping at the forefront of our thinking, the reality that God is always at work, He is faithful and will bring good from challenging times.

2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Well, that’s kind of a personal question! Basically, I get ready, I spend some time in devotions, I chase up my boys to get ready to leave for school (and all the other ‘Mum’ things that need to be done). When I get to work, I enjoy connecting with people and finding moments to chat and encourage others when I’m not teaching or doing other administrative tasks. It is amazing the number of ‘unplanned’ rich moments of interaction and significant conversation that can happen when you allow yourself a few ‘interruptions’ from the ‘to-do’ list in your day. Leaving work I think about dinner, supermarket visits, what potential commitments I have that evening and if I need to do more work after dinner. I try to ensure I get to chat with my husband, Nathan. I usually read a little before going to sleep. I’m aware there is no daily exercise mentioned there… but it does happen occasionally! Usually it is a pilates class, a bike ride or a walk - social type exercise!

3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Leadership sometimes looks like ‘remindership’. When facing difficult circumstances, people can be quick to focus on the challenges and the temporary discomfort of the ‘here and now.’ Leaders need to keep their eyes on the bigger picture, both physically and spiritually. Reminding people that life moves in seasons and that seasons will inevitably pass into another one, and the importance of continuing to trust in the Lord, ‘and lean not on your own understanding’ (Proverbs 3:5). Reminding people about the importance of ‘abiding or staying connected in the vine’ John 15:5 and that God promises in Romans 8:28 to ‘work all things together for the good of those who love Him.’ Leaders need to help people recalibrate when disorientation comes and fix their sight on the steadfastness of God and the mission and purpose of what we are doing together.

4. What one book has had the most profound impact on your Christian school leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
If I can only choose one, then I’d suggest that ‘Culture Making: Recovering our creative calling’ by Andy Crouch (2009). This book helped me to understand that leadership is as much about creating the right conditions for people to flourish and grow (the culture) as it is about directing the specific actions or workflow of the people I lead. Culture is powerful for human formation. It takes specific skills to observe culture, critique it according to biblical truths and create culture with a view to taking people on a journey towards an organisation’s vision. To create and cultivate is part of our core purpose as humans; it was the first thing Adam was told to do in the book of Genesis (1:28). This book also explains and unpacks how to change culture by producing new cultural products that help to shape those involved. In terms of impact, this book helped me to connect what I do as a leader back to God’s creational purpose and intention for human culture. We do not need to be someone that we are not, but to focus on the sphere of influence we have been entrusted with; understanding that it is our responsibility to cultivate the ‘raw materials’ we have to make it into something ‘more’ than it was when we began - the example of this principle is found in Jesus’ parable of the talents, found in Matt 25:14-30. This is liberating as a leader as the concepts of ‘comparison’ or ‘achievement’ aren’t the drivers of what we do, but rather faithfulness, creativity and purposeful living according to our Creational design.

5. How do you find and keep great Christian teachers?
I am not currently a school principal and therefore not responsible for hiring teachers. However, if I were in that role, I would be looking for people who demonstrate a capacity to articulate how their teaching connects with their faith, demonstrating that they understand faith to be an ‘all of life’ endeavour, rather than something to keep separate from their vocation. I’d also want to see that regardless of their age or level of experience, they are are ‘teachable’ and willing to go deeper in their learning and practice.

6. What's most important as a Christian school leader for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?
The importance of healthy relationships that include accountability between colleagues, and the importance of establishing sustainable spiritual practices to continually embed scripture into daily life. This would include devotions and prayer as part of each day with staff and students.

7. If you had to pick just one story, what would be the most meaningful story from your time as a Christian school leader so far?
It’s too difficult to select a particular story from the web of memories over the years, but the moments that stay with me are when I have heard and seen others picking up the themes and convictions I have led with, and building on those in their own leading and learning. An example of this would be in the responsibility I have had for many years to run our annual school production with a clear vision of how we were doing it differently to the other schools in our area. Though we never stuck to biblical based stories like ‘Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat’ for example, I wanted to ensure we selected stories that reflected Kingdom concepts - redemption, adoption, unconditional love, sacrifice, living according to your purpose, ‘love conquers all’, etc. I would teach this to our students and lead our production team with that deep understanding of ‘why’ we were doing this show and we unpacked the biblical themes in the story throughout the rehearsal period. Finally, on each performance, I would stand in front of the audience as part of our introduction and pre-show announcements to share the biblical perspective on the story and why we selected it. Some people would roll their eyes and want me to just get on with it, but many expressed how they appreciated it tremendously. I had grown to be so mindful of staying in line with our ‘distinctives’ and nurturing a culture of purpose for performing - otherwise, what was the point of it all? It was never about the individuals who shone with their talent, but more the story that should, and would shine as each performer brought their best efforts to honour God through the story they brought to life. What we found was that the standard and quality of our shows would increase each year and the feedback from audiences was often along the lines of ‘I can’t believe that was a school show - it was so professional!’ Whilst that was nice to hear, it wasn’t the goal. We wanted to impact people’s hearts - both the cast’s and that of the audiences who would come to see it. What’s even better is when I hear the students and parents who have been involved in the show become as passionate as I am about perpetuating our distinctive, even when I have stepped out of the operational leadership role. That’s meaningful to me as a leader.