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7 Questions with Dean Ridder

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Jonno White

7 Questions with Dean Ridder

Name: Dean Ridder

Current title: Head of School

Current organisation: Isaac Newton Christian Academy, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Dean Ridder serves as the Head of School of Isaac Newton Christian Academy in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Dean began his career in Christian education as a middle school teacher in suburban Chicago. Following ten years of teaching, he left the classroom to serve as a Christian school administrator. He served as an assistant principal in suburban Chicago, and as a principal in central Illinois before accepting his current position in Iowa. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL and a Master’s degree in Education Leadership from Purdue University. Dean also serves on several boards related to Christian education, including ACSI's Commission for Accreditation and the Iowa Association of Christian Schools. He also serves as the Iowa District Representative on ACSI's Divisional Council. Dean has been married to his wife, Jolene, for 27 years, and has three children, all of whom attended Christian schools.

7 Questions with Dean Ridder

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1. What have you found most challenging as a Christian school leader?

I find the challenges of leadership development and the avoidance of mission drift to be important in a Christian school. The development of leadership is important to prevent our school from being stagnant, and to ensure that there is a quality succession plan in place. Making sure that leadership skills are being developed in others on our team is important. Making sure that staff have appropriate mentoring relationships is time-consuming, but important. We don’t want to be hiring out of desperation, or lose track of the mission and vision of our school. For this reason, our school has developed a formal mentoring program. Yet, this isn’t easy, and requires constant attention.

2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I get up early in the morning. While the house is still quiet, I read Scripture, have morning devotions, and talk to God in prayer. I then usually do some exercise. I also take some time to handwrite personal correspondence, either by writing thank you cards, notes of encouragement, birthday cards or anniversary cards. I eat a good breakfast and head off to school.

After a daily morning staff meeting, I receive students into the building by standing outside the main entrance of the school and welcome them. I greet students by name so they know that I know who they are. I then usually catch up on my email correspondence. I meet with the principals, both formally and informally. I also meet with the building directors, both formally and informally, to ensure the smooth operation of the school. I do 5-minute walkthroughs of classrooms to ensure that I observe instruction at the school. I take a break at lunch and eat lunch with my wife most days.

In the middle of the afternoon, I have assigned myself a recess duty with Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade students. This helps to ensure that I can connect with students. I also am the person that supervises the dismissal of students at the end of the day. This helps to ensure that I spend time with parents every day. After meetings, and wrapping up the day in my office, I head home for dinner with my family.

After dinner, we have family devotions at the dining room table. My wife and I then try to have slow and purposeful evenings, accomplishing the things that need to be done. We try to keep a slow pace and don’t use electronics. We read books, have conversations, and help our middle school daughter with her homework. We try to retire to bed by 10:00 p.m.

3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

I am currently practicing letting go of responsibilities to others, and allowing them to make their own decisions and choices with responsibilities that used to be mine. As these responsibilities are shared with principals and directors, they make some different choices than I would. I am okay with that. I am learning how to ask good probing questions to help others identify their own decision-making process and how it connects to the greater mission of the school. I am enjoying this process, and am learning quite a bit from others.

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?

A book that has had a big impact on my Christian school leadership is "Assumptions That Affect Our Lives: How Worldview Determine Values that Influence Behavior and Shape Culture" by Dr. Christian Overman (Ablaze Publishing Company, 2011) This book helped me to see the possibility of providing students with an education that is distinctly biblical, encouraging them to apply critical thinking skills to their education and biblical matters. Through reading this book, I was able to connect with the author, Dr. Christian Overman. Christian helped transform our school into a distinctly Christian school, for which I am grateful.

5. How do you find and keep great Christian teachers?

We commit the entire hiring process to prayer, and ask God to bless our students with the best teachers. We have a hiring committee that involves 10-12 people, each with a distinct role in the process. One person ensures that our need is publicized nationally through hiring websites and through connections with college teacher preparation programs. One person manages all of the paperwork that is involved in the hiring process, and ensures that we receive the documentation that we need to make a successful hire. Several people are involved in checking references and looking into the qualifications of a candidate. Several people are involved in the interviewing process. One person serves as a liaison with our Board. We all work together, keeping the mission of the school in mind, to hire the best candidate that is available to us.

A new teacher at our school is provided with mentoring and training through a formalized process. We want to make sure that the teachers we hire are successful. Having a professional mentor is an important part of that success. We also want to make sure that they are properly trained for their role without overwhelming them. We can’t rely on teacher preparation programs to do all of this. We have to train our teachers as well. At our school, all new teachers take a 1-year “on-ramp” course to ensure that they are able to permeate their instruction with biblical truth, and are able to raise the bar for students in the application of critical thinking skills to biblical matters. This process has been fine-tuned over years. It involves professional reading, watching video lessons, and using biblical integration tools in their classroom.

6. What's most important as a Christian school leader for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?

This is a very good question with current application. Current research by ACSI has challenged our leadership team to be considering this. Our school participated in ACSI’s Flourishing School Culture Initiative in 2019. This helped us to realize the importance of wellbeing for student and teacher flourishing. We know that constructs like resilience are linked with academic outcomes. Teaching and leading in Christian schools are demanding roles that require a great deal, physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

In order to reduce absenteeism, weaker academic outcomes, and turnover rates, we need to be paying attention to the well-being of students and teachers. We need to be watching the stress levels of teachers. We need to be promoting healthy living (sufficient exercise and a healthy diet) for both students and teachers. We also need to be monitoring the resilience of students, how students handle stress effectively and are able to bounce back from difficult situations.

Because of our participation in the study, we are looking at ways to improve teachers’ and leaders’ well-being. We have an excellent staff, and we want them to enjoy and be empowered in their roles. We don’t want our students to feel that they cannot respond well to stress or feel ill-equipped to work through difficult situations. We are ensuring that all of our teachers have sufficient training about understanding adverse childhood experiences, and in suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.

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?

For me, the most meaningful story is the most recent story. On August 10, our school was badly damaged by a derecho storm. The storm had wind speeds of up to 140 mph (similar to a Category 4 hurricane). These winds were straight line winds, and damaged so much of our city. At Isaac Newton Christian Academy, the wind first ripped three massive HVAC units off our roof. This created big holes in the roof. The gas lines that supplied those HVAC units were sheared, causing the building to fill up with rain and natural gas. Then the wind used the hole in the roof to do even more damage to the roof, scattering our roof for blocks in the surrounding neighborhood. I was picking pieces of the school's roof out of my own backyard. On top of that, the school lost 60 massive trees (tall oaks and maples). The gas leak was so significant that the gas was smelled blocks away from the school.

The following weeks were crazy, and it was certainly overwhelming at times. The destruction was hard to accept. I walked into a 2nd grade classroom that looked like it was completely ready for school to begin. All the desks were lined up in a COVID friendly way, and all the textbooks were on top of each desk. It looked completely normal, except for the fact that everything was completely drenched, and I was standing in ankle deep water.

BUT...God is good, and faithful, and dependable. We have been so blessed by the generosity and help from others. Crews from around the country came to our campus and made light work of all the trees. The crews came from Florida, Texas, Nebraska and California, and came without our invitation. They just showed up. These were VOLUNTEERS! We also had a significant number of our families descend on the school and make quick work of getting rid of all the waterlogged "stuff" in the school, pumping out the water, ripping out all of the ceiling tiles, etc. We also had a volunteer project manager who is very skilled in building maintenance. She worked night and day, managing all of the workers and volunteers, to make sure the school could open in a timely manner.

Vendors generously prioritized our "project" above other customers. Drywall was ripped out on a Friday, and replaced on a Monday. Carpeting was ripped out, and two days later, new carpeting was installed (after mold tests were passed). A temporary roof has been placed on the roof, and three brand new HVAC units are back on the roof--all of these services were prioritized by generous vendors. If you came to our campus today, I doubt that you would even recognize that anything was "off"--that is how amazing this has all been.

We opened on September 8. (We were originally scheduled to open on August 24, so we only lost 2 weeks of school). I truly stand in awe of what God has done. It simply is amazing.