Passion for Christian education motivates GCU's first doctoral fellow

GCU's first College of Doctoral Studies fellow, Dr. Amy Yoder, turned to data-based evidence research to show how Christian education makes a difference in students' spiritual lives.

Dr. Amy Yoder is on a crusade to prove Christian education is important in students' spiritual development. It's a passion that earned her a $4,000 postdoctoral fellowship grant to continue her research from Christian School Management through Grand Canyon University's Office of Research and Grants.

Dr. Amy Yoder

That makes Yoder the first fellow in the College of Doctoral Studies.

The English teacher at Northwest Christian High School recently successfully defended her doctoral dissertation on spiritual formation strategies.

"Right now, my passion is in Christian education. I have 130 (Northwest Christian) students I see for one hour a day, five days a week. And to think that (Christian education) isn't going to be influential in some shape or form, that's kind of a myth. I don't think people realize the gravity that Christian education holds in terms of spiritual formation and faith development."

Yoder’s fellowship explores challenges facing Christian education, and her work will include empirical research on “Generation Z’s Experiences and Demonstration of Spiritual Practices in a Secondary Christian School.”

She is eager to tackle this issue.

When she embarked on her doctoral journey at GCU, she planned to research online teaching and learning but did not feel any gratification from it.

She became wide-eyed when she began teaching at Northwest Christian, where she noticed that not all students gravitated toward the spiritual formation and informational resources available to them.

So she switched her dissertation to spiritual formation strategies, against the advice of her doctoral chair, and leaned heavily into the importance of Christian education.

There's a reason why we need Christian education in the world ... There was data-based evidence research to show they do make a difference in the lives of students spiritually.

Dr. Amy Yoder
GCU College of Doctoral Studies fellow

“There’s a reason why we need Christian education in the world, and there is a reason why Christian schools have the mission they do,” said Yoder, who was grateful for the college's support in her transition. “The research allowed me just to prove or substantiate claims that Christian schools make, but there was data-based evidence research to show they do make a difference in the lives of students spiritually.”

Northwest Christian School Superintendent Geoff Brown described Yoder as an “unbelievable gift” to the school for more than her spiritual formation strategies.

“Academically, she’s the root of our dual enrollment in the English Department,” Brown said. “Kids know she cares about them, and they’re doubly invested in what she does at that point.”

Yoder, who also is a GCU adjunct professor, wrote in her first doctoral dissertation that the most important factor that helped in a student’s spiritual information was the relationship with the teacher. Much of her theory stemmed from relationship-building and understanding where the students are.

Another consideration is that students may be forced to attend a Christian school.

Yoder received a $4,000 postdoctoral fellowship grant.

“Sometimes their ability to not engage with spiritual information strategy practices is more about power struggle with the parent than the student themselves, if that makes sense,” Yoder said.

Peers play a role in swaying students toward performing community service projects, but Yoder identified a fascinating paradox.

“What’s weird is Generation Z, even though they are the most technology-driven generation, they crave relationships more than any other generation, like the face-to-face ones,” Yoder said. “It’s not just online. Yes, they do spend a lot of time on social media, but at the end of the day, when you ask them what helps them grow spiritually, it’s the relational connections they have with their teachers. And when you put them with their peers, and there’s someone guiding them, those things are all important.”

Another challenge is motivating students to research tougher questions rather than opting for their cell phones for answers, Yoder said.

As a Christian school teacher, Yoder said part of her mission is to try to make faith relevant in a world where Google seems to have all the answers.

“Part of it is trying to make the faith relevant in a world where it doesn’t appear to be relevant because Google has all the answers,” Yoder said. “The cellphone has access to AI (artificial intelligence).”

Yoder’s investment in students and her observations make her a game-changer, Brown said.

“It‘s interesting, because this generation has endured a season in which technology was a perceived savior of sorts because of COVID,” Brown said. “Technology was our way forward during that season. And now, suddenly, we’re trying to articulate there are dangers associated with it. It’s disorienting for students.”

Yoder, meanwhile, is determined to emphasize the importance of a Christian education.

“The parents, home life and church are critical,” said Yoder. “But it’s like the three-legged stool without a Christian education and someone helping the students form a biblical worldview the stool is never going to be fully stable.”

Ultimately, Yoder hopes her research and others' passion for Christian K-12 education will help stabilize that stool.

GCU News senior writer Mark Gonzales can be reached at [email protected]

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