The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and

delight is what the Hebrews prophets call shalom.…Sin is culpable shalom-breaking.

-Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.


When I was a school superintendent, Tom Norris was named Math Teacher of the Year because the Thomas Jefferson Math Team consistently placed high in state and national competitions.  A mixture of expertise, passion and high expectations makes Tom a great teacher for gifted math students.  After the team’s fifth national placement, Tom gave up some of his advanced placement calculus classes to teach applied math to students that struggle with basic math concepts.   His ability to create relevance and connect with students, to mix urgency with patience makes Tom a great teacher for struggling students.

Good teachers are consistently searching for a balance in their classrooms.  They hold high expectations for themselves and their students, they apply these standards consistently, and they are fair.  But somehow they get to know all of their students, treat them as individuals, encourage them when they fail, and recognize their accomplishments.  They search for a balance between justice and mercy.

Good managers struggle with the same balancing act every day.  They establish high expectations and deliver results for the shareholders.  But they also create a hospitable working environment and recognize individual circumstances.  Their personal reflections search for a balance of heart and mind, a fulfillment of both justice and mercy.

Theology is the age-old search for meaning amidst the paradox of justice and mercy.  Politics is the working out in public of the appropriate balance.

Just: fair, indifferent, impartial

Merciful: kind, personal, and partial

Just: high standards consistently applied

Merciful: forgiveness for failure and frailty

Just: clear, strong, decisive

Merciful: compassionate and caring

Just: logic, performance

Merciful: passion, patience

Just: Republican

Merciful: Democrat


Just: mind

Merciful: heart


Dilemmas at work are frequent and complex.  The balance is particularly difficult to maintain in public education – an enterprise of achievement and human service.  It is a delicate task to create a sense of urgency for performance with teachers that feel victimized and children that lack basic needs.  Compassion alone feeds victimization, fulfills only short-term psychic needs, and ill-equips students for their future.  An indifferent performance orientation breeds resistance, resentment, and resignation.

Justice and mercy:  it is never easy to find the right balance at school, at work, in politics, or at home.  Solutions are found in broadly sustained conversations about creating forward-focused environments of opportunity that value performance but provide and support multiple paths to achievement.  Dare to be just.  Dare to care.  Find ways to do both.


[the Good Work Sunday series started as journal entries while serving as a public school superintendent in the 90s]

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


  1. I have read works by Cornelius’ son Alvin (at least I think it’s his son). I am working my way through Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship” again right now. Slow-going with a toddler running around the house. Thanks for this Sunday post!


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