Tov and Joy in the Classroom

By: Laura Barringer

This is adapted from a speech Laura gave at the “Leading a Culture of JOY” event in Chicago.

In October 2020, my father and I published what became a bestselling book called A Church Called Tov. It is not a story I could have ever planned to write. After all, I am a school teacher and have spent two decades of my career teaching primary-grade children. Writing a book at all and especially one about abuse in Christian organizations is not an expectation I ever held for myself.

But the next season of my life changed on March 23, 2018 when a story broke in the Chicago Tribune about my former church and pastor – Willow Creek Community Church in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois and its then senior-pastor Bill Hybels. Women we knew to be truthful reported Hybels’ abuse, the church called them liars, and we knew we couldn’t stay silent. Together my father and I wrote a book about forming cultures of goodness that resist the abusive responses we witnessed from Willow Creek’s leadership. We wrote about resisting those responses and instead creating spaces to promote care and healing for the wounded.

Maybe you have read A Church Called Tov and know that our book is for those we call wounded resisters: women and men who did the right thing, who told the truth, who suffered rejection and intimidation and worse as a result, but who persevered in truth-telling so the truth would be known. We were and still are deeply grateful for them. Our book was and is for them, the truth-tellers who were wounded in the process of their resistance. I’ll return to these courageous men and women a little bit later in this article.

But A Church Called Tov resonated with pastors and leaders and principals and teachers and beyond largely because it offers a redemptive message – one that helps Christian leaders, including those in schools, form cultures that radiate goodness and joy. Ultimately I believe joy comes from living a Tov-filled, Spirit-led life.


First, I need to explain this strange-sounding word – Tov. Rhymes with stove. (We rhyme a lot in kindergarten.) I was unfamiliar with it myself until it became part of my daily vocabulary about three years ago.

Tov is the Hebrew word for goodness. It appears more than seven hundred times in our Bible, and seven times alone on page one of Genesis. (God saw all that he had made, and it was very tov.) God is tov, God does tov, all that God created and creates is tov. He designs humans to walk in the way of tov, Jesus is our “tov” shepherd, Jesus calls us to do tov works, the Spirit’s fruit is tov. Our gospel, the good news, is “tov” news.

Our Bible is quite literally the Book of Tov.

My father Scot McKnight, a world-renowned theologian and scholar and author, teaches that Tov is a one-word summary of God’s ultimate approval. When we do our work as God wants us to work, when we love our students and colleagues as God shaped us to love, when we teach as God wants us to teach . . . tov! When we live, act, and speak as God designs – as we teach our students and help those who are hurt and interact with colleagues and even answer parents’ emails and participate in school meetings, we can listen for His ultimate approval: Tov!

Tov, I have come to understand, is a master moral category in our Bible. Author Ann Voskamp says it’s a three-letter word that shapes our entire lives. I think she’s right. When it summarizes a person’s life, tōv means a flourishing, faithful moral character. I believe this mysterious and beautiful little three-letter word offers a map for educators as we seek to create classroom cultures that radiate goodness. And when we live good or Tov lives as God designed, joy can become a hallmark of our classrooms and schools.

I want to say this before we go any further. If you remember anything from what I write, may it be this:

Your classroom is its culture, and the culture you create is your classroom.  A tov person will create a tov classroom that organically produces joy. Goodness and joy and the Spirit’s fruit will be your culture. Goodness and joy will be your classroom. People will enter and experience the tov-ness because they are breathing, active elements alive in your classroom culture.

So how do we attempt to create classrooms like this – ones that nurture and build tov and radiate joy?

My answer is perhaps an unconventional one but it’s built on twenty years of teaching experience and I believe what I am about to write to the depths of my soul.

It is not what we do as teachers. It’s not about what lessons we plan or how we decorate our classrooms. And please know I do create beautiful bulletin boards for my kindergarten classroom and they do make me feel copious amounts of teacher-joy. (Bulletin boards and fonts and focus walls and double borders and fadeless paper bring me what I believe is true joy. Ask my colleagues. They will tell you how joyful I was when my new pocket charts arrived last week.)

But all teacher-talk aside, creating loving, joyful cultures is not about what we do. It is instead about who we are. It’s our character – your character and my character. A tov character produces a tov culture and a tov classroom.

And we become tov-er by exposing ourselves to God’s Spirit and by daily or minute-by-minute surrendering to Him. That includes for us educators surrendering to Him and walking with Him in our classrooms and in our schools. And in creating beautiful, bright bulletin boards. (Just kidding. I think.)

So now you know what Tov is. It is the Hebrew word for goodness and it can and should shape our entire lives including how we teach and live at school.

You know by now that I am not a theologian. I am an educator and most recently a kindergarten teacher, but allow me to say a few words now about living a life with the Holy Spirit. What I have learned I have learned from others and from trying to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance in my own life. I share it now with you because I believe it is the foundation for creating classroom cultures of joy.


The Holy Spirit should be the dominating guidance in our lives as Christians. We should live with the Spirit and by the Spirit. What does that mean? It means this – Life in the Spirit looks like what Jesus said and taught. Living with the Holy Spirit will also look like what the Apostle Paul said and taught, and again I share here what I have learned mostly from my father:

Paul talked about the Spirit like this: He said “walk by the Spirit” and he referred to being “led by the Spirit” and he taught believers to “live by the Spirit” and “keep in step with the Spirit.”[1] God’s design for us – to live a Tov life – comes to fruition through a Spirit-soaked, Spirit-filled, and Spirit-directed life as Paul described.

Including at school. Including in your classroom.

When we are exposed to the Spirit, He will make us bigger, bolder, and brighter educators. Being open to the Spirit and directed by the Spirit means we will be filled with tov. It means we will love others well, including our students and their parents and our colleagues.

Speaking of exposure to the Spirit, allow me to share a current example.

My father and I were recently invited to speak about Tov at Asbury Seminary. The professor asked us when we finished if we had any questions for them, which we did. My father and I asked the course participants about the recent revival on campus, of which maybe you have heard. All of them – the professor and students – described the revival differently but yet the same. They said it was calm, peaceful, that it was humble and healing, it was good, confession and reconciliation happened, and it was very anti-celebrity. But I gravitated towards this one word in their description of the Spirit-soaked event: Good. They encountered the Spirit that settled on their little campus auditorium in Kentucky and they found Him to be very, very good.

They prayed in that Asbury auditorium and they talked about love and how to love one another well. They read Scripture for extended periods of time. They sang and sat and prayed some more. They said the theme of the revival and what they learned from exposure to God’s Spirit was love.

You see, the Spirit is good so if we are open to Him and directed by Him and surrendered to Him, we too will be filled with His tov-ness and His love.

But remember, we don’t make ourselves into tov people. God does. He transforms us through the power of his Holy Spirit, for whom goodness and joy are natural fruits. He decided to settle in that auditorium in Kentucky and teach students how to better love one another. They didn’t decide. He did. But they were open to Him and what He was doing in those days, and they learned to be people who loved each other better.

Is there any greater joy? To be open to the Spirit, respond to Him, and allow Him to transform you?


Think about what Paul said, verses with which many of us are familiar as Christians: the fruit of the Spirit is love, peace, kindness, goodness, gentleness. And it is joy. It is joy that can become a hallmark of your classroom even on the hardest days. And we do have hard days in teaching. The last few years have been some of the hardest for us, have they not?

But this is what I believe even on my hardest days in the classroom: Joy comes from living a life that is open to the Spirit, surrendered to the Spirit, and guided by the Spirit.

Joy comes when the Spirit takes root in our life, and then the Spirit creates fruit in us. That’s the big idea: the Spirit is in us to make us more Christlike, more godly, more loving, more joyful. Our very life – every moment of it even at school – needs to be based on the Spirit and animated by the Spirit and the fruit he grows in us.

I have learned that people who routinely expose themselves to the Spirit recognize the Spirit’s promptings. And sometimes the Spirit prompts us or nudges us or suggests to us and we act on the Spirit’s guidance and we afterwards know it was God at work. Sometimes the Spirit prompts us to speak things to students or parents or colleagues we wouldn’t have said on our own. Maybe you are thinking of such a prompting now.

The revival witnesses at Asbury that we talked to recently spoke of responding to God’s Spirit as they experienced His good, loving presence. Some said they left the Asbury auditorium after the regular chapel service and then felt promptedto return to the auditorium. So they did. And they encountered God’s Spirit in their response. And remember they talked about God’s love and how to love each other better as a result of being open to Him.

I think again of my spiritual heroes, the wounded men and women at Willow Creek who were called liars when they publicly called Willow Creek elders and pastors to repent.  Many of them may tell you they experienced deep joy in following the Spirit’s promptings so truth would be known. It was pain-filled but joy-filled following where the Spirit led.


If you are reading this article to learn concrete ways of making joy a hallmark of your classroom, you may not have received what you expected. I’m not offering an education-ese answer here for ways to make joy a hallmark of your classroom. I’m not giving you what is familiar to us as educators – rubrics for measuring joy or joy-ideas with which to decorate your classroom. I’m not offering lesson plans about joy or creative ways to spread it with games and worksheets. I’m not even suggesting cute joy-filled messages for your bulletin boards, but I’m sure I can think of some if needed.


What I am offering is words that come from me out of a place of personal growth and revival. I know what it means to surrender to the Spirit and have Him change your life. Surrendering to Him personally spilled into other areas of my life and that included professionally with my colleagues and students in my classroom. I am a better teacher and experience joy more deeply because I learned to surrender to the Spirit and to His promptings. So I tell you not just because it’s what the Bible says or from what I’ve heard others teach or from witnesses of the Asbury revival but from my own experience. It is only in the surrender to the Spirit that we can find true joy.

If you want to make joy a hallmark of your classroom, start with who you are becoming. Start with your character.

And do this: Turn your heart, turn your face, turn your mind to the Spirit. Respond to where He leads you.

I’m going to end with this prayer, one I am told pastor and theologian John Stott prayed every morning. Imagine me laying my hands on your shoulders and us bowing our heads together and me praying this over you before you leave for school in the morning:

Heavenly Father, I pray that this day I may live in your presence and please you more and more.

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and joy.


Be Tov!

[1] Gal 5:16, 18, 25

One thought on “Tov and Joy in the Classroom

  1. Could I get a copy of your article? I found it rich, and would love to share it with a Christian School counselor.

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