Seriously, I get tired of writing about the teachers’ lounge. If it weren’t for the fact that I do like socializing with my colleagues during the one real time I get to see any of them (besides my lunch duty, which I share with another new teacher), I think I would avoid it. It seems like when I pay attention to what’s actually in there (which I do somewhat out of necessity, since my lunch period starts 15 minutes before the rest of the group), I inevitably find something that makes me go through what seems like the stages of grief: anger that someone in my hallowed profession would applaud something so stupid, depression that someone would actually disseminate bad information when our job is to promote knowledge and understanding, and finally acceptance (or maybe resignation) that I can’t change everything.

But then the idealist in me says, What do you mean, you can’t change everything? How will you know if you can’t do something about this if you don’t make an effort?

Permit me to stop being cryptic now and get to my point: Today, in that interim between the end of my lunch duty and the official beginning of the next lunch period, I was looking around at the papers on our table, and I found what was obviously an E-mail forward printed off in huge letters. After the last experience with one of these, I was apprehensive but read on anyway. (Sometimes a desire to understand is potentially painful, like the proverbial feline death by way of curiosity.)

I started reading and, despite a few points that I thought were odd, found myself nodding along:

After being interviewed by the school administration, the prospective teacher said:
‘Let me see if I’ve got this right.

‘You want me to go into that room with all those kids, correct their disruptive behavior, observe them for signs of abuse, monitor their dress habits, censor their T-shirt messages, and instill in them a love for learning.

‘You want me to check their backpacks for weapons, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and raise their sense of self esteem and personal pride.

‘You want me to teach them patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play, and how to register to vote, balance a checkbook, and apply for a job.

‘You want me to check their heads for lice, recognize signs of antisocial behavior, and make sure that they all pass the final exams.

‘You also want me to provide them with an equal education regardless of their handicaps, and communicate regularly with their parents in English, Spanish or any other language, by letter, telephone, newsletter, and report card.

‘You want me to do all this with a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a bulletin board, a few books, a big smile, and a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps.

‘You want me to do all this and then you tell me. . .

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[Those extra single periods were on the printout: no joke. I don’t recall how many there were, though, so the above is merely an approximation.]

At this point, it sounds like a hyperbolic criticism of all the things teachers have to do with so little in return, and that is bound to resonate with most teachers (except those who have an abundance of resources and a large salary – I know they exist). But then, as you might guess from the fact that I left off the ending, everything goes down the tubes.

The final sentence is, regrettably,

I CAN’T PRAY?

Which made me go, What?! (Tangentially: I really wish there was an ASCII character for the interrobang; it would save me so much time in moments like these. Wait a second – there is‽)

Now, I’m fully cognizant of the fact that, as a teacher in a small rural Midwestern community, there are liable to be a high percentage of Christians, many of whom fit into the “religious right” kind of category. (I think that I have several colleagues who are Catholic; the county we’re in has a high amount of those, I’ve noticed.) So I guess I’m not all that surprised that the topic of prayer in schools, long a contentious issue for very religious individuals, would rear its ugly head. I just thought that they would get their facts straight.

Sigh.

For the record – and teachers out there, I hope you understand this already – this is a gross misunderstanding of the very real issue that teachers and prayer causes with First Amendment considerations. Religious righters like to talk about how prayer has been removed from public schools, but that’s not a fair assessment without some qualifications. (This resource by the Anti-Defamation League is a good place to start; some of the information there will be summarized below. Please let me know if I have misconstrued the facts.)

Yes, it is now a well-established precedent that organized prayer (especially when teacher-led) is a violation of the Establishment Clause, and so that tradition has been gone for quite some time now. I’m glad for that – any potential benefits (thinking specifically here of solidarity among groups with fairly homogenous religious beliefs) are outweighed by the potential dangers of excluding students who do not share that belief, and it is unequivocally not a good thing to coerce religious practice or even endorse any specific religious practice (such as prayer).

But students have a free right to pray and read religious texts in school, both individually and in groups (but only outside the classroom setting where a learning environment is not being disrupted). I remember having a group in my high school that met occasionally during lunch in a teacher’s classroom (although the teacher was often out of the room) for prayer, and that is (to my knowledge) perfectly constitutional. Student-led and -organized religious practices cannot be construed as establishment of a religion by the government because the parties involved are not governmental representatives (as long as the school does not provide a platform – student-led prayers over an intercom would still be unconstitutional). Teachers are.

Now, I could see some individuals being upset at the fact that it is true that teachers’ First Amendment right to practice religion can be somewhat abrogated when the teacher is acting as a representative of the government (which is basically any time we are in school), but there is a good reason for that – it helps avoid Establishment Clause violations. For better or worse (hopefully the former), teachers have influence over students, and it is unethical to use that relationship to influence a student toward a specific religion; as a result, teachers cannot do anything that would resemble proselytizing while they are acting as an agent of the government. It’s a hard line to walk, but it’s a necessary one.

Here’s a personal example of late: A student asked me, totally out of the blue, “Do you believe in evolution?” (I have to say, I hate that question. If it were worded “Do you think that evolution occurs?” then I wouldn’t be so aggravated at it.) I responded that I believe that it has occurred, and the student then asked me if I believe in God. (As much as I hate the initial question, I hate this sequence of questions even more.) I hesitantly responded that I do, quickly noting that it is irrelevant whether I believe in a god or not to be an effective teacher. I didn’t even necessarily want to reveal my own beliefs because I have a strong belief in leaving my personal beliefs on religion, politics, and most anything that is not a part of my discipline out of the picture so that I don’t influence any of my students unduly – if students come to the same conclusions, I want it to be because they reasoned to those conclusions independently of what I believe.

So praying in public in the role of a teacher is problematic largely for that reason: it sets up an influence that is a manipulation (intentional or not) of the student-teacher relationship. Teachers can’t do that, so public prayer is out.

But prayer in toto? Absolutely not. If you’re a teacher alone in your classroom during your prep period, silent prayer would absolutely not be an Establishment Clause issue (as far as I can tell). And outside of the school setting, there is clearly no way that schools can police your behavior, and you are free to pray for students all you want (and certainly some students might merit it!). You just can’t pray with students when acting in that role – again, that violates the nature of the student-teacher relationship.

The nature of this balancing act is frequently misconstrued – my own mother, for instance, has argued with me that prayer has been eliminated from schools altogether – but I just can’t believe that an educator (or at least someone who is currently working in education and would also be considered a representative of the government, I believe) would celebrate such a flagrantly untrue piece of garbage like this. We should know what is permissible and what is not, and if we don’t know, then we shouldn’t be putting that information out there in case it might mislead others. The bottom line here is that we are educators, not miseducators. We should be working toward knowledge and understanding, not regressing into ignorance.

My real dilemma is now, as I alluded earlier, whether or not to just accept that there is ignorance among my colleagues or to do something about it. At this stage, I am very highly leaning toward the latter in the least confrontational way possible, most likely an anonymous letter that I would put on the table expressing how disappointing it is to see misinformation disseminated in the teachers’ lounge when it should be advancement of knowledge that we are trying to promote among the members of our professional community. I might even attach a printout of something like the ADL link I gave above in order to highlight the facts that exist regarding religious practice in schools.

I don’t know for sure yet. I want to do something, though, to challenge the status quo that seems to think it’s okay to put things out there on our collective table that could be potentially divisive or offensive to some of our staff. I don’t want – and shouldn’t have – to be the one to correct whoever it is that is doing this, but something’s gotta give. I feel very strongly about crushing ignorance, no less in my colleagues than my students, and I think that, even in differing educational philosophies, that same passion should be at the core of why we teach.

And if it isn’t, then I think that we have bigger problems than prayer in public schools.

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