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Religion and the public schools

Teachers and faith

Public schools have been and will continue to be
appropriate places for teachers of faith who respect
the legal and ethical boundaries of this open forum.

By Jonathan Eckert

arker Palmer writes, Good teaching cannot be reduced

to technique; good teaching comes from the identity
and integrity of the teacher (1998, p. 10) a simple
premise with complex implications.
Teachers arent mere technicians who simply replicate a series of routines that result in higher student test
scores. Teaching requires a proper balance of art and science that is
achieved through deep pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman,
1986) and virtuous instruction. In addition to teaching knowledge
and skills, teachers are responsible for developing the character of
students in four dimensions: intellectual habits of mind; moral
desire for goodness; civic community and global engagement;
and performance dispositions, virtues, and qualities to accomplish goals (Shields, 2011). Frequently, efficacy around these diverse
responsibilities is what draws people into teaching (Johnson, Berg,
& Donaldson, 2005). Because teachers are defined by their identity
and integrity, who they are is dependent on what they believe. What
teachers believe may matter more than how theyre prepared and
how theyre developed professionally (Haberman, 2011). What draws
and retains many teachers in the profession is a view of teaching as
a vocation or calling (Hansen, 1995). For people of faith, the call to
a vocation cannot be separated from the vocation, nor should it be.
Faith and religious beliefs have long been an impetus for serving
the public good and participating in a world that is larger than our
own lives. From Martin Luthers call for German public schools to
the first school started by Puritans in the 1600s, religious belief has
JONATHAN ECKERT is an assistant professor of education at Wheaton College,
Wheaton, Ill.



December 2011/January 2012


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driven public education. While the history of religious influence on public education is long, it has also
changed significantly over time. From the founding
of the United States, a separation of religion and
state has been implicit. The courts have repeatedly supported this mutual protection of state from
church and church from state. The First Amendment
Center, with 24 national organizations spanning the
political spectrum, has defined the role of religion
in education. Public schools may not inculcate nor
inhibit religion. They must be places where religion
and religious conviction are treated with fairness and
respect (Haynes, 2008, p. 5). Trust has been placed
in public school teachers trust that they wont
indoctrinate nor proselytize students. This trust is
essential for schools to remain open forums, a prerequisite for maintaining a democracy. For this reason, teachers of different faith backgrounds should
not be viewed as threats to the beliefs of students
and families; instead, they are the ethical stewards
of democratic education in this open forum.
Faith and teaching

As a graduate of a faith-based liberal arts teacher

preparation program with 12 years of teaching experience in public schools, a fellowship at the U.S.
Department of Education, and now as an education
professor at my alma mater, these issues concerning
the intersection of faith and public schools are very
important and real for me. If not for my faith and
the sense of purpose I derive from my faith, I would
not be teaching. I would have pursued more lucrative and likely less-demanding employment. Simply
put, I see teaching as a calling and a vocation, and
I continue to teach because of the joy and satisfaction I receive from seeing students become who they
were created to be. I believe that my students have
been created in the image of God (Genesis 1: 26-27)
and therefore have significant potential. Teachers of
various faith backgrounds are likely to share this perspective. This perspective requires teachers of faith
to provide rich learning experiences that will allow
each student to flourish. The fact that teachers of
faith view their students as having been created with
inherent dignity leads to a high view of the potential
and value of each individual student.
This does not imply that all teachers of faith are
strong teachers. There are excellent and poor teachers
of all faiths, and excellent and poor teachers who do
not have faith. However, the call to teaching can be a
powerful influence upon the dispositions and habits of
mind of teachers of faith. High expectations for each
student are a natural response for teachers who believe
the Creator has endowed students with unique gifts
and abilities. The dignity of human beings is a central tenet of many faiths including Islam, Hinduism,

Christianity, and Judaism (Bowker, 1997). Moreover,

this view of dignity, human potential, and the call to
serve others leads to the celebration of students of
diverse backgrounds. A teachers faith does not call
him or her to intolerance; instead, the teachers call to
serve students and their families should be the impetus
for creating a community that increases social capital
and opportunities for each member.
David Hansen (1995) writes, The sense of vocation finds its expression at the crossroads of public

Teachers of different faith backgrounds

are the ethical stewards of democratic
education in this open forum.
obligation and personal fulfillment. It takes shape
through involvement in work that has social meaning and value (p. 3). This sense of vocation has the
potential for retaining teachers who will view teaching as a lifelong calling. Hansen (2001) describes this
quality as a tenacious humility, an active quality
of staying the course while respecting reality. This
sense of calling provides a structure and orientation
for thoughts and philosophy while guiding concrete
actions in the classroom.
Teaching is both an intellectual and moral practice (Hansen, 2001; Lewis, 1944; Noddings, 1992,
2002). Teaching cannot occur in a moral vacuum.
Good teaching develops students understandings of
the world, others, and their role in that world. It
means expanding, not contracting, students knowledge, insights, and interests. It means deepening, not
rendering more shallow, students ways of thinking
and feeling (Hansen, 2001, p. ix). Decades earlier,
C.S. Lewis conveyed a similar sentiment. The task
of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles
but to irrigate deserts (1944, p. 13). The educator
eliminates false sentiments by teaching and embodying just sentiments. As teachers and students pursue
knowledge and truth, misconceptions are replaced
by understanding. This requires teachers to move
far beyond an informational transaction of content.
Four examples

To illustrate the impact of faith on teaching, I offer

four examples from preservice teachers in our teacher
preparation program. Similar examples might be
found in a variety of other programs or in practice in
schools across the U.S. They are concrete examples
of Palmers identity and integrity, teachers whose
faith has influenced their intellectual, moral, civic, and
performance character and the development of those
dimensions of character in their students.
Last year, during our spring break, Andrew, a talV93 N4

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are defined
by their
identity and
who they
are is
on what
P1/2 students at the International School of Moshi Arusha campus in Arusha, Tanzania, present Kelly with a book they
collectively wrote and illustrated. (Photo by Diana Kraft.)

Pre-primary students at Matonyok Parents Trust Orphanage in Olasiti Village, Arusha, Tanzania, listened
as books were read bilingually in English and the national
language of Kiswahili. (Photo by Nosim Ndemno.)


December 2011/January 2012

ented mathematics and education double major, led a

group of college students to Englewood, one of the
most challenging communities in Chicago due to
high crime and poverty levels. Andrews team provided tutoring, after-school programs, and games
for students as they partnered with a local nonprofit
organization. Over the week, Andrew developed relationships with students that he still maintains. During earlier spring breaks, Andrew traveled to Louisiana and Alabama to serve students in poverty. Many
U.S. college students participate in similar service
projects for a variety of reasons. Andrews passion
and commitment are derived from his beliefs. Like
many others, he doesnt serve out of obligation or
seek to be recognized for his service. He simply feels
called to use his time and talent in this manner.
Kelly did her student teaching in Tanzania last
fall. She had spent the three previous years preparing
to teach and live in a different culture through her
education courses and an intensive college certificate program that examines human needs and global
resources. Kelly entered East Africa by herself with
the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to teach in a
variety of settings. Even given the challenging lack
of resources that she faced, she became a creative
teacher who tried to address the holistic needs of her

students. Her desire to see her students grow took

her back to Tanzania this fall as a full-time teacher.
In the summer of 2010, Morgan went to Guatemala to serve in a rural orphanage. When she arrived in Guatemala, she learned that an orphanage
in Zone 6 of Guatemala City its most dangerous neighborhood needed two volunteers for the
summer. Morgan stepped up. Over the summer, she
developed dengue fever, sometimes called the bone
breaking fever due to intense joint pain. For a week,
she laid in a dark room with smoldering eucalyptus
leaves, a pungent, native cure. After recovering
from the fever and finishing her work at the orphanage, she returned to the U.S. and classes in the fall.
The remarkable part of Morgans story is not the actual experience, but the joy with which she describes
her time in the orphanage and the relationships she
experienced. She described her time in Guatemala
as the best summer of my life.
Rachael was student teaching 7th-grade science
at a local middle school last fall when one of her
students died tragically. When our group of 12 student teachers met for our weekly senior seminar,
we set aside the prescribed activities in the syllabus
and spent the first hour of seminar processing this
tragedy, sometimes in silence, sometimes in words,
and sometimes in prayer. This was possible because
of the shared faith and support in our college community. According to Rachael, notes from professors, text messages from other student teachers,
and the prayers of her faith community sustained
her through this time so that she could continue
to lead and serve her students. Rachael struggled
through this experience, but her cooperating teacher
described her as a tremendous help as she and her
students grieved this loss.

vate dispositions such as perseverance, diligence, and

courage in preservice teachers dispositions that
are ultimately derived from their faith. Our profession needs more teachers and leaders with Hansens
tenacious humility. Public schools have been and
will continue to be appropriate places for teachers
of faith who respect the legal and ethical boundaries of this open forum. Moreover, if we believe that
a democracy is predicated on the development of
students intellectual, moral, civic, and performance
character, and that teachers are essential to this development, then those educators with deeply held
religious beliefs should be excellent stewards of a
democratic society.


Luther, M. (2005). To the councilmen of all cities in Germany

that they establish and maintain Christian schools. In M. Lull

Andrew served public school students through

after-school programs. Kelly served students in an
orphanage and international school in Tanzania.
Morgan served students in an orphanage in Guatemala. Rachael served public middle school students
in the United States. Their experiences and, more
importantly, their attitudes toward these experiences, demonstrate their desire to serve students of
diverse backgrounds. Wherever their call to teaching leads them public, private, or international
schools they will serve students well and with joy.
The identity and integrity of these preservice
teachers is directly related to their faith. As a teacher
of teachers, my identity and integrity play a role in
developing the habits of mind that cause these teachers to desire goodness, cultivate community, seek
justice, and deliver a rigorous curriculum based on
high expectations to each student. I attempt to culti-

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