Sooner or later, most teachers will have to deal with the diversity of religious beliefs, or non-beliefs, that their students and parents embrace in their lives. An overwhelming amount has been written about the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, what it means, and how it should play out in public schools. No matter what our own beliefs and interpretations, it is a public school teacher’s responsibility to keep church and state separate. At the same time, we want to appropriately address the questions and ideas growing children may have. In addition, public schools must accommodate, without supporting, specific religious practices that families observe. On top of all that, some religious beliefs differ with curricular content.
In a nutshell, the Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may not sponsor or require religious practices, but may teach about religion. Even with specific rulings like these, I find that there are still many differing interpretations. Many administrators believe that local policies trump state policies, while state lawmakers believe they override local guidelines. Into the bargain, teachers can be, and are, held to a higher standard by some. “Teachers are always teachers”, they say and, if a child sees his/her teacher bow a head, they may feel “coerced” into following suit. It can seem like a confusing mess, but teachers in the trenches must still make it work.
It’s a daunting task and often one that teachers aren’t aware they’ll be responsible for. It’s impossible to completely prepare for all possibilities, but I’ve gathered my best suggestions for dealing with religious differences in the public classroom.
1. Be fully aware of this dichotomy:
•Public schools may not sponsor any religious activity.
•Students and their families have the right to express their religion in a variety of ways, including non-attendance and passing on particular content lessons.
2. Understand that “teaching religion” and “teaching about religion” are two very different things. Referring to any religion and/or its teachings or holy writings is not necessarily wrong. There are certainly religion classes and other lessons that may touch on aspects of religion. For example, we cannot teach about why Europeans came to the New World without at least mentioning freedom of religion.
3. Approach any discussion where some aspect of religion may be mentioned with the care and respect you would give to any talk on diversity. We’re all allowed to hold our own beliefs. Explain clearly that nothing is meant to make a judgement, you are simply stating facts and we are learning.
4. Be absolutely certain that you have a specific teaching standard or objective that you can point to in case you need to defend yourself. For years, I taught my students how to use a time line. I explained that in the western world, we use the birth of Christ as our “beginning marker”. One year, I was moving through the lesson when I noticed there was a truly uncomfortable silence across the room. Eyes were flicking back and forth. When I asked if everything was alright, one child volunteered, “You said Christ.” I realized then how sensitive a subject religion had become . At the time, teaching how to use a time line was basic curriculum ELA and math curriculum and you simply can’t do it without referring to the birth of Christ. I knew I could point to the curriculum if any questions were raised.
5. Adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about your own or your students’ religious beliefs or practices. Discussing any personal beliefs is best left alone, unless you are in a definitive religion class that requires such a skill. On the other hand, have my students enthusiastically shared with me events and activities from their churches, Sunday Schools, and Bible Schools? You bet they have and I have celebrated with them and congratulated them. Two important concepts here are: I did not initiate the conversation, and we teach the whole child. No teacher worth their tennis shoes would brusquely dismiss a child who is eagerly sharing something that they value.
When Beliefs and Curriculum Collide
What about when parents take exception to some content that you’re teaching? I’ve experienced these:
•A parent shook her finger in my face and warned me, “You better never use the word ‘evolution’ in front of my child!”
•I once used the phrase “millions of years” in a science class. Several students let me know the earth wasn’t that old.
•A colleague let me know that her husband might send me an ugly email complaining about my use of the term “global warming”, which he didn’t think existed. My colleague had argued on my behalf, reminding her husband that I did not set the curriculum, I just taught it. He stated, “Well, she shouldn’t say it if it’s not true.”
•Many of my colleagues have had parents say, “We do not believe in or condone witchcraft. Do not assign Harry Potter to our child.”
You cannot change the curriculum to keep every parent happy. You have to teach your district’s curriculum, but there are ways that you can prepare ahead of time.
6. Be proactive, even before the school year starts. Find a way to ask about anything special that parents want you to know about their child. The school at which I spent most of my career developed a “Student Information Sheet” for back-to-school that included basic information, a place for medical information that we needed to know from the first, an “anything else you’d like us to know” section, and even a place to share their child’s interests and hobbies. When I met parents and gave them this form, I always pointed out the “anything else” section and encouraged them to include things such as behaviors, custody, or religious concerns. Consider bringing such an idea to your administration to be better prepared.
7. Consider revisiting your traditional holiday activities and opting for more global, inclusive activities. This is the big question for many public school teachers, especially in the lower grades: How does all of this play out during religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter? Especially at Christmas, so many academic and art activities are aimed at what has been done since we were all kids – wreath projects, math activities where you buy gifts, singing traditional songs, and of course, the Christmas party! Again, there is a fine, but definite, line between teaching about a religious holiday and actually celebrating it. If you focus on Christmas, the argument can be made that you’re promoting one religion over another.
To address this, many schools have begun to downplay holiday celebrations in general and to search out more globally inclusive activities that don’t focus on religion. Schools have begun to call their seasonal holidays by names that sound less “religious”. “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” have replaced “Merry Christmas”. December holidays are now “Winter Break” and “Easter Vacation” has become “Spring Break”. In the classroom, consider using activities and projects that are more winter-oriented. If you have a party, simply request items by their generic names. Then you needn’t fret if a parent sends in cupcakes with a Santa on them.
8. Always be ready with an alternative activity. Sometimes families will ask that their child not participate in a particular holiday activity or even a content lesson. This could take some coordination and collaboration on a school-wide scale, and is an excellent time to involve administration. If you know that a family has three children in your school and they don’t celebrate a particular holiday, work together to provide activities that don’t seem punitive. This is a time that your technology could really help. If you need to physically separate the students from the class by parent request, possibly a volunteer could come in to supervise the alternate activity. NOTE: Be very wary of accepting alternate activities from the parents who made the request. It could very easily become “teaching religion” in school. I did not show the video on creationism to my classes.
9. Change what you can and keep what you can’t. If parents object to a particular book, that’s an easy fix - choose another one. If they object to a particular term or concept, that’s tougher. I continued to use the term “global warming”, but also say “climate change”. Again, as in tip #4, be absolutely certain that you are covered in the curriculum. If you have a parent really go toe-to-toe with you over a word or concept, do your best to remain calm and compassionate. I recommend that you share the situation with your administrator beforehand and make them aware that you may need assistance. Invite the parents to talk with you and listen to what they have to say. Explain very matter-of-factly what you’ll be saying to cover the curriculum. If they ask for an alternate assignment, you’ll be prepared. If they are still not satisfied, that will be the time to bring in administrative support.
10. When in doubt, ask. I’ve asked several times over the years if I could give a child a birthday, Christmas, or Easter memento. Parents are generally very appreciative of your effort. Always get administrative and parental approval on any activity or lesson that falls into even a gray area. Yes, it’s a pain, but cheaper than a lawsuit. Again, access what previous teachers have done in their classrooms.
On The Fly
The suggestions and practices above work best when you know a particular topic will be discussed and you have time to prepare your comments. In real life we don’t always have that advantage. What do you do when a student asks a question or makes a comment that you’re not prepared to handle?
11. Don’t be afraid to take a pass on certain questions. Sometimes, it’s just not worth the headache. It’s OK to look puzzled and say, “I don’t know” or even frankly state, “That’s an interesting question and something you should probably discuss it at home with your parents.” A warm smile can show your student that you’re not displeased with him, just moving on.
12. Don’t be afraid to interrupt a student’s question or statement. There aren’t many times this is appropriate but I’ve had occasion to cut across a student’s statement, saying, “We’re not going to talk about that. We’ll save that for home talk.”
13. Become a master of changing the subject. I consider this strategy a little lame, but I’ve done it. As a teacher, you are responsible for the conversational content during lessons. There are times that looking at your watch and exclaiming, “Gosh, it’s time for lunch!” can really pull your fat out of the fire. This works much better for younger children, not so much for middle and high-schoolers. In that case…
14. When a question comes out of left field, redirect everyone’s attention to the task at hand. A student asked me once if I believed in a particular social topic. Since we were in the middle of independent math work, I replied, “I believe…we should get back to math and finish this assignment.”
15. Make a Question Box. Even the most seasoned, sensitive teachers can’t always foresee what questions and comments will come up during a school day. For those times that you’re pretty sure some zingers may come up, introduce the age-old Question Box ahead of time. You can filter inappropriate questions and plan your answers.
I'd love to hear your experiences on this topic. Best wishes!