To new teachers who are people of faith: Life will not get more exciting than teaching in a public school.

Surprises around the corner

Today, I received a small cardboard box from a student. Really small! It measured 1.25 inches x 1.25 inches. Inside was a tiny sculpture of me – 1 inch high. The student formed it from modeling clay, made the tiny box to contain it, and wrapped it with a sparkly blue thread. I’ll keep this little version of me forever!

I’ve received gift cards, toys, stuffed animals, Beatles posters, Beatles CDs, a dozen fake apples, two dozen mugs, and enough candy to fill a 55 gallon drum… but what I treasure more than all are the handmade gifts, the handmade cards, and the letters of appreciation. I have three letters from junior high students on my wall.

To new teachers: You are in for the ride of a lifetime. Nothing is as rewarding as teaching. Nothing! If you are not surprised each day by your students, just wait. You will be.

I teach junior high.

I presently teach English-language arts in a junior high school in southern California. I have taught middle school students, grades six through eight, for twenty years, and I have survived it.

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I get ready to watch all the blood drain from his or her face when I answer. I brace myself for a response like, “Oh, that’s great!” which is hiding thoughts more like “I feel so sorry for you,” or “Wow! What’s that like?” as thoughts of junior high flood their memory. Most people instantly reflect back to their days in junior high – the pimples, parts of your body doing things they had never done before, taming a squeaky voice, confronting the school bully, having to shower in PE, or surviving their first teacher crush.

I like teaching junior high and I love teaching English. I keep thinking about moving up to high school where the “real” students are, but something draws me back to these pubescent pimply pools of hormones covered with skin. Middle school students think they’re all grown up, but they’re really kids. However, they are kids who constantly surprise me by doing grown-up things.

To new teachers – especially if you are a person of faith – and to all who are considering teaching, there are a few things you need to know about public school.

It ain’t easy teaching in a public school.

Teaching in a public school is not an easy job. Every teacher plans and plans. Every teacher has hours of homework. Every teacher grades papers late into the night (except PE teachers.) Every teacher has four bosses – the school board, administrators, parents, and children. Every teacher has to do his or her job with skill and grace and make it look easy. Besides being a teacher, teachers have to be surrogate parents, counselors, comforters, motivators, and disciplinarians.

To make things harder, being a person of faith in the public education system challenges even the strongest believer. But it should not frighten you away from entering a career in public education. You just need to scan the playing field before you begin. It will go easier if you assume two things:

Assumption #1 – Public schools will not acknowledge God.

If you are a person of faith, you should enter public education with this clearly in mind: Public education denies the existence of God. They may say they do believe God exists, but they do not act like it. Even though you will say, “One nation under God” 180 times a year, public education has transformed itself from being a spiritual institution into a secular institution devoid of anything related to God, a supreme being, divine inspiration, divine writing, theology, catechism, and especially prayer. Public education declares that there will always be a separation of church and state, and state-funded education will have nothing to do with religion.

Now, while it sounds like public education is a den of paganism and dark arts, the opposite is true. What public school declares and what really happens are polar opposites. Faith actually thrives extremely well in the public school system. You just have to look for it.

Assumption #2 – Public schools misunderstand faith.

Public education (More realistically, the people in charge of public education) no longer acknowledges basic tenets of faith and religion. Public schools operate with a post-Christian mindset. Though unintentional, most of the people in power perpetuate a misunderstanding of faith in God and the role that faith plays within our society. They focus on anomalies rather than norms. Faith is defined in terms of the outliers, not the accepted. They misunderstand Christians and the Christian church.

Public education believes that the church is an institution like public education is an institution. Schools are brick and mortar edifices where learning happens to children inside its buildings. Without a school building, schools do not exist. Teachers need a place to teach – that place is the school building. Public education transfers its definition of school – being a building with administration, teachers, parents, and students – onto the church.

This misunderstanding extends to their assumption of what a church really is and does. Theologically, Christian churches, though possessing buildings, are groups of people and most religious practices, actions of faith, take place outside the church building during the week – not for an hour or two on Sunday. The Christian church does most of its work outside of a building.

Public education also misunderstands the people of faith. Public education does not realize that faith dwells in people, not in buildings or institutions. The “goody-two-shoes” stereotype can no longer be found in most vibrant churches. Christians are out in society doing the same things that the rest of society is doing – to a point. When actions violate faithfulness to God, the actions stop.

Finally, public education does not understand what faith does within people. Faith is dynamic, ever-changing. Faith’s actions are internally-motivated. They happen from the inside out, and a person’s character actually changes because of faith. Public education is the opposite – it is outside in. The more knowledge you receive from a school or teacher, the better person you become. The more you learn, the better citizen you become. Public education believes that knowledge makes you a better human being. Schooling occurs extrinsically, so public education tries to overlay this understanding onto people of faith.

Moreover, public education regards faith as a type of superstition based in something that is neither real nor scientific. Because of its presuppositions, public education will never fully understand the effects of faith in a public school. In some circumstances public education will be surprised when certain things happen on a campus. Seldom, if ever, will they acknowledge actions of faith as the reason it happens.

A pilgrim’s journey in public education

John Bunyan’s classic A Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical novel about a person-of-faith’s walk through his spiritual life. I will not offer so eloquent or intellectual an offering here. But I will address challenges that a person with a Judeo-Christian upbringing faces when working in public education. Anytime that a state-funded, state-operated entity comes into contact with anything religious, friction warms the experience – and you may feel the heat. I will warn when and where certain conflicts will arise, and I will offer simple solutions to either avoid the conflict or confront the conflict in a manner worthy of a person who is called to be set apart from the world that surrounds them. The believer’s goal is always to remain faithful to your convictions, yet remain in a situation where your paycheck keeps coming every month. A person of faith can keep the faith and keep the job. Both are possible.

©2018 Douglas Hanks. All rights reserved.

Tiny sculpture of Mr. Hanks by Sebrina Pustam.

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