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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.

Parker 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 aren't 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 they're prepared and how they're 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 Luther's call for German public schools to the first school started by Puritans in the 1600s, religious belief has 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 won't 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 teacher's faith does not call him or her to intolerance; instead, the teacher's 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 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 Palmer's "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 talented 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. Andrew's 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. Andrew's passion and commitment are derived from his beliefs. Like many others, he doesn't 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 Morgan's 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.


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 cultivate 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 Hansen's "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.


Bowker, J. (Ed.). (1997). The Oxford dictionary of world religions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Haberman, M. (2011, August 5). The beliefs and behaviors of star teachers. Teachers College Record.

Hansen, D. (1995). The call to teach. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Hansen, D. (2001). Exploring the moral heart of teaching. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Haynes, C.C. (2008). A teacher's guide to religion in the public schools. Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center.

Johnson, S.M., Berg, J.H., & Donaldson, M. (2005). Who stays in teaching and why: A review of the literature on teacher retention. Cambridge, MA: The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers.

Lewis, C.S. (1944). The abolition of man. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins.

Luther, M. (2005). To the councilmen of all cities in Germany that they establish and maintain Christian schools. In M. Lull (Ed.), Martin Luther's basic theological writings (2nd ed., pp. 460-464). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress. (Original published 1524)

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Noddings, N. (2002). Educating moral people: A caring alternative to character education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Shields, D.L. (2011). Character as the aim of education. Phi Delta Kappan, 92 (8), 48-53.

Shulman, L. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15 (2), 4-14.

JONATHAN ECKERT is an assistant professor of education at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill.
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Title Annotation:Religion and the public schools
Author:Eckert, Jonathan
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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