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 Eckert, Jonathan | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Eckert, Jonathan, Phi Delta Kappan


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. …

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