As a young adult, before I became a college professor, I taught in public schools in rural Ohio. Having also grown up in rural Ohio, though a different part, I assumed that my experiences as an adult teacher would be similar to those I had as a student. I was in my early 20s, with political and social ideologies that were not fully mature. Despite that, my beliefs were significantly different from those of the people I was to be teaching with, largely due to my nonreligious beliefs opposing their religious worldviews.
I was new to the profession, so I was trying to keep my head above water and be the best teacher I could be for the students. But I’m surprised to recall the variety of covert ways that Christianity found its way into the schools—and ashamed of the way I did nothing to stop them.
The open and the closed
I should have anticipated that teaching in rural Ohio would get complicated after the district paid a speaker to inspire the teachers through motivational words while also presenting some new educational ideas. These speakers are relatively common at the start of a school year. As a part of this professional development presentation, the speaker gave us surveys to fill out, which gave a score from 0-100. We then physically positioned our bodies on a spectrum with everyone arranged according to their score—0 on the right, 100 on the left.
The speaker revealed that the surveys measured our openness to change (which we had already surmised based on the types of questions asked). Zero indicated extreme resistance to change, while 100 was extreme openness to change. Of the faculty, I was the furthest to the left and open to change, with a score of 86. The next closest person was the librarian, with a score of 64.
We were the only two above 50.
A significant number were clumped around the 40-49 area, but there were several in the 0-20 range. It was only later that I realized the intersection between the supposed “openness to change” and political views. To this day I am a progressive liberal, and many on the “resistant to change” side are conservatives, some even MAGA conservatives. This result would not surprise social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who identified “openness to experience” as a defining trait of a liberal perspective.
Immediately after that exercise, I saw the principal looking at me with a “he-might-be-trouble” look. But I wasn’t. When you are a young teacher, you are occasionally (or frequently) put in situations that you intellectually understand are wrong, but you don’t challenge anyone for fear of repercussions. The last thing you want to do is rock the boat and potentially jeopardize your future career. It’s only after several years that you may feel comfortable enough to start asserting yourself.
This has been gleaned through my personal experiences, from talking to many young teachers, and then as a pre-teacher supervisor who talks to students once they get out in the teaching field. You settle for the fact that older and more powerful teachers and administrators are in charge and that what they say goes. You get good at biting your tongue.
Uncomfortable experiences with local religiosity, while not a regular feature of the job, can pop up when not expected.
When I went for a job interview at a nearby district, the principal of the high school took me out to lunch at one of the best lunch places in town, Applebee’s. In the middle of the meal, he pointed to a middle-aged man a few tables down and said, “That’s Bob Jones (pseudonym). He is a good man, a man I admire, because he is a man of God first, a family man second, and one heck of an athlete. Do you understand what I am saying?” I said yes, but I really didn’t, because I was nonreligious and had little experience with how tribal Christians can be about other believers. And other than a few half-marathons, I am not an athlete.
I did not understand that some Christians think only other Christians are good people. I did not know at the time that it is illegal to ask someone their religion in a job interview, but this was his way of trying to ensure that job applicants understood what was important to him, and by extension, the school. But I needed a job, and the choir program at this school was pretty good. So I took the job and said nothing.
One of ‘the biggest regrets of my life’
Another time, colleagues and a parent booster group were discussing flying to a music competition and an older, more experienced colleague said, “I just don’t want us to use Southwest. The way they cater to homosexuals doesn’t sit right with me. You open their website and rainbows are everywhere. It’s just not okay.”
I had never seen this type of bigotry right in the open. I looked around the table expecting someone to disagree, but everyone nodded their head.
And I said nothing.
The best man at my wedding had been gay—and still I said nothing.
I have conducted entire choruses of gay men—and still I said nothing.
When I think of the biggest regrets of my life, that is at the top. I was a new teacher and didn’t know how to vehemently, with my whole self, disagree with an older colleague. At that point, I hadn’t met many Christians who were pro-gay. Now, I know that not only are there many Christians that are open and affirming, but there are plenty of gay people who identify as Christian. But at the time, I thought that was a feature of Christianity, and I said nothing.
There was the time that the school invited a speaker to talk to the entire 7th-12th grade. The speaker had been on the Ohio State football team, but a significant part of his talk was about his life, yet somehow also about his faith. About how he and his wife had their first kiss on their wedding day because that was one of the ways he showed his faith. About various football injuries and setbacks he had, but his steadfast faith had helped him through it. No matter what story he told, it came back to his faith.
This was my second year at this school, and I had started becoming more aware of the special place that the school afforded Christianity. But I was still not in any place to suggest that this speaker was inappropriate, that there were many other speakers out there that would have been better, not just because of his emphasis on Christianity, but because his whole presentation was him talking (not engagingly) about football and his faith.
I should have brought up that he would have healed regardless of his faith, that belief in a deity does not grant mystical powers. I should have told my students that his way is one way of doing it, but it does not have to be the way you do it. But I didn’t.
I said nothing.
The final straw of teaching in public school in Ohio was Section 3313.801 of the Ohio Laws and Administrative Rules of 2006.
“If a copy of the official motto of the United States of America ‘In God We Trust’ or the official motto of Ohio ‘With God, All Things Are Possible’ is donated to any school district,” says the statute, “or if money is donated to the district specifically for the purpose of purchasing such material, the board of education of the school district shall accept the donation and display the motto in an appropriate manner in a classroom, auditorium, or cafeteria of a school building in the district.”
After a summer out of the building, I walked back into my room to find a framed poster with the US motto sturdily affixed to the wall. As I said earlier, I wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about politics in my early 20s, so it was a massive shock to find that, suddenly, my classroom—in which students were encouraged to think for themselves, question everything, and believe what they wanted to if the available evidence supported it—was emblazoned with instructions to trust in a god. When I enquired about the poster in the main office, I was told that someone had donated money so that those could be placed in every classroom in the high school.
I should have told my students that if they trusted in God, that was fine, but not necessary for a good life. Everything that religion teaches can be taught without religion. That “With God, all things are possible” is a logical fallacy, and without God, the exact same things are possible.
But I said nothing, ignoring the poster’s existence.
It was at that point that I decided I needed a change. I left the school at the end of the year, went to grad school, received a double Master’s degree, and moved to Massachusetts to teach at a public school there.
Even though the Massachusetts school was in a rural part of the state, there was a plethora of religious and nonreligious views, a student-led Gay-Straight Alliance, and overall a much healthier attitude towards people who didn’t agree with you. A few of my students, when saying the Pledge of Allegiance each morning (a discussion beyond the scope of this article), changed the phrase “Under God” to “Under Science,” which I greatly appreciated. I taught there for 10 years before moving on to teaching college, never once experiencing even a hint of religious supremacy in the school.
But nothing in the Ohio schools changed, because I said nothing.
The moral of these stories for young teachers, if a moral is to be found: if possible, without jeopardizing your career, speak up. I have very few regrets in my life because I am proud and happy of the life I have lived. But I often think of these stories with sadness because they constitute times when I felt I could not speak out about injustices and fallacies that I reasoned and perceived. My excuse was that I was a young teacher and didn’t want to jeopardize this new career. But I made it harder for younger teachers who came after me who felt as I did by my not speaking out. It is so easy as a cisgender heterosexual white male to say nothing. It takes strength to stand up to unjust systems. But I didn’t have that strength.
But to all new teachers, as much as you can, speak out. It may make life harder in the short term, but you may respect your decisions much more years later.