America’s education system has been at the center of public debate for decades, if not centuries, but the nation’s current cultural and political climate has brought pressures unlike the past for many of our country’s public school teachers. From national teacher shortages to contentious school board meetings to the learning loss created by COVID-19, the challenges facing America’s teachers are immense. As a parent of three children in public schools and a friend of many public school teachers, I have witnessed these things firsthand and prayed along with friends for the realities they face.
Though numbers are hard to measure, many faithful Christians teach and lead within the public school system. While expressions of their faith are limited, the Supreme Court recently confirmed once again the religious liberty rights of teachers and school officials. As the school year is now underway, it is important to hear from Christian teachers in our public schools about their different experiences and how and why they engage in their communities through teaching.
We have chosen to keep their names anonymous. The following are answers from “Beth,” a kindergarten teacher in her 8th year; “John,” a middle school teacher in his 20th year; and “Jason,” a high school teacher in his 15th year. Their answers have been edited for clarity and brevity. We understand experiences vary across the nation and various districts, but hope that their stories will encourage you to consider how you might support individuals like them, as well as the students they serve, in your community.
Jill Waggoner: Why do you teach in the public school system? Why do you think it is important for believers to be in these environments?
Beth: I teach public school because they need me here. As a believer, although I can’t explicitly share about Jesus or God’s Word with my kids, I share the Spirit with them because he is with me in our classroom. I try to view them as our Father does and love them in spite of their home lives, income, personalities, beliefs, etc.
John: It is my belief that the public school system is one of the biggest mission fields in the United States. I teach in order to impact students in a positive light to follow their dreams. The opportunity to inspire, motivate, and challenge young people is a privilege and honor. The value of believers being in these environments is evident on a daily basis. Students learn so much by simply observing their surroundings and the actions of other people. Being able to witness positive examples of respect and honor displayed to people from all walks of life is a tremendous testimony.
Jason: I grew up in the public school system, so it is all I know. I had a great experience growing up in it. I never thought about not teaching in the public system. I think it is good to have stable people who will hold you accountable. In a world where it is easy to pass blame, students need to learn to take ownership of their learning and the choices they make. I also think it is important that Christians show that there’s hope in the world.
JW: What cultural pressures have you seen creep into the classroom since you began teaching?
Beth: I have encountered lots of different lifestyles including same-sex marriages, home cultures where drug use is considered normal, abuse situations, parents in prison/jail, and the use of language that is deemed appropriate in front of and out of the mouths of children. Recently, I have encountered my first experience with gender identity issues, as well.
John: Pressures from the culture we live in have filtered in at an increasing rate over the years in education. Change is clearly inevitable in students and education. And with the dependence on technology becoming more mainstream, the pressures have increased in frequency the past few years. Students have constant access to opinions and beliefs from a variety of sources. This rarely allows them to experience a break from the pressures that accompany growing up.
Jason: I think apathy is more widespread than what I remember as a teenager. There’s definitely more of a LGQT movement amongst teenagers. Kids talk like they have everything figured out and regurgitate what they have seen and heard on social media. Kids have more excuses made for them. Honestly, I think we have made education easier for them now, yet the students do not feel that way.
JW: How do you hope to influence your students?
Beth: More than anything, I want them to know that they are valued. They are more than the world, or maybe even their caretakers, tell them that they are. They are loved, not because of what they can offer, but loved simply because they were created by the Lover of the World, in his image. I want them to remember that at least one person thinks they are smart and capable, even when things are hard. We have certain phrases we are not allowed to say in our classroom. We don’t say: “I can’t do this,” or, “This is too hard.” We are allowed to say, “This is hard,” and, “I need help.” I’m hopeful that these principles will carry them on throughout their lives when things inevitably get hard and they need to persevere. And hopefully they will turn to their Creator for guidance.
John: It is my hope that the students experience an inspirational leader that encourages them to influence others also. The ability to teach and then see others pay it forward is an amazing gift. The legacy left by teachers is immeasurable and has the power to affect others for many years to come.
Jason: I am a math teacher. I hope that I can show them that they can face adversity because they will face a lot of it in Algebra 2. Adversity is not necessarily a bad thing if you allow yourself to grow from it. I do not expect everyone to like me, but I do hope they feel I tried my best to educate them and help them learn to think for themselves. I want them to be overcomers and problem solvers, and stop thinking everything has to be catered for you.
JW: What do you think are the challenges for Christians who work in the public school system?
Beth: We are definitely in the minority. We see more than data and numbers; we see souls. We don’t see an individual; we see families. We see what purposes God may have in store and simultaneously see the evil trying to interfere with those purposes. It is a battlefield in our classrooms every day. And on top of all of that, there’s a curriculum of course!
John: A specific challenge seen is maintaining a consistent focus. In public education there are many distractions and demands that can easily move the spotlight from the main purpose of teaching children. The ability to keep the main goal as the emphasis is a gift that the best educators truly have to work at constantly.
Jason: Again, my job is to teach math. I do not dive into social conflicts or those type of matters in my classroom. If a student asks a question about a social issue in class in a whole group setting, I deflect. If a student wants to speak one on one, I will entertain that some, but my job is to teach. I do pray with my teams that I coach. It is easy for one’s words to be used out of context, so I never want to be the topic of a social media post. There’s always this fear that I could shed a negative light on my wonderful Savior. I think one thing that has changed in my new district where I have been for over two years is that I now have more co-workers that are not Christian or “religious.” I think that has shaken me more.
One memory I have where I did feel that my beliefs were being challenged was when there was an email sent to the whole school asking if we wanted “Safe Space” stickers with the pride flag on it. I felt it would single out the teachers that did not want to condone homosexuality, but still wanted to be a trustworthy person for students who want to talk in times of difficulty. It has not been an issue that my door does not have the safe space sticker on it, and I did have to have some conversations with people around my school about it.
JW: How regularly do you interact with students who are struggling with issues of sexuality and gender identity?
Beth: Gender identity has not been as prevalent for me (as a kindergarten teacher). However, I do have students who already show signs of sexuality issues, especially in terms of already being “over-sexualized.”
John: Interactions relating to these issues in the public education system are quite often. The frequency of these struggles that students experience often fluctuates, but I have seen an increase over the past few years.
Jason: My first two years in this new district, I have averaged about a student per class that was transgender. I try to use wisdom in how I handle each of these situations.
JW: How can Christians pray for public school teachers? How can we be involved in our communities’ schools?
Beth: Pray for our minds and hearts to stay focused on the “big picture.” Pray that the Holy Spirit stays ever near us throughout our days. There is a lot thrown at us from all directions, and it’s easy to get “jaded” and to see these children as products of their parents and environments, rather than those made in God’s image. You can become involved by volunteering time to work in the copy rooms and such, bring in goodies for teachers, and ask if your local school needs food for weekend bags that are sent home.
John: Volunteering in a variety of ways is meaningful to both students and educators. Additionally, collaborating with leaders in the community to create volunteer ideas to support students is a growing need in education. Educators are grateful for the support from volunteers, and simple commitments can reap great rewards for the students.
Jason: Pray for strength. There is already pressure to try to hit education standards that districts and governments set. Now these social issues bring a whole wave of things. Sometimes you can feel like you are walking on eggshells. Pray that we continue to see these students, parents, and co-workers as God sees them and understand that we are placed in this space for a reason. Pray that we make the most of the opportunity to represent Jesus.
Teachers love food. Churches can volunteer in and around the school as much is allowed. Be at events. Amazon gift cards, care packages, or something that a teacher can use to buy more school supplies help so much. Morale is often low, so personally, even a nice note can go a long way, especially if it is from a student.
JW: Is there anything else you’d like to add or say to our readers?
Beth: Just continue to pray, pray, pray. We are on the front lines, quite literally, and it is hard and draining. But don’t just pray for us while we’re at school. I ask that you pray for all aspects of our lives because so many of us are leaving here and going home to our families, sometimes with what we feel is not much left to give. Pray for our days to be extended and that grace fill our homes. And thank you, God’s people, for your willingness to do so. We feel each and every prayer!
Jason: I often tell people that one of the biggest differences that I notice from when I was in school, nearly 20 years ago, is perspective. The only world I knew was my high school and maybe the city that was nearby. Students today are exposed to a much bigger world now from the time they wake up till they go to bed. They are still teenagers—kids that are looking for something to cling to and for someone to pour into them.
We, as Christians, still have the opportunity to be a light for these kids. We cannot expect them to just show up or to come to us like they did 20 years ago. You have to be intentional and sincere with them. I know there are extremes on social media that have people thinking schools are the worst place right now, but I do not see those extremes where I have worked (though there are some teachers that share their beliefs on social issues). I still see high school as an opportunity to have an influence on the future. It is a bit tougher than when I started, but it is awesome when you have a breakthrough. I am still seeing where positive influencers are making a difference in the classroom and sport fields.