AUGUST 27, 2001
Reflecting on Public School Teachers and Religion
-- Martin E. Marty
Hoping to remove some uncertainty from discussions of the legal place of religion in public schools, Clifford Mayes and Scott Ellis Ferrin published a study of public school teachers' "views about the place of religion and spirituality in the classroom" in the spring issue of Religion and Education. With an eye on increasing concern for "reflectivity" in the teaching profession, the authors of "Spiritually Committed Public School Teachers: Their Beliefs and Practices Concerning Religious Expression in the Classroom," asked fourteen veteran teachers, all participants in an educational administration master's program at Brigham Young University, to reflect on the place of "spiritual commitment" in their professional lives.
Mayes and Ferrin define "spiritual commitment" as "the pursuit of a trans-personal and trans-temporal reality that serves as the ontological ground for an ethic of compassion and service." Most people call this "being religious" or "having faith." Spiritual reflectivity, drawing on spiritual commitment, asks people to become more conscious of their religious assumptions and how these shape what they do.
The survey asked teachers about classroom expression of their own faith, whether and how students are allowed to express religious belief in the classroom, and whether it is ever legally acceptable for a student to pray or meditate in the classroom. In a world where state supreme court justices and politicians of many sorts posture, break laws, and seek populist support in respect to these themes, the teachers and students on the front line can give us more honest pictures.
One could wish they had dealt with fourteen hundred instead of fourteen teachers, in many states instead of one, and at many universities. Students at Brigham Young, "the largest religious university" in the nation, in the most homogeneous church-going state, might reflect differently than students at Northwestern or Virginia. While we hope others use their design for a broader study, their findings are interesting.
The teachers surveyed generally had a fairly good grasp of the legal dimensions of these issues. But one-third of them mistakenly asserted that they could freely express their own religious views in the classroom. The others understood that they were representing the school, and thus the state, and had better stand back. Almost all understood that students have a right to express their religious opinions "so long as this does not turn into harassment and disruption," but these teachers did not seem to be aware of the limits to such expression. (Don't privilege religion over non-religion, this religion over that religion, in response to students who bring up the subject.) On personal prayer and meditation, most of the teachers knew the allowances and limits, and one even "seriously overestimated legal constraints on student prayer."
Overall, the teachers overestimated what they could say and do regarding their religious beliefs, and were unaware of allowances and limits in the students' world. The authors call for more study. We join them in this call, and add a call for better legal definition and improved teacher training on classroom expression of "spiritual commitment."