The Charm of Mystery: An Encouragement to Christian Teachers in Secular Schools

I am right now furiously at work on the 3 Day Novel Contest, so I thought I would rework this note of encouragement to Christian teachers. I think, despite its focus, that all teachers will be encouraged by it, especially those working within a culture that isn’t their own.

Although I have done youth work and subbing in Christian environments, and work some with Christian colleges, most of my teaching has been in the secular university classroom. I very much enjoy sitting at the edge of culture, engaging students from various backgrounds with the core questions of what it means to be human. I am a fan of the liberal arts college.

My partner, by contrast, is teaching in a small Christian school. Neither of us would have seen it coming, but the creativity and generosity of this community slowly drew us in. First we enrolled our son there for Kindergarten. A quick visit showed us that it was clearly the best of our neighbourhood programs. Then Kerry started teaching part-time. Before long, she was a full-time member of a Christian teaching staff. She and Nicolas walk together to Immanuel Christian School each day, and have done so for the last five years.

Our school turns on its head the stereotype that exists for Christian schools. While it is academically strong, ICS’s strength is not in a chained-to-the-desk perspiration-driven intellectual climate. Instead, Immanuel’s strength is creating an environment for education. It is fun, engaged, and responsive. Each child is treated like an individual. Children at ICS are not being prepared for the world. The school is their world. This task is treated with the kind of seriousness that engenders the greatest fun possible. I have heard stories of harsh, rigid, anti-grace schools before. We are happy to be part of a school that, despite what it lacks in sports or size, gains much in a diverse community with curriculum that hints back toward a classical styled education.

touch appleNot every teacher, however, will teach in this kind of environment. Most secular schools are much larger, with budgets that create difficult tensions for teachers and administrators. Often in mouldering buildings or on new campuses that they cannot afford, large class sizes and a limping curriculum are unsuited to meet the needs of one of the least literate generations since WWI.

Most teachers will not land in a school like Kerry’s. If there is any root in reality to the stereotypes, even Christian teachers in Christian schools will face barriers that at times seem insurmountable. So I wanted to give a word of encouragement to Christian teachers in secular schools—and any other student, teacher, parent, pastor, priest, legislator, or community volunteer who happens to be peaking in.

When thinking about teaching in public schools, Christians often feel a crisis on two fronts. First, they feel like they may be compromising by teaching curriculum that they don’t trust. In the older grades this is poignant as a Christian teacher will be teaching science based upon evolution, offering vocational advice based upon economics rather than calling, and discussing sex ed based upon… well, that’s the question, isn’t it? What is our sex ed based upon?

Some of sex ed is after school special material, reminders of personal space and boundaries and risks, which is good. Other parts are rooted in science and research, which is excellent. But some of sex ed comes in a moralistic tone that shows that the curriculum is about the educator–or about the school board–and not about the student. I remember in my grade nine class a female teacher arguing with a male student about what boys experience. The teacher finally ended by saying, “well, this is what it says in the book, and I have a husband, so I should know.” I looked at the male student and thought, “well, he’s a boy, perhaps he knows.”

apple hand twilightSex ed can be a steeplechase. I remember the moralism of the consent conversation when I was subjected to sex ed. Now that “no means no” curriculum is considered damaging as we move to the “yes means yes” mode. My concerns about the “no means no” religion when I was a kid was brushed aside by teachers, and I’m glad that we are now moving toward a safer place. But none of these sex ed classes deal with the hidden reality of all these messages: how do we as individuals struggle with how we have divorced intimacy and sex? That’s a discussion worth bringing out into the open, though most teachers would feel terrifyingly unqualified to host that dialogue. It’s because most teachers really are unqualified for that conversation.

Christian teachers at the younger years still feel some of these pressures, but from a different angle perhaps. The hot-button issues are usually books that school boards make kids read in their reactionary intention to satisfy the morality-of-the-month crusaders. Today, books where Sandy has two dads will be absolutely essential to a child’s formation. Tomorrow, it will be books where Sandy’s parents a vegetarians in a world full of meat-eaters. I’m not against moralistic books, but as C.S. Lewis doubted a good book could be written by bureaucrats at the ministry of education, I doubt that these bureaucrats can select a good book—especially when the fleeting social moods are the foundation of that choice.

teacher-apple studentDeeper than the hot-button issues, teachers feel stuck by the system at early ages. Often they feel wedged between curriculum that shoves Sandy through a grade before all the standards are met, and curriculum that is so individualistic that Sandy is never corrected or formed in any way. Some of the teachers I know spend all evening, most every evening, doing their best to re-form the curriculum to meet the individual needs of 28 children, but spend much of their day updating an app dashboard that informs parents every 15 minutes of how their children are doing.

The loss of common sense in education will always be a moral compromise.

Christian teachers who see children as made in the image of God are going to struggle. Being made in the image of God, the teacher knows that we are all individuals and that we learn and discover our world in different ways. Yet part of that discovery is formation—occasionally painful, often frustrating and disappointing, the teacher’s role in forming a child is not to protect the child from harm. No, our job as teachers is more like gardening, where we simultaneously feed the roots, weed out bad influences, and trim for growth.

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We see by this last paragraph that Christian teachers don’t just feel compromised by curriculum, they also feel limited in how much their core beliefs can inform their work. I know teachers that are terrified that their students will find out that they are a practicing Christian. Some Atheists, Muslims, and Jews can relate.

It can be even worse. There are some areas where “Christian” is synonymous with anti-science, anti-history, misogyny, bigotry. The most dominant picture of Christians in the media would lead an alien to presume that Christian earthlings are anti-environmental pedophiles with God Hates Fags t-shirts who believe that God put dinosaur bones in the mud of creation as a sort of Jurassic joke. Watching the media struggle with the local Christian response to the Charleston church shooting last spring shows how far the gap is between what Christian life is on the sidewalks and how it is portrayed on the screen.

teacher apple books chalkboardI remember in high school our science teacher was pushed by some students on the question of God and creation. He was very anxious to respond, and said it very carefully: “Personally, and this is just my belief, I think that evolution needs something like God to make it work.” As far as I know, his job was not in danger. But some teachers feel that insecurity. I don’t mean the extremes, like where a “Christian” teacher won’t teach a gay kid or where a “Christian” principal cancels a school dance because of interracial coupling. I’m talking about the normal stuff, like when a curious child asks about God or religion or what it means to be a person.

A lot of teachers are terrified—afraid they’ll get trapped in a downward spiral of a system that pretends to diversity but can’t handle disagreement, and concerned that they will be asked to compromise too much.

So I feel for these teachers.

Personally, I feel comfortable teaching evolution or sex ed, and I think I give space to students in the classroom who have different feelings on these issues. I try to make the conversation about them, not me (and my beliefs). When it comes to vocational advice or delivering curriculum, I secretly inculcate my students with this message: you are valued, and when you do something creative you tap into the great rhythm of a universe that bends toward creativity. That’s a fancy way of saying, “you are made in the image of the Creator, so be creative and know you are loved.” I subversively work to instill hope.

Hope is very counter-cultural.

apple-handI think there is great power to be in the position of a teacher. Especially in the earliest years, we are charged with the social and intellectual formation of our students. For the Christian, social and intellectual formation is a spiritual and moral matter. We can bring blessing and hope into the lives of little ones—lives that often face not blessing and hope but grit and gloom.

I was reading a series of letters that C.S. Lewis wrote to Rhona Bodle, a teacher of deaf children in New Zealand. She had become a Christian reading C.S. Lewis’ books, and was in the zeal of her early faith. That meant for Bodle a desire to do the best for these children who, in the 1950s, faced such poignant challenges. Part of her early faith response was doubt about the kind of restrictions I talked about above—what she called “restraints.” I think she wanted to talk about her faith in the classroom, but knew that she couldn’t. Here is Lewis’ intriguing response:

The restraints imposed on you by ‘secular education’ are, no doubt, very galling…. But Christian teachers in secular schools may, I sometimes think, do more good precisely because they are not allowed to give religious instruction in class. At least I think that, as a child, I shd. have been very allured and impressed by the discovery–which must be made when questions are asked–that the teacher believed firmly in a whole mass of things he wasn’t allowed to teach! Let them give us the charm of mystery if they please (May 20th, 1953 letter).

My advice is complex, a careful pathway of teaching the core of Christian beliefs of love and hope and grace without the words, and allowing the students to guide the discovery. Lewis’ advice is simpler: live your worldview consistently, and the testimony of your integrity may be a greater witness than all your words. The phrase “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words” is probably misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Still, somebody said it, and it is an important reminder to those of us who live in times of worldview tension—the lion dens of culture.

apple hand beauty artWhen we are living in these lion dens, it is sometimes difficult to know when to speak and when to be still. Even the approaches of Esther and Daniel in the Hebrew Bible are dramatically different. But Lewis’ advice will always work.

So my encouragement to Christian teachers in secular schools is that you can have an impact, even with the restraints on your faith that this culture requires. Trust that “the charm of mystery” may help mitigate some of the damage our school system causes—for all its good. This approach of trying to live authentically among our students may even go further to help the slow transformation of culture that we all desperately need.

After all, didn’t we all become teachers because we secretly knew that teachers change the world? No matter where we are located, that’s something we all share as teachers.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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10 Responses to The Charm of Mystery: An Encouragement to Christian Teachers in Secular Schools

  1. I enjoyed Men without Chests. However, I feel the secular view is not that bad: they try to encourage diversity and self-acceptance, and acceptance of the other- even the homosexual!- in sex education, and that is surely seeing humanity in the image of God. If another is teaching in My name, do not stop him.

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    • You mean the secular view today, right? Because back when “Men Without Chests” was being written, the secular view wasn’t much fun.
      If there is diversity, I suppose there can’t be just one secular view, but many. I think that’s the hypocrisy of it, in my context anyway. We pretend we are diverse until someone we don’t like or understand comes along.
      I also don’t trust the secular view. I value “diversity and self-acceptance, and acceptance of the other- even the homosexual”, but I value it as a principle that lasts as long as my Christian worldview does. Back when I took sex ed, there was no talk about homosexuality (good or bad). Just 20 years ago, the secular view was not acceptance, but tolerance. Before that, the secular view medicated and treated homosexuals.
      Perhaps worse than being a criminal is having one’s life treated as a psychological problem!
      Of course, diversity and inclusion are moral issues. Do we really trust our public school boards to be telling us about moral issues?
      Not sure.

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      • I don’t trust the secular view to be right, but I do trust them to attempt to be Good, as far as they can. Romans 1: they know God even if they do not realise it, and are created in God’s image so loving and creative.

        I don’t trust Christians, because so often Christians imagine that they Know the Truth and the Right; and this means they can be capable of great cruelty.

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        • You are definitely right that Christian history bears out a story of great cruelty. Perhaps they have lost the right to speak at all….
          But I have less confidence when it comes to our cultures generally. I’ve lived in Japan. Some aspects of what their culture this is right and true are intriguing and have corrected me. Other things are horrifying.
          Same thing here. I was just at a conference on aboriginal rights and the environment. The moral tone of the conference is very high–far more righteous sounding than the average American Christian. I think they are right, but only because I have an outside standard to judge it.
          I am always worried that we will forget what is right as good. Secular culture was what France was doing when it banned head scarves for Muslim women. Secular culture was what Germany was doing to fix their Jewish problem. Secular culture is what Uganda is doing in arresting homosexuals, or what American psychologists did in treating homosexuals for their mental illness–trying to cure them.
          No, I cannot trust secular culture because it has no ground for right and wrong.

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