The internet is rife with memes and viral posts blaming the problems in our schools on the fact that God is no longer welcome there. A simple Google search will reveal plenty of examples. There is even the possibility of a bill being filed in this year’s legislative session requiring two minutes of silence at the beginning of each school day to create space for prayer in school. (As a side note, this would essentially mean that, over the course of the year, an entire instructional day would be lost in this practice once you add it up.) As a practicing Christian, I am offended at the notion that anyone thinks that God is so small as to be “not allowed” anywhere! You can’t exactly ban an omnipresent, all powerful being, and you can’t have it both ways. This exaggeration is just another way to try to pretend that Christianity is being discriminated against when what some people are actually wanting is that Christianity should be given priority over other faiths. It’s almost as if those crying out on this topic conveniently forget the first phrase of the First Amendment which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Prayer is allowed in school. In fact, if a student asks for space to pray, it must be provided for them. Many Christian students, if they pray at school, are comfortable doing so in the midst of whatever else they may be doing. Muslim students, on the other hand, often rearrange their prayer times so that they do not interfere with school or simply because they are afraid to request the space and time to conduct their prayers. In fact, the only student in my ten year career who has ever asked to pray is a student I have right now. Almost every day at the conclusion of last period he asks if I have time for him to pray. He takes off his shoes and faces towards Mecca and prays. Many times, I take that time to sit quietly at my desk and pray alongside him even if he doesn’t know it. It is a beautiful picture of the religious freedom we have in America, two people quietly practicing their own faith alongside each other and respecting that we do so differently.
Students may lead prayer amongst themselves. This happens in spaces like Fellowship of Christian Athletes or other student organized clubs. When I was in school, we had morning prayer groups and events like “Meet me at the Pole” where students gathered around the flagpole before school and prayed. The caveat, of course, is that teachers cannot lead students in prayer. This is only right, as young minds are impressionable and should not be swayed by the particular faith of their teacher. This is a family responsibility. Faith is diverse and there is too big a possibility that a teacher may accidentally or intentionally force their own ideas of faith onto a student. Additionally, there are now standards created for Bible literacy in schools which some schools offer and others do not. You can check them out here if you want, https://education.ky.gov/curriculum/conpro/socstud/Pages/historical_cultural_influences_of_the_bible.aspx.
Next to my desk, I have a bulletin board of pictures and quotes that help remind me that I am human and refocus me in my mission to help students. Among those words is a prayer that I use to start every day before kids get to my room to remind myself how I want to live each day.
“May God give you Grace never to sell yourself short!
Grace to risk something big for something good!
Grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth
and too small for anything but Love!”
-William Sloane Coffin
Last week these words weren’t enough. I listened to a 15 year old girl weeping down the hall about a trauma from her childhood that the lesson her class was doing had reawoken in her memory. I was not supposed to hear her conversation, but she said, “I prayed to God over and over that my mom would come home and He never answered me. I wanted to believe so badly.” Would two minutes of forced silence at the beginning of each day help her? I think not. I however, sat at my desk for part of my planning quietly praying for her and crying my own eyes out because she’s not the only student carrying these huge traumas and needing so much more help than school can provide. If we want to help students like this one, we need to be making sure we have as many mental health counselors in school as possible and wrap around services that help in times of homelessness and hunger. Mindfulness programs like the one we have at Fairdale High can also be an amazing help to students to help them acquire coping skills and have a place to de escalate.
This being said, I am one of many teachers who view teaching as a kind of ministry. I don’t need to lead my students in prayer, force them to pray, or even say anything about God to daily live out Jesus’s teachings in my words and actions. I can show them love in action every day. I can care for them and listen when they feel voiceless. I can be the kind word when all they have heard that day is anxiety and tension. I can give them tools and knowledge to move forward in life. I need the strength that God gives me each day to be able to do that because teaching is a weary, hard calling. God is still in our schools. It’s just that Christianity is not and should not be forced upon students without their consent.