Nine years ago, I decided to leave my job teaching middle school mathematics at a Friends school to teach at a public elementary school. For ten years, I had taught only at Friends schools, and I was feeling the pull to reach students from across my city in a school district that needed good teachers.
Teaching has always been my ministry. In my first few years in the public schools, however, I left my Quaker self at home, afraid to cross the hard line between church and state. Lately, though, the Quaker educator in me has reemerged, and is now fueling my commitment to teaching in exciting new ways. My ministry has become more subtle, although no less powerful.
Teaching in a public school, I am a first-hand witness to some of the harsh realities of education in the United States that weren’t as starkly illuminated at my Friends schools. Our achievement gap, which sees students of color performing far lower on nearly all objective measures of achievement than do their white counterparts, is hard to bear. On one recent geometry test, for example, our district’s tenth graders saw 52 percent of white students score in the proficient range, while only 8 percent of Hispanics and 4 percent of African American students did the same. These horrifying differences speak to the great work we have to do to reconnect with our country’s commitment to equality, not just within our schools. Harsh realities like this are what brought me to the public schools, and are what fuel my commitment to remain there.
The differences in how my students learn, and in some cases the obstacles to this learning, are far broader than anything I saw before. As always, I have students who are eager to learn, live joyous lives, and bring curiosity and perseverance to their days. But I also encounter students who resist learning, who self-destruct from self-doubt, or who struggle with deficiencies they cannot overcome. Connecting to this rich diversity of student needs, I am finding that I call on my faith in ways I never considered before.
Yet I am facing these great challenges without the supports I had while working in Friends schools. Most obviously, the spiritual trappings are gone. Secular to the extreme, my current school doesn’t even allow the celebration of holidays, and we tread lightly on talk of our spiritual practice. As in any workplace, I am careful to share only an edited version of myself with my peers. When I worked in Friends schools, however, I shared so much more than I do now. Without meeting for worship, meeting for business, discussions of the testimonies, or community service, how was I to feel like a Quaker when I went to school?
To get past this wall, I thought back to a lesson I once taught my advisees at my last Friends school. I asked, “If you had to describe what made our school Quaker, but you couldn’t use the words ‘silence’ or ‘meeting for worship,’ what would you say?” It was a good exercise, and not easy. I was asking them to look beyond the obvious practices of Friends to describe how our daily life at school embodied the testimonies. In other words, how did we let our lives speak?
As I settled into my role teaching in a public school, I returned to this question again and again. How could I bring my truth into the classroom, and into my interactions with colleagues and parents, without ever talking about it openly or sharing a few moments of silence with anyone? I knew that our divine connections are at the heart of our community of learners, but I was challenged to share this in a new language, and somehow without the medium of silence. I was challenged to let my life speak.
Few days go by when I don’t wish we could settle into a brief time of worship before a faculty meeting, or pray with my colleagues for solutions to difficult problems. I still believe that my days are less rich without these practices, and my work more challenging. But I also know that in having these practices withheld from me, I am being asked to find a confidence and strength that letting my life speak demands.
It’s helpful for me to see that, in spite of the obvious differences, Friends schools and public schools share some common DNA. Whether public, private, or parochial, all schools abound in paradoxes, as Parker Palmer has written about extensively. When I focus on the tensions these paradoxes bring, somehow my public school becomes a more spiritual place, and I find an ocean of connections and engagement, just as I did at Friends schools.
The tension between the institutional demands of a school and the actual experience of teachers exists in all schools. On the one hand, all schools are collective institutions, with policies and demands that shape the identity of the whole school. On the other hand, schools are a collection of classrooms where teachers and students forge a delicate bond of human connections all the time. At their best, schools do not allow their institutional demands to interfere with the fragile work of relationship building that is at the heart of every student’s experience. At the Friends schools where I worked, teachers were often free to follow their instincts with their students.
However, when this tension becomes a disconnect, and teachers cannot work so intuitively, students’ experiences can suffer great damage. We see this now in so many schools, as students live with excessive testing, poor curriculum choices, and high stakes evaluations for teachers who have received little support or encouragement. Time and again, teachers are being driven by decisions that are not rooted in their classroom experience.
What Friends schools call “that of God in every student” is not a foreign concept to a public school teacher. Whatever we call it, many teachers believe that the only way to succeed is by knowing and reaching the heart of each student, in spite of the forces working against us. We can still find moments of deep connection behind closed doors with our students, and sometimes policy decisions are genuinely helpful. Teachers often cannot navigate the wilds of the poor decisions thrust upon us, however, and our practice suffers.
It is harder to teach to the heart when teachers are administered by an office that refers to us as “human capital,” and attempts to motivate us with high stakes evaluations that could freeze our pay or end our jobs any given year. It is harder to reach the hearts of our students when their achievements are reduced to data, which often are a very narrow slice of test achievement and not much else.
Recognizing the urgency of reaching students who are falling further and further behind, school reform has led to some hasty and blunt measures. High stakes teacher evaluations and ramped up testing (last year my students received on average a standardized test once every 11 days) are the two most prominent. Indeed, these are some of the most destructive influences on our teaching, but they are only a fraction of the hodgepodge of new initiatives experimented with and discarded all the time.
The people sending us these conflicting messages want success as much as the teachers, and I don’t fault their intentions. Indeed, the people behind the reform movement are working punishingly long hours and producing a wide variety of products and ideas. However, the work doesn’t go in a common direction, and we lose a connection to the very heart of our work: the relationships that grow and flourish in the classroom.
Against this backdrop of frenzied activity, my Quaker faith stands in starker contrast and glows brighter than ever before. With such troubling evidence of our shortcomings as educators despite so much activity, this is truly the time to invoke the maxim “Don’t just do something; stand there!”
In our schools, we face problems that often look impossible: overcoming inequities between our poor and our wealthy students, bringing children up multiple grade levels in their skills, maintaining a climate of love and joy in a school full of testing and dire consequences. Teachers know all of these obstacles and more.
The great gift of meeting for worship for the conduct of business is that it provides a place for impossible problems to sit while they become possible. My faith compels me to believe that seeing something as impossible does not prevent us from searching for the divine light that brings order and direction where there was none before. Indeed, the very definition of a miracle is that something impossible was made possible before our very eyes. Our schools need a miracle. I say this pragmatically and realistically, because fortunately, we are capable of miracles.
I bring my Quaker faith with me to school when I decide not to spring into action when I am stuck with a difficult student, or a maddening administrative policy. The first impulse might be to do something, but the best place to start is simply to bear witness. Why is this student doubting himself? Why are teachers asked to neglect important topics so they can teach to the test? These questions often have troubling answers. Exploring them might reveal truths that are too hard to bear while continuing to teach children day in and day out. But these are truths that I must find a way to hold.
Thinking about and feeling the realities that make our students’ lives difficult can sometimes take us to a dark place. The challenges that some of my students face are harder than anything I’ll ever know. I try to remember that looking at the darker corners of my students’ lives will show me all the more clearly the light that they possess. Bearing witness to the inequities and injustices that they live with, and that I even may have helped create, is the only way that I may find the light to illuminate this impossible problem, and move forward.
And just as I need to hold these children in the light, I need to do the same with the adults who make my job more difficult. I can only approach the great inequities created by reform programs, from the Federal level on down, by bearing witness. Somewhere among the maze of bureaucracy and the defensive postures that create these policies, there must be a clear connection to that of God in my students, which patient waiting will illuminate.
Despite not having the support of meeting for worship in a school any longer, I am finding ways to connect with some colleagues spiritually. The incredible process of building relationships with students creates a charged atmosphere that can easily lead to connectedness if we are willing. Any time a colleague talks with me about a student in a loving and open way, I feel the same spirit invoked in me that I would find in a gathered meeting at my Friends schools. Any time I open up and ask for help, or a colleague does the same with me, I am living a life of the Spirit as truly as I would if the trappings of Friends practice were more apparent. Letting my life speak, and listening to the lives of others is possible anywhere, and I have become a better, stronger educator from opening my life to this truth.
Arthur Larrabee, in his wonderful clerking workshop at Pendle Hill study center in Pennsylvania, described all members of a meeting for business as being responsible for maintaining a “clerking consciousness.” I took this to mean that everyone present is equally responsible for maintaining an active role in discerning the light. I try to take this clerking consciousness with me into school. This is how I want to let my life speak, by treating each day as an opportunity to look for that of God, sometimes in very dark places. This is how I’ve chosen to continue my ministry from outside the walls of a Friends school. Even without the supports I once knew, I carry this consciousness with me like a backpack into the woods, and I am both protected and supported, knowing that I am far from alone and that I will always be a Quaker teacher.