Being a Christian Teacher in Public Education

by Jeff Haanen

Dr. Mary Poplin, Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University, joined Denver Institute for our forum on education in 2016. With her wisdom, we had the chance to see and hear what it means to follow Christ as a public school teacher in America today.

She fluidly moved between her research on highly effective teachers in low-income schools to speaking about praying for every student. Our conversation spanned constructivism to Che Guevara, Francis Bacon’s theology to Piaget’s learning theory.

Here is a summary of what we learned.

1. Kids need direct instruction. Constructivism is poor pedagogy, especially for low-income students.

Dr. Poplin explained that in the beginning of schools, the idea was that there was a certain body of knowledge that needed to be transmitted to the next generation. Each generation would add to it, and teachers gave explicit instruction about what kids needed to know.

Since then, several things changed. First, secular humanism changed our view of truth. For example, Dewey gave a set of lectures at Yale called “A Common Faith” – which was basically secular humanism, a ‘faith’ that led to a faith without reference to the specific God of Christian confession. Secular humanism led people to stop talking about received truth from previous generations and emphasized that students should “construct their own meanings.” Poplin said that when this filtered down to teacher training, the language being used was helping students become more “creative.”

Adults are good at learning through questions in small groups because they have background knowledge. But kids don’t have that, which is why constructivism is failing, especially for our poorest students. Constructivism is a good learning theory for those with background knowledge, but it’s poor teacher pedagogy for children, especially those who don’t grow up with parents who are highly educated.

Those who lose out the most in constructivist settings are not wealthy kids that come from educationally rich homes. It’s poor kids who need foundational knowledge to succeed.

2. The best teachers are strict, have high personal interaction with students, and believe in their student’s ability to achieve.

Dr. Poplin’s research on highly effective teachers in low-income schools reveals that the best teachers are strict and are excellent at direct instruction. Also, Dr. Poplin learned that highly effective teachers were uniquely determined people who believed in their student’s ability to achieve.

These teachers were determined people, who valued discipline, direct instruction, and who saw their students had unrealized potential. Poplin recounts, “These teachers would say, ‘I know this is hard work, but I know you can do it. And I’m going to help you until you can do it.’” That belief in students allowed them to bloom.

3. Religion can and should be taught in public schools in a way that is fair and truthful.

Can you really teach students about Christian faith without either losing your job or getting a boatload of parent phone calls? This was my honest question. Yes, says Dr. Poplin. But it matters how you present the information. It also matters that you give fair say-so to other religions without mish-mashing all religions together in a secular assumption that says all religions are the same (the way Oprah does it).

In California, it’s required to teach students about religion, and in many public school districts, teaching religious literacy is central to being an informed, American citizen.

However you approach teaching about religion, don’t avoid it. Asking questions of ultimate meaning are important to helping students develop, learn and grow.

Will kids be tempted to follow other religions? Maybe. But in Dr. Poplin’s words, “I personally believe truth wins.”

4. Don’t romanticize history – either Christian or secular. Encourage students to seek out sources.

Revising history —either to romanticize the founding of America OR to omit pieces of actual thought and belief because of a secular bias — is just bad teaching. The only way to “redeem history,” in Dr. Poplin’s words – is to find the originals. Seek out sources. Read biographies, old and new – and assign them to your students.

5. Teach virtue. Encourage moral conversations among students.

Dr. Poplin is pretty honest with her students: she wants them to become people of virtue. To do that, she regularly encourages them with exhortations like: I want you to develop perseverance.  Paul encourages us to also focus on whatever is good, true or beautiful — whether ‘religious or secular’ (foreign categories for Paul). During the course of our interview, she said that she recommends teachers using lists of virtues and develops language in her classroom that is clearly moral in nature — without avoiding language like evil or even sin.

And the connection here can be made to religion. C.S. Lewis’ treatment of The Tao – moral standards across cultures – can be a good place to start developing rich conversations about right and wrong, good and evil, in your classroom. Each culture has hero stories, including our own. We can start here with the moral world our students live in today.

6. The best way to influence the moral climate of your school and classroom is through prayer.

I really was astounded by this response. Of course! I’m seeking the silver bullet to make schools more moral places, and Dr. Poplin is asking the Holy Spirit to do this for her! Christian teachers have incredible influence when they pray for their students. And prayer is not just a psychological trick, but a spiritual reality – one through which God actually moves and changes reality, and one through which demons are repelled. It changes the actual lives of students and co-workers alike.

7. The best Christian teachers are both courageous in sharing their faith and compassionate for others.

Fear rises in our hearts whenever we face strong resistance. I think at one point or another, every Christian teacher has felt fear when the opportunity to share faith in a public school context arises. What will my boss say? Parents? The student?

Mary Poplin was and is clearly bold. It’s a boldness I aspire to. But let’s not be confused: she’s not harsh, mean or arrogant. So many “evangelists” today use the gospel to wound others or win a culture battle. This isn’t her. She has a reason for the hope she professes, but she does so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

And Dr. Poplin is compassionate. She shared another story: “Sometimes just the strangest things happen. You know, somebody comes in and all of the sudden this person who you think is not interested in religion comes in, and starts weeping about something in their life. And I just say, ‘Can I pray for you?’ And no one has ever turned me down.”

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder & CEO of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. Jeff lives with his wife and four daughters in Littleton, Colorado, and attends Wellspring Church.