How Do You Handle a Possibly Proselytizing Teacher?

What would you do if your child came home with this assignment from his high school’s World History class? (I’m going to ignore the precarious position of the male child…)

And what if this followed another assignment in which the Ten Commandments were discussed in regards to how they changed the lives of the escaped slaves and how Moses received them from God?

Well, I’d want some more information about this teacher and this class. I’d want to know if Muhammad and other prophets are presented in a similar way (since they, too, impacted World History). I’d want to know the nature of the discussions they have in class. I’d want to know where the teacher was getting these handouts from…

It’s possible that the teacher is not-so-subtlely proselytizing in class. But it’s also possible the teacher is sincerely ignorant and has no idea she’s pushing any legal boundaries (if she hasn’t already crossed them).

How do you handle it? Well, the parents in question emailed the teacher explaining their concerns (and shared their email with me):

Mrs. XXX,

My husband and I thought it best to come to you about some concerns we have about the course material/work.

This is the third day [our son] has brought us his work. As much as I appreciate the relevance and importance of Christianity on modern geography, I am concerned that the material is a little “Sunday School”.

There is a huge focus on Jesus as the foundation of Christianity. I don’t disagree with that historically, but I do take exception to the handouts [our son] has completed.

I did grit my teeth through a few of them, as Jewish and early Christianity are very pertinent to World History, but today’s paper has us scratching our heads. First, it seems a little age inappropriate, these are high school kids after all, not 3rd graders. Secondly, this seems like a lesson sheet for a private school geared towards a belief in Jesus.

I don’t doubt that your intention is to teach how religion shaped the map, I am just concerned that it is becoming a bit one sided.

We would like to discuss this further, at your convenience. Perhaps an understanding of your lesson material (above the course description sheet) would help ease our minds.

Please contact us as soon as possible. I do not want this to become a thorn, irritating us all year. I believe in up front transperency. If we are equipped, we can support the learning materials and reinforce their importance at home.

Thank you for your time.

Very Truly Yours,

[The Parents]

I think that email strikes a nice balance between we-just-want-to-know-what-you’re-trying-to-do and we’ll-take-action-if-we-need-to. Maybe it’s too kind. But it opens the door to a conversation and a more aggressive email might have prevented a real dialogue. If anything, I would make sure to CC the Department Chair or an administrator at the school on that email to show that you’re serious about this.

Would you have handled this situation any differently?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    Far, far too kind. It will still be seen as agressive by believers though.

  • Susan Creamer

    I’ve taught for twenty-eight years. Those well-meaning parents are too kind, and Hemant, you’re too friendly. I’m assuming this is not coming from a parochial school. No matter what she thinks she’s actually teaching, it’s an embarrassment to all teachers. Shame on her. I hope at the very least that the principal reprimands her. No excuse.

  • Nerd2world

    I think this email is perfect, there is no use by being accusing right from the start and put the other person on defensive so they won’t even consider you

  • Benjamin

    Religion and how they spread, definitely
    is part of World History. It will naturally come up if you talk about the Roman
    Empire, the Crusades, the 30 year war and many others. That handout however
    hardly seems to fullfill any purpose besides Proselytizing.

  • Trina

    I like the way the email was handled; if things escalate, it’ll be clear that it wasn’t the parents who originated an aggressive posture.  If the teacher doesn’t back off, and I wouldn’t expect that he/she would, then I’d make sure that administration had copies of all communications when I made a complaint to them.  The assignment sheet itself is jarring to me, though I can see some fun in imagining other subjects handled the same way.  It really *does* look Third Grade!

    • Anonymous

      I like the way the email was handled; if things escalate, it’ll be clear that it wasn’t the parents who originated an aggressive posture.

      Exactly :)   The exquisite thing about offering calm and reasonable communication is that the only thing the opposition can object to is your actual point.  And if your point is valid (as is the case here), then they have nothing to argue against.

      Love it.

  • Mike

    I hope I would have responded with half the grace and dignity shown here. But I doubt it.

  • Nancy G

    I just skimmed the first paragraph (yours) and went straight to the image of the assignment, so I missed the “high school” part until I was reading the parents’ letter.

    As a public school teacher, I don’t know which is worse: giving such elementary material to high school students, or using obviously church-y coloring books at all. Well, yes, I do know that the material is inappropriate regardless of the student age, but c’mon…  At the high school level, students should be doing higher order thinking. Evaluating. Analyzing. Synthesizing. This is pathetic, regardless of the subject matter. But all that thinking might lead to, I dunno, more questioning? Dangerous thing, that questioning.

    As a parent, I wouldn’t have been quite so tactful as these people. In fact, I wouldn’t have been tactful at all. More along the lines of “why the hell are you giving my 15 year old Sunday school coloring pages that obviously require copying down answers that you assume are correct because of your own biases?/waste of taxpayers’ money/violation of the Establishment Clause/etc.” And I’d have cc’d the department chair, the building administration, and the district administration. If I were blown off by them, I’d have contacted the media and the state education dept.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    I’m afraid I would have gone straight over her head to the Principal, and I’d be more snarky.  I’d start out by pointing out that most of the concepts named have nothing to do with history, and are not in the SOLs.  If this class is to be changed into history of religions, I’d offer to help  draw up comparable pages for the teachings of Buddha and Confucius, and maybe one of the Roman Emperors who was also considered a god.  What promises did Augustus make to the People?

  • http://nonprophetstatus.com/ Chelsea Link

    As Nerd2World and Trina said, this email is perfect. In my opinion, it’s more important that the email be *productive* than that it be *deserved* – that is, even if whatever the teacher did *deserved* more reprimanding, I think this is more likely to get somewhere. After all, there’s no reason to start the conversation out contentiously when it might be quickly and peacefully resolved without too many hard feelings on either side. The teacher may simply not realize that this material is inappropriate, and a sincere expression of concern from a parent could turn that around. And at the very least, as Trina pointed out, I think it’s in your own interest as an atheist to be as kind as possible (especially on the record) to avoid unnecessarily alienating potential allies in case this turns into a real fight of some kind. Plenty of religious people fully support the 1st amendment because they know it gives them the same freedoms it gives us; the vast majority of the religious people I know (including Christians) would be horrified by this teacher’s actions and would certainly support the atheist parents. But they might not be so willing to come to our aid if we turn it into just another angry atheist complaining about those meddling religions.

    • http://www.shadesthatmatter.blogspot.com asmallcontempt

      I totally second this. My first instinct would be to take the gloves off and go straight to the principal/department head/whoever will listen, but I’m really glad the parents contacted the teacher directly. 

      When I was student teaching, there were a couple of instances where parents called me and questioned by intentions or curriculum; I was much more able to openly communicate when parents wanted something clarified rather than being attacked.

      I’m not at all saying that this teacher had any right whatsoever to pull this garbage in the first place – it disgusts me that THIS is what we’re having high school students working on (education reform plz). However, it would be so much better for both the parents and the student if they can solve this on amicable terms. 

      I say this is an excellent first move on the part of the parents; if anything else develops (the teacher gets crappy or sends more of this kind of work home), then dispense with the pleasantries and crack down.

    • Anonymous

      Interestingly, I think the niceness of this email is what will stop it from being “productive.”  It completely opens the door for the teacher to say, “oopsie, I guess this was a little far, won’t happen again! No need to involve administration/lawyers/whatever.”

      Repeat year after year every time someone takes the nicey nicey approach.

      In my opinion, a third party (probably the school principal or similar) needs to be involved immediately, possibly just copied on this correspondence. This will help the next set of parents who complain to start establishing a pattern rather than a one time crossing of a line.

      • Ben

        This is a very valid point. How many times in the past has this teacher gotten away with this and, if no third party (like the school administration) is involved how many times in the future might it happen?

        The principal should definitely be involved, but not immediately. If the parents go to the principal beforehand (even CCing them in on the initial email), the teacher will probably get her back up and shut down communication. Principal intervention too early could see it escalate and the child might be caught in the middle, possibly facing bullying if the affair becomes public knowledge.

        I think the parents should, if the meeting with the teacher even takes place, tell her that they will be going to the principal to communicate their concerns, that a resolution not to proselytise to the students has been reached, and that it might be helpful that all teachers be informed, without naming names, about the establishment clause and it’s restrictions on what they can and cannot discuss/teach in the classroom.

        Doing it this way would let the principal know that the parents are willing to work with the school to get a resolution without involving lawyers or the media, it encourages the teacher to be compliant with the parent’s requests to avoid it becoming a bigger issue, and the general communication to all teachers could stop other examples of proselytisation that aren’t known about from happening (if other teachers are doing it, the may believe a complaint had been made about them).

  • Frank Bellamy

    Too kind. Whatever else she did or did not know, this teacher did know that she wasn’t teaching objective history. She did know that she was proselytizing. She did know that she was making her classroom unwelcoming to non-christian students. So what if she didn’t know that that is illegal? Ignorance of the law is no excuse. At a bare minimum she should be reprimanded and more closely monitored by her superiors.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Definitely too kind. Even if there were absolutely no proselytizing element at all, any teacher who gives an assignment with that sort of ridiculous sort of coloring book behavior to high school students has no business teaching high school students and should be fired for that alone. 

    Then you add the blatant proselytizing.

    Aside from ccing other relevant people, the parent should talk to other parents in the class who might be sympathetic. It is very likely that some of them just aren’t aware of the junk their kids are having to do. 

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      I’m not bothered by the coloring part. Hell, if there was a coloring book that featured imaginary numbers or bell curves, I would consider giving it to my kids. It’s something random and kind of fun, compared to the usual word problems and long equations, and I think the kids would appreciate the break every once in a while. I remember doing something similar in Biology class when our teacher gave us a picture of the cell and its “parts” and we colored that in. Same with Anatomy.

      Now, if you’re doing that every day, then we have a problem…

    • http://profiles.google.com/julielada Julie Lada

      *ahem…*

      http://www.amazon.com/Saunders-Veterinary-Anatomy-Coloring-Book/dp/1437714390/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1317499532&sr=1-12

      I hardly think anyone would argue that vet school is a tad above high school level, and coloring books certainly come in handy for us.

      • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

        Yes ok. You and Hemant have made it pretty clear that a coloring book is not an inherently bad exercise in this context. I’m clearly wrong on this and withdraw the claim. 

        • oli kenton

          And that sir is why you are a good skeptic.
          Hypothesis, evidence, change of hypothesis.

  • Kevin Bates

    Too kind.  It’s a coloring book assignment.  How is that remotely appropriate for high school, and what do any of the printed questions have to do with history? 

    There are two relevant questions at the bottom, but those were written in by the student so I’m imagining that the teacher made a copy of a bible coloring book, or Sunday school hand out, then told the students to write in the following additional questions, and then just spoke them to the class.  It’s obvious that the teacher knew that there wasn’t enough history relevance without those two questions.

    Several of these questions wouldn’t even bother me if they were on a normal worksheet, and allowed for some actual answers of a paragraph or so.  And as a for instance, when I was in high school world history, we did have some assignments that covered Jewish history and early Christianity.  We also covered Buddhist, Muslim, Greco-Roman and Egyptian history with equal time.

    I don’t understand how a worksheet about Jesus’s message or teachings should even be taught at remotely the same time as the rise of the Holy Roman Empire.  This is like teaching the middle ages at the same time as current events.

    I agree that being productive would have been better than being right.  If I wrote a letter as well crafted as that, I probably would have cc-ed the principal and superintendent though…

    • Anonymous

      There are many high school and college level coloring books out there that are in use.  When I was taking some medical courses, we had a few anatomy coloring books… physiology and biology as well.  These types of coloring books are VERY useful for visual learners, especially, to memorize complex subject matter.

      As Hemant said, that part doesn’t bother me at all… and it was reassuring to me, as the mother of an 11-year-old with HORRIBLE printing that there are high schoolers whose printing isn’t much better.  :-

  • Anonymous

    Was this a “charter” school? Some of them have fairly religious administrators and teachers. Which gets under my skin since they get to have their religious school funded by our taxes.

  • Anonymous

    Teaching early Christian history would actually be a great thing. You know the real history. How there were many different sects that competed with each other. The different councils that distilled down what people are supposed to believe in. How rival sects were eliminated. How and why Constantine made Christianity the Roman state religion. How the Bible was compiled.

    But this isn’t history. It’s just theology. And I seriously doubt other religions get the same treatment

  • Dennis Rankin

    asasd

  • Lei Pinter

    As the parent I would also instruct my child to answer each question on the worksheet in full questions such as: “What angered and disappointed Jesus?” – Christians believe people’s sins angered Jesus. Subtle, but stating fact not opinion.

  • Annaigaw

    I can’t imagine that this teacher didn’t know this was wrong or that it is a proselytizing tool, that said I think the email is a good way to start so that the parents have a reasonable sounding document trail. I am even more horrified by the 3rd grade style homework assignment than I am by the jesus content. I work with college students and I can now see why they come to college with no critical thinking, analyzing or synthesizing skills.

  • Dennis Rankin

    Hello

    • Anonymous

      Hello

  • Aleena051985

    I think this is a good initial email.  However, I think I would have included demanding to know the origins of that page.  If it’s from sunday school material or evangelical sites ect, I would then take my complaint further.

  • Anonymous

    Promises: What promise did Jesus make to the people? He would return some day.

    Still waiting…

    (I know, tough for a fictional or semi-historical dead person to pull off.)

  • Anonymous

    High school? I think I would also be worried about my kid’s third-grade handwriting. I’d ask for a property tax refund from that school system.

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm… This is perplexing. I don’t doubt that something like this COULD happen, considering the recent Freshwater case, but it doesn’t pass my smell test. Aside from the absurdity of passing this material off in a public school of any grade level, it really is 3rd grade Sunday-school quality. Wouldn’t a delusional proselytizer still be able to find some age-appropriate Chick tracts to hand out at least? Also, the answers sound like they come from someone who’s been taught their catechism. Has this teacher been doing this all year? And this is the first it’s come up? Then there’s the handwriting. I know alot of people have crappy handwriting, so that’s not conclusive, but it really does look more like a third-grader’s, not a 15 y/old’s. And the crayon! Do high school students normally do their homework in crayon?
    In any case, I wouldn’t have acted nearly as calmly as the letter-writers. I’d take my kid and the offending homework sheets and go straight to the principal. I’d bite my tongue to hold back the colorful language, but I expect that if I met any support for this idiocy, I’d lose that restraint as well.

  • http://twitter.com/latinone_usa JNR

    Hemant, I think you’re too kind calling it a “possibly proselytizing teacher.” The teacher is proselytizing since the questions aren’t about the impact of Christianity in history, which is relevant, but about Jesus and his “promise” to “his people.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      It is amusing that the rote answer is that Jesus promised to return.

      I guess not including the words – in the lifetime of those present when he made the promise – completely changes that from a clear false prophesy to an on going series of false rapture warnings (set your calander for October 21st everyone!)

      The fact that the promised return did not happen is one of the most important “facts” a teenager could learn about christianity.

  • DaveG

    Here’s how 1 man handled it:

    http://www.27bslash6.com/easter.html

    • Kelleyglenn

      That’s the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time!

    • Ludovico

      Thanks for the link Dave! I just had a great ab workout from laughing so hard!

      • DaveG

        K and L, glad you liked it!

        • Snorted milk

          Have my babies? Biology be damned, science shall find a way!

  • Daniel Brown

    That’s HIGH SCHOOLER’S handwriting on that paper? Looks like the hand writing of a little kid!

    • Ben

      Handwriting is dead (well, it still has a pulse but it’s weak) and honestly I’m not all that upset about it. There are computers in practically every western household these days and you can type far faster than writing. Well, most people can.

      There’s really not much opportunity to practice handwriting these days, and not really any need to. It’s probably time to just teach kids to write capital letters by hand and do away with flowing handwriting altogether.

      A lost art, but that’s the price of progress.

      • oli kenton

        I confess my own hand writing looks like that of drunk pre-schooler. I blame it on my primary schools lack of focus on the three Rs and my own heavy use of a keyboard for pretty much anything.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RPPWVLMFKJ7QCHLEVQAR5GSL5M momma J

    I’m confused where my previous comment ran to. I could have sworn I wrote a reply this morning and posted it and now it’s gone. What gives?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Disqus has been having some comment issues — it’s nothing personal, I swear! We’re working to resolve it.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RPPWVLMFKJ7QCHLEVQAR5GSL5M momma J

        Ah, okay. Hope the discussion board feels better soon :( From now on I’ll make sure I copy and then post. Thanks.

  • Timothy

    I think the parents handled it right.  I know many people are saying they were to nice in the letter, but it seems like a good start.  I hope you will keep us informed on this event

  • EKlevins

    As someone who knows the kid, I just want to comment on his really uninspiring handwriting. His parents would both argue that his handwriting is terrible, his cursive (do they even teach that anymore?) is even worse, but rest assured his typing is perfect :) 

    • Rich Wilson

      My high school English teacher wrote in my report card that my handwriting looked like a bug had crawled across an ink pad and onto the page.

      And yeah, I can type fast.

  • Anonymous

    That’s a… high school assignment? As in, made for 14-18 year olds?

    I’m sorry, I can’t even get into the religious content OR the approach of the letter. 

    I don’t care what the subject matter is–I’d be freaked out if my kid brought home an assignment of that ‘difficulty’ level in ANY domain of knowledge.

    …HIGH school? For real?
    :(

  • Robster

    Those poor captive kiddies. Faith inc is desperate to pentrate the schools to get their nonsense out to kids before they’re worldly enough to recognise the nonsense for what it is.  It’s said it you “if don’t get ‘em by 7, you don’t get them”. They needs the kids, their current followers are aging and soon, will be history. That’s why they hate the gays and the condoms/pill. Their self interest knows no bounds.

  • Robster

    Those poor captive kiddies. Faith inc is desperate to pentrate the schools to get their nonsense out to kids before they’re worldly enough to recognise the nonsense for what it is.  It’s said it you “if don’t get ‘em by 7, you don’t get them”. They needs the kids, their current followers are aging and soon, will be history. That’s why they hate the gays and the condoms/pill. Their self interest knows no bounds.

  • Kurt

    Wait a sec… Jesus died for the General Public?  In that case, the prophesy has been fulfilled!  All hail Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger!

  • Miwebster

    I agree with everybody that this assignment is far too difficult for high schoolers.  In that vein, I’ve attempted to give enlightened answers to the questions…
    Q.  What angered and disappointed Jesus?
    A.  Nails

    Q. What are his private fears?
    A.  The same as any red-blooded ‘merican – erectile dysfunction.

    Q. What three words would he most often use?  
    A. You suck, Dad.

    Q. Who did he want to help?
    A. Himself, to more pie.

    Q. What ideas did Jesus have in common with Jews?
    A.  Bacon Cheeseburger – sinfully delicious.

    Q. How did he show courage?
    A. Sat through entire screening of Jesus Camp.

    Q.What promises did Jesus make to the people?
    A.  Buy one cabinet, get one free!

    Q.  Who spreads the message of Jesus?
    A.  Hypocrites, fools and liars.

    Due to the difficulty of these questions, I’d be interested in reading more answers to  them.

  • http://www.seethingprimate.wordpress.com Tkreacher

    I’m a little surprised at how many people care about handwriting these days.  Hell, I’m 36 and my handwriting looks like that… and it is absolutely irrelevant since I can’t recall writing much of anything outside of post-it notes and doctor office forms in the last 10 years or more.  

    With typing being far faster and more practical, e-mails being instantaneous, and cell phones in nearly every pocket, concern about the aesthetics of ones handwriting seems to me as outdated as being concerned about how well the 8-track in my attic performs. 

    Of course, with the religious infatuation with, and glee at the idea of, armageddon, this may one day come back to bite me in the ass as I emerge from the rubble and have to send missives off with Kevin Costner on horseback. 


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