Teachers have beliefs, but shouldn’t push them

Sunday, May 4, 1997

We all know that a teacher's worldview influences his or her
teaching in some way. What should parents do if they do not want
their child taught by a teacher with a particular worldview?

Perry Glanzer, Colorado Springs, Colo.

As professional educators, public school teachers are required
to be fair and accurate in the classroom, regardless of the personal
religious, political or social convictions which form their outlook
on life, i.e. “worldview.”


Where religion is concerned,
there is a constitutional requirement that teachers be neutral
and fair. Whatever their convictions, teachers are subject to
the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits them
from either promoting or disparaging religion.

If parents feel their child's teacher is unfairly promoting a
particular worldview, the first step is to speak directly with
the teacher involved. Most teachers want to know if students or
parents perceive any bias in their teaching. In most cases, teachers
will do all they can to reassure the parents of their intention
to be objective in their teaching and to treat every student with
respect.

A small number of teachers may be unresponsive to parental concerns
about bias. And, unfortunately, there are a few teachers who intentionally
promote or denigrate religion in the classroom or who push a political
agenda.

A North Carolina parent called recently to complain that her
daughter's social studies teacher persisted in making negative
and sarcastic comments about their family's religion. The parent
claimed that numerous discussions with the teacher had not changed
the behavior. If this report is accurate, the teacher involved
was not only unprofessional, but was also in violation of the
First Amendment.

The opposite problem occurred a few years ago in northern Virginia
when a teacher used her classroom position to proselytize for
her faith.


She was convinced that her religious obligation required
her to preach in school, even if doing so violated the law. Because
she was unwilling to compromise, she lost her job.


In situations like these, parents need to appeal to the principal
for help. In rare instances, the superintendent and school board
must become involved in settling the dispute.

While everything should be done to promote fairness in teaching,
students shouldn't be shifted from class to class as a matter
of course whenever parents' views differ from a teacher's privately
held beliefs. It would be unfair, for example, for a Hindu parent
to assume that a Christian teacher can't teach history — including
the history of India — objectively and accurately. Similarly, a
Democratic parent shouldn't assume that a Republican teacher cannot
teach U.S. government in a balanced way.

Please note, however, that the requirement of neutrality when
teaching about politics and religion doesn't mean that teachers
must be neutral about core values such as honesty or respect for
others. We should expect teachers to teach and model commitment
to the widely shared civic and moral virtues that sustain the
American republic.

In a democracy, public school teachers will inevitably represent
a wide variety of political and religious worldviews. Whatever
their views, they are all educators with special obligations to
their profession and to our nation. As long as teachers work hard
to be fair to all perspectives, their politics or religion should
not be a factor affecting the placement of students in their classes.