I won’t forget that first week of remote teaching during the early days of the pandemic. Behind closed doors, I spoke into my laptop from the front of an empty classroom. My students were stitched into a virtual quilt of 24 screen squares, lit in varying shades of light to dark; they were sitting on couches, lounging in recliners, snuggling sideways on just-made beds. One munched on toast at the kitchen table, mom at the stove behind him; another kept pace on a treadmill, one hand holding open Pride and Prejudice, as I tried to spark a discussion about character flaws. The new normal looked like anything but school.
Still, I stood at my podium and looked straight into the camera. No matter the silence, I was fully animated, using voice and hands to lure them out of their little squares and through the towering arch of great literature “whose margin fades/ for ever and for ever” when we read, all the while careful not to stray beyond my camera’s narrow margins. Occasionally I’d ask a student to tilt his laptop so I could see his face, or I’d catch a smile pass from one square to another in a not-so-secret virtual chat. Like teachers everywhere, I had to use every trick I had to do what I’d always taken for granted.
Thanks to Parker Palmer, whose educational philosophy in The Courage to Teach shaped my teaching more than anyone, I had a metaphor to describe my task: “my gift as a teacher is the ability to dance with my students, to co-create with them.” Although my wife knows I hate to dance because, well, I can’t, I’d come to love dancing in my classroom around a Dickinson lyric or an O’Connor story or a passage from Huck or Hamlet. I’d measure successful semesters by the number of “critical moments” I’d enabled, which Palmer says, are when “a learning opportunity for students will open up, or shut down—depending, in part, on how the teacher handles it.” I had come to cherish such moments because of the way they changed the classroom climate: together over a poem or a story we’d dance to some powerful truth and know it, feel it. The bell would still ring, but for those few moments we forgot we were in school. Because all truth is God’s truth, I believe they were holy moments, and they were why I taught for almost forty years, why I sacrificed countless nights and weekends and vacations prepping and creating, grading and encouraging. With Palmer I believe that “to teach” is “to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.” Each critical moment wove us together as a class into a closer community where truth—personal, communal, divine—could be shared. I cherished those moments, and I believe my students did too.
But this new reality of remote teaching was not conducive to critical moments or, for that matter, to community. After almost forty years, I was more frustrated than I’d ever been.
So I was thrilled when we returned to face-to-face teaching. In order to be safe and as a concession to my family (who lovingly reminded me I was now the oldest person in the building), I taught from behind a plexiglass shield my young colleague in the wood shop graciously built for me. I also wore a mask, which steamed my glasses to the point where reading aloud with any expression meant removing them and stumbling over the blurred text. But the awful squares were gone. My beloved students were back—for real.
Yet something was still different, something still missing from past classes with these same pieces of literature that were like old friends to me. My passion for engaging and listening to students was strong as ever, but they were more reluctant than usual to speak. Discussions stalled. Interest flagged. Lamenting aloud at lunch with my colleagues, they talked of similar experiences. One young colleague wisely said that it would take time for students to relearn that real school requires active engagement, not the passive pretending of most virtual learning.
But there was something else, too.
Now, one summer into retirement after forty years of teaching I’d like to name that difference, hoping that it will help other teachers and school communities. While I can only speak with confidence from my own limited experience, I suspect other teachers in other schools—public, charter, or Christian like my own—can relate to the new reality that, although our students are no longer surrounded by those impenetrable virtual squares, there is another barrier with which teachers must contend: home-made boxes.
To be fair, students have always come to school in metaphorical boxes of one sort or another, containing the values with which they were raised. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and my parents sent us eight kids to Christian school with values based on my dad’s odd mixture of deep Christian-Reformed faith and fierce Democratic-Party loyalty, as well as my mom’s unflagging devotion to Billy Graham (her green and white counselor badge from “The Greater Chicago 1962 Billy Graham Crusade” is framed in my study). The difference, I think, was that parents like mine trusted teachers to expand the values in their kids’ boxes and weren’t afraid that some of those values might be challenged or altered or, ultimately, rejected by what their teachers taught. Moreover, for the first thirty, or so, years of my career, this was largely true of the parents whose children I taught.
But sometime during the last decade, more and more students began coming into my class with a kind of box I wasn’t used to. As in the past, the box was lovingly packed at home by parents who wanted what they thought was best for their child. However, these new boxes were cushioned by layers of bubble wrap, containing whatever contents of religious, political, and cultural perspectives their “family values” had come to mean. What’s more, they came with unwritten, though unmistakable, labels like “Fragile,” “Do not shake,” “Contents breakable.” The message to me was clear: teach them their English, but leave their values alone. Teach them to put the commas in the right place and why it’s important to read poems and stories that reinforce the view of God and America we’ve told them about—but, teacher, don’t challenge them to think for themselves. Don’t challenge our family’s values.
Granted, English, like social studies, has always been a target for some parents who feared their family’s values or politics were being challenged. More than once in my career I sat at parent-teacher conferences and was criticized for my political views. The difference then was that they were sitting across the table from me, speaking directly to me about their concerns and were willing to listen to me explain how a lesson I taught might have seemed political but was really, I could gently argue, biblical. Those were reasonable conversations that, more often than not, ended with a new understanding and appreciation of what I was trying to do. We would likely still disagree, but that was okay. Nor were they trying to change my or my school’s curriculum, recognizing as they did that their child was only one among many seeking an education in our school. They accepted that though their voice mattered, so did the voices of other parents.
What became evident about these new parents is that they did want to change the curriculum, and though they were still a minority, their influence on school curriculum and policy was having greater impact than their numbers warranted. More vocal, more organized, and more social-media savvy, these new-kind-of parents wanted to reshape the school according to the values of their home.
This change was slowly gaining influence during the last decade or so in schools across America, but the pandemic exacerbated it, with its raucous debates about masks and quarantines and the ever-widening political chasm in America. The trust I as a teacher had always enjoyed that allowed me to lead students into those critical moments of learning, was diminishing among the parents and, consequently, among my students.
For the first time in my career, I knew it wasn’t safe to let great literature work its magic in my classroom. Without trust I wouldn’t be able to do what a teacher at a Reformed Christian school is called to do: help students grow into Jesus-following, socially-conscious, critical-thinking young men and women who want to transform the world.
All of which still makes me sad.
Although I could offer several examples of parents pressuring my colleagues and me about books or lessons we taught, this shrinking trust was brought home to me during that first full semester of in-person school. I was teaching C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, a book students love because of all the psychological and spiritual truths they encounter—“The Law of Undulation,” “The Pressure of the Ordinary,” “The Role of Deepest Likings”—truths through which Lewis, in his inimitable way, stretches and deepens their understanding of themselves and God.
I don’t claim to know or want to know, for that matter, as much as Lewis does about the devil. But while teaching The Screwtape Letters during the pandemic, one thing struck me: Satan loves COVID. Not primarily because of all the tragic death and suffering it caused, but because of all the isolation and division it sowed among us. People died in ICU’s, far from the touch of family. Quarantines and school closures made cases of depression soar. Communities fought over mask mandates. Administrators and school board members were screamed at. Doctors and nurses and health care workers were vilified. Dr. Fauci was downright demonized. Even churches divided into masked and unmasked services. Truth became the stranger whose stare we fled. Worse than a virus, Satan infected everything that held us together in community.
I felt compelled to make Lewis’s truth on this issue relevant so that my students, at least, wouldn’t be deceived. We were discussing Chapter 25, where Lewis describes the truth behind “The Horror of the Same Old Thing.” He explains that humans are wired to love both permanence and change, but that problems arise when we desire change too much and demand “absolute novelty.” Screwtape can then “distract the attention of men [and women] from their real dangers” and “have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already gunwale under.” In other words, we can be deceived to look to the wrong source for help in a crisis. I paused to ask who knew the latest death statistics due to COVID. Several students spoke up. I wrote the numbers on the board, knowing that even this simple truth was doubted by some students and their parents. Then, I made two lists for them to consider. The first consisted of QAnon and other conspiracy theories; the second of doctors, nurses, scientists, and public health officials. Then I asked, “If Lewis had set this during our pandemic, which list of authorities would Screwtape be tempting Christians to disregard?”
The critical moment had arrived, and, as always, I welcomed it. The class grew cemetery still. They were thinking, connecting, and we were together co-creating meaning for ourselves around a profound truth. Just as I had hoped, and almost to a person, the students pointed or nodded to the list of sensible responses to the pandemic, meaning Screwtape would rather we listened to the QAnon crowd. The comments that followed made it clear that most of them could see how Lewis’s truth applied. Pleased, I wrapped up the discussion with something like, “This is how Screwtape operates, folks. His goal, as brother Lewis says, is to ‘fuddle’ our thinking. And right now, he’s having fun fuddling half of America.” Not long after, the bell rang and the class was over. Though I knew that our discussion would have been controversial in other settings, I went home that day thinking that though it was a risky truth to face, it was a necessary one—and what’s more, the discussion had brought us closer together in a community of truth.
Or so I thought.
Three students told my principal that my class had made them feel they were following the devil if they disagreed with my politics. One was in tears, I was told, and all three wished to remain anonymous. My principal, someone I still respect and admire, handled it with grace, but the point was clear: I had challenged the family values of these three students, and they and their parents wanted me to know that was unacceptable.
In trying to help them think critically, I knew that I had violated an expectation of this new kind of parent: I had tampered with the contents of their child’s carefully-packed box by challenging their family values and, most likely, their politics. Moreover, though there were only three students out of total of seventy-five seniors to whom the lesson had been taught, it was becoming clearer every day that I, like my colleagues, was expected to be far more mindful of not offending the family values of this vocal minority of parents.
I was frustrated and sad that after almost forty years of doing so, I could no longer welcome those critical moments when they came knocking at my classroom door.
Some perspective on what had been happening in my school and, I am fairly sure, in schools all over the country, came to me from a widely-read recent essay by Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic entitled, “Why the Past Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” Haidt argues that as a result of what happened with social media around 2012, we have been living in a post-Babel culture. For Haidt, “Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community.” We no longer share the same stories, he argues, and, as a result, trust has been shattered. He attributes this to the way platforms like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter evolved: although in their early iterations they mostly just connected us to people with whom we might otherwise have lost touch, they quickly devolved into platforms on which we shared our passionate likes and dislikes about things both trivial and vital in hope of scoring a big response. In time, we did this only with a very select group who shared our views. Thus, instead of uniting, social media platforms began dividing us, leading us to distrust not only other people but also institutions in general. Haidt argues that “when people lose trust in institutions, they lose trust in the stories told by those institutions,” which is “particularly true of the institutions entrusted with the education of children. Facebook and Twitter make it possible for parents to become outraged every day over a new snippet from their children’s history lessons—and math lessons and literature selections.” And, as any educator today can attest, “The motives of teachers and administrators come into question.”
Fragmented as school communities are, it’s no wonder there’s distrust between teachers and parents. Had the parents from my Lewis lesson spoken to me directly, things might have turned out differently. I would have listened to their concerns, trying to understand what they and their child were feeling. I also would have tried to help them understand that what they thought was motivated by my politics was actually motivated by my faith and my long-held belief as a teacher that Christians, of all people, need to respect truth and to champion truth-telling. I would have also explained to them that some of my students have family members who are doctors and nurses and that they, too, were being harassed for the sacrifices they made on our behalf or that, just as important, several of them planned to be doctors and nurses themselves, and I didn’t want them discouraged from such a calling by the lies being spread. I’ve had such parental discussions before, and while we may still have disagreed, in the end we wouldn’t see the other as our foe. Most importantly, we’d likely trust each other a little more. Sadly, such a meeting never happened with these anonymous students and parents, and the distrust remained, leaving me, and teachers like me all over the country, frustrated, sad, and wondering what’s still safe to teach.
I am especially worried about my former colleagues and fellow teachers as this new school year approaches. After all, this summer Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law kicked into effect, as did the Christian Reformed Church’s decision to condemn same-sex relationships. As another election cycle approaches, this fall will only bring more fear into classrooms everywhere, today’s teachers being all too aware of the growing list of verbal prohibitions in the classroom. “Don’t say Gay” leads the pack, of course. But then there’s “Don’t say abortion” or “climate change” or “institutional racism” or “C.R.T.” or “evolution” or “gun control” or “insurrection” or “Black Lives Matter” or “politics” or, even, “social justice.” I’m sure other teachers could add prohibitions to my list.
No wonder teachers are afraid to teach.
But it is the students who will suffer most: a classroom without trust is a classroom without community, and without community the truths about life that underlie all these divisive issues won’t be discussed honestly. As a result, students won’t be equipped to think critically about them, to develop their own perspective, to contribute their own voice to the great conversation. How can their high school history teacher discuss the truth about racism and slavery without being accused of promoting “C.R.T.”? How can their science teacher discuss the truth about climate change or evolution without being accused of being political or heretical? I know, of course, how such distrust will increasingly change English classes, where on any given day, a piece of literature can raise a question on just about any aspect of life, because “Literature touches on life at more points, and more powerfully at more points than other knowledges,” as the late Henry Zylstra of Calvin College so wisely wrote. That’s why critical moments are so frequent in English classes and why it’s so critical for students that they occur.
Protecting or restoring trust in teachers will not be easy, but it is vital. One of the pieces my seniors read early in my course was John Donne’s “Meditation 17,” where he famously states that “No man is an island, entire of itself, but a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Because most of them inhabit a world where they feel increasingly isolated from each other, it is a truth with which they easily resonate and yearn to make reality. A companion piece they read is Frederick Buechner’s “Pontifex,” where he expands on Donne’s truth, claiming that “there is another truth, a sister of this one, and it is that every man is an island.” This truth resonates even more strongly with students because Buechner tells them about the masks we each wear, in spite of the fact that “inside the mask…there is a person who both longs to be known and fears to be known.” This paradox leads, Buechner argues, to our isolation and loneliness. “In this sense,” he reasons, “every man is an island separated from every other man by fathoms of distrust and duplicity.”
The reflections they write after discussing these two great meditations are revealing. They hate the masks they wear. They each feel lonely, to some degree. They long for honest connection. Dare I suggest here that we adults living in our post-Babel culture of fragmentation might feel the same way? Beneath all our divisiveness and debate and our cheery Facebook posts, might it be true that we adults, too, long for more honest connection? If so, Buechner says the solution lies with pontifex, Latin for “bridge-builder love.” Today, more than ever, I think, we need an emphasis on pontifex love in all our relationships.
Finally, as a retired Christian-school teacher from a small town in Michigan, I want to also suggest that this immensely-important love is best cultivated within the classrooms across this country; for that to happen, however, school communities need to nurture more trust in their teachers. To that end I’d like to suggest two ideas that might help restore that trust, hoping they might yield not only healthy discussion but also more ideas.
First, administrators and school boards need to be far more deliberate in communicating to teachers the trust they have in them. Too often a simple “thanks” at the annual Christmas buffet is all teachers get. “Thanks” is nice, but an assurance of trust from the women and men who hired them is far more encouraging for teachers entering classrooms these days. This trust in teachers should be promoted in the community through school publications and annual meetings. Publish teacher profiles. Make it a point to tell a story about a teacher at each board meeting. Furthermore, teachers, administrators, and school-board members need to get together more often to get to know each other better. For example, I know little about the challenges an administrator or board member faces today, but I would like to know, so I could better understand and trust them. I would like to hear, for instance, whether they think it’s a good idea that parents no longer contact teachers directly when they have a concern about a class. I suspect social media or maybe quarantining is in part responsible for the shift I’ve seen: instead of talking directly to the teacher they have an issue with, as was once the norm, parents talk to administrators about their concerns—or, in the worst cases, rage about them on Facebook—and then the administrator talks to the teacher. This may be a good way to “control the message” to parents and may seem like a good way to protect the teacher, but it’s a bad way to build trust between teachers and parents—and between teachers and administrators. It saddens me that too often teachers, upper administrators, and school board members relate to each other like three points that used to form a sturdy triangle: we share common ground and common cause, but we rarely communicate. That needs to change.
Second, teachers have to do their part as well. They must be worthy of the trust placed in them by the school and by the parents and avoid being openly partisan when it comes to divisive issues. I’ve made this mistake more than once during my career, and sometimes, back when our national discourse was less volatile, I did so as a way of enlivening a discussion, but today it’s more important than ever to be careful not to inject personal partisan views. It only creates more division. Besides, we want to give our students the skills to think critically, not necessarily to think as we do. Moreover, we need to welcome those face-to-face conferences with parents who are concerned about something we’ve taught. We need to empathize, to really listen: these are their children, after all. We also need to communicate clearly our motives for teaching what we do and for the way we do: again, administrators could help here by finding more ways for teachers to do this and by encouraging them to do so openly and honestly—and by supporting them when a parent might object.
There’s more, of course, as better minds than mine will make clear. But about this I am certain: we must do something, because trusting teachers and nurturing trust in the classroom is vital to the survival of real education. This is especially critical in Christian communities, where our concerns for building bridges of love between people is our godly calling. To quote Buechner’s “Pontifex,” again, “Island calls to island across the silence, and once, in trust, the real words come, a bridge is built and love is done—not sentimental, emotional love, but love that is pontifex, bridge builder. Love which speaks the holy and healing word which is: God be with you stranger who are no stranger. I wish you well. The islands become an archipelago, a continent, become a kingdom whose name is the Kingdom of God.”
A communal commitment to such a holy, healing infrastructure project would help restore trust in teachers and, just as important, restore in teachers the courage to teach.