August 29, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher #16: Crossing The Line

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mr. Martinez
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Opinion vs. Behavior

Dear Mr. Martinez:

It was good to hear from you again, and I have heard about the latest development in the case of Jerry Buell, the history teacher in Mount Dora, Florida who was suspended because of his private views on gay marriage. If you'd like to read about the case, go here, but I'll be glad to summarize it, and I'll also try to answer your other questions.

Mr. Buell has been reinstated and the original complaint seems to have been mostly dropped, but the Lake County Schools continue to pursue Mr. Buell, apparently alleging that he has somehow violated the separation of church and state. Considering the media accounts I've been able to find, it's unclear exactly what is going on, but apparently Mr. Buell wrote on his school webpage that he tries to “teach and lead my students as if Lake Co. Schools had hired Jesus Christ himself.” Apparently, he wrote on his syllabus: “I teach God’s truth, I make very few compromises. If you believe you may have a problem with that, get your schedule changed, ’cause I ain’t changing!” On another, unidentified, document, Mr. Buell is said to have written that be believed that his classroom was his "mission field."

At least two of these statements apparently appeared on school controlled and sponsored media. The content of a school website may certainly be regulated by the school, and a teacher's syllabus—a document explaining the teacher's philosophy, expectations and the likely curriculum—may also be subject to school rules and standards. That the Lake County Schools would continue to pursue Mr. Buell is not surprising. They shot themselves in the foot with their ill-considered, knee-jerk reaction to Mr. Buell's obviously private, non-school related speech. The national public outcry—to say nothing of the fact that they were surely told they were going to lose that legal battle in spectacular fashion—caused them to hastily retreat, but such people are not prone to admit error, nor are they forgiving. They will likely be tempted to continue to watch Mr. Buell for the remainder of his career.

Sadly, this is all too common in American education. Too often, some promoted to be administrators lack common sense and adult restraint, to say nothing of lacking actual leadership ability. Even teachers like Mr. Buell, last year's Teacher of the Year, a man with a reportedly unblemished record of some 26 years, wear a perpetual target on their backs, and once some administrators recognize such a target, they pursue it to vindicate their egos until it is ultimately destroyed, regardless of the teacher's dedication, loyalty and years of exemplary service. At the moment, what we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that Mount Dora administrators over-reacted, suspending an apparently exemplary teacher before all of the facts were in.

That said, if Mr. Buell's statements are accurately reported, and if they were written on school controlled sources. Mr. Buell may have a problem. To understand what's happening, I need to explain a common misconception: prayer and religion have never been removed from American schools. It is not illegal to speak of God, the Bible, or of religious concepts and history. It is impossible to properly teach history, literature, science and other disciplines without mention of religion, and many schools teach Biblical literature classes. Indeed, scripture is so much a part of American culture that it is essentially necessary to refer to it in a great many discussions of literature and culture.

School officials may not proselytize—try to convert students to any faith--and they may not demand that students pray or lead them in prayers. Of course, some schools, even entire states, have instituted a mandatory, periodic "moment of silence" as a thinly veiled subterfuge for prayer. Students certainly may—on their own time and in non-disruptive ways—read the Bible or pray, and they are certainly free to discuss their faith with others, again, so long as they do so on their own time and in a way that does not disrupt the mission of their school.

Students and their families are always free to worship as they please and to attend any church of their choosing. So if all that I've said is true, what's the problem?

The problem is that some people, probably well-intentioned, feel that they are not doing what God wants them to do if their particular vision of how best to honor and worship God is not being mandated in the public schools. These people feel it's their duty to compel school children to worship God—in their preferred way--for the good of the children.

There are many problems with this viewpoint, practical and theological. Christianity is, according the Gospel, an entirely voluntary faith. Forcing it on essentially captive audiences of school children is arguably contrary to the very scripture being forced on them. But practically, if we accept the views of those who wish to impose them on the schools, whose version of Christianity should be taught? Such people would surely feel that their version of Christianity is the one, true way, but so do all of the other sects, Christian or otherwise. Do we impose worship based on the will of the majority? The Christian majority would certainly like that, but the political pendulum never rests and eventually swings against the status quo. What happens when the majority changes? Or do we try to accommodate all faiths with Baptist prayer on Mondays, Catholic prayer on Tuesdays, Muslim prayer on Wednesdays, ad nauseum?

The most significant problem is that there is always limited class time, and time spent in religious devotion easily and freely obtainable outside school hours is time lost to learning. In addition, many parents might reasonably feel that the religious instruction of their children is exclusively their business. They would be right.

On the other side of the issue, some school officials, uninformed or relentlessly politically correct, try to eradicate the slightest religious inclination, act or reference, punishing students for carrying or reading a Bible or for committing other such offenses against liberal orthodoxy. "Zero tolerance" policies are usually evidence of zero judgment and zero common sense on the part of school officials.

This brings us back to Mr. Buell. If he did in fact write what he is said to have written on school sources, what should be done? What should have been done in the first place?

The school district—by reinstating Mr. Buell--has tacitly admitted that they were wrong to suspend him, and have reportedly placed some sort of "directive" in his formerly pristine personnel file, presumably ordering him not to do whatever they found and find objectionable, but we have no idea, for the moment, what is in that directive. What is clear is that they can reasonably require that teachers not use overtly religious language in their official capacity, on official websites, correspondence or in classroom materials.

Let's examine what Mr. Buell is alleged to have written and see where it might be problematic.

Mr. Buell apparently wrote (on his school website) that he will “teach and lead my students as if Lake Co. Schools had hired Jesus Christ himself.” This is clearly over the line. Is Mr. Buell comparing himself with Jesus Christ or merely saying he intends to follow Christ's example? My students invariably ask me about my faith and I tell them only that I am a Christian, but that I want them to judge me not by the fact that I spend several hours a week in a given building, but by my professionalism, character and treatment of them. This is the best way to "witness" to students: through your daily example. If Christians behave in ways that encourage respect and admiration, their witness is powerful and personal and far more effective than any statement on a website.

Mr. Buell's syllabus reportedly said: “I teach God’s truth, I make very few compromises. If you believe you may have a problem with that, get your schedule changed, ’cause I ain’t changing!” Again, this is over the line. Teachers are within the boundaries of the reasonable exercise of professional discretion when they tell students that they will teach the most up to date and accurate material available, but teaching "God's truth" must be left to ministers and student's parents. "God's truth" suggests sectarian theology rather than the imparting of a professional academic discipline. And as an English teacher, don't get me started on a teacher using "ain't" outside a discussion of dialect in literature or outside of theater.

Finally, Mr. Buell apparently said, in some sort of unspecified forum, that he considered teaching his "mission field." If written in a school forum, this is without question over the line. The primary reason for the existence of missionaries is proselytizing, converting people to their specific faith. The denotation and connotations of the term are unmistakable. I have, over the years, run into teachers who wanted to send me daily devotions, scriptures, or who were forever asking about the status of my faith or salvation. One took to asking me if I was "spirit filled" whenever we met. I stopped that, finally, by telling her that I was not spirit filled, but was happy to be jelly filled. Even as a Christian, I find such things off-putting and inappropriate in the school setting. If these people want to be ministers, no one is restraining them from answering their ministerial calling rather than working in the more worldly realm of public education.

There are other issues in this case, however. Mr. Buell has been employed at Mount Dora High School for many years, and has presumably included the potentially over the line materials in his syllabus and on his website for many years, perhaps decades. Would it be unreasonable for Mr. Dora to conclude that his religiously oriented statements were acceptable to his superiors and to the community at large? Certainly not, and until recently, apparently none of his students or their parents complained about him. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that he has not, despite the limited use of inappropriately religious language, tried to force his religious beliefs on his students.

With this in mind, it's reasonable for the Lake County Schools to require him to remove religious references from official sources. It may also be reasonable for them to place a memorandum—not a reprimand—in his personnel file specifically outlining what is expected of him in the future. But considering the fact that until the Schools overreacted to a complaint, Mr. Buell had no idea he was doing anything wrong, in fact, would reasonably believe that he was doing everything right, it would be excessive and unprofessional to do more than that. A reprimand would be the reasonable next step if he failed to do what his superiors asked of him. What remains to be seen is whether the school officials involved are reasonable professionals or political activists with too much ego invested.

I hope I've answered your questions. If Aracelli wants to talk about theological issues, we can certainly do that—if her questions are reasonably related to what we're studying at the moment. If not, we can certainly talk outside of class. I'm reasonably well read in theology, but I almost certainly know less than the average minister with a degree in theology. Thanks again for getting in touch, and please let me know if I can be of help in the future.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at August 29, 2011 11:19 PM