Although public school teachers can’t practice their faith in the classroom, it’s still part of who they are. How can you balance your religious beliefs with your job?

Teaching in a public school today is far more complicated than it was in the mid-1950s. At that time, rural communities tended to be more homogeneous. Immigrants in major cities also tended to assimilate into well-established ethnic and religious neighborhoods, with each group sending their children to attend the local public school.

I found this to be true when I grew up in Chicago in a predominantly Greek Orthodox and Italian Roman Catholic neighborhood which contained two large, beautiful churches that anchored the community. In that era of predominantly Christian citizens, many public schools across the nation began their day with prayer. School Christmas programs often included a reenactment of the nativity story from Luke 2 — complete with bathrobed shepherds and tinsel-haloed angels. Residents in these geographic areas shared conversations with the same neighbors whether they were at the local school, church, library, or coffee shop.

Dive Deeper

Explore the issue of religion and the schools with the December issue of Kappan magazine at Learn about:

  • U.S. students who use videoconferences to talk with their peers around the world about their religious beliefs
  • The only school district in the U.S. that requires every student to take a religion course
  • A Chicago school district’s approach to observing religious holidays

The cultural landscape of our public school communities has changed significantly from that time period. Today, not far from my childhood neighborhood, the urban public elementary school that partners with my education department is much more culturally diverse. The 1st-grade class that I worked with last year comprised 13 ethnic cultures among its 25 students. Although predominantly Hispanic, the class’s ethnic heritage included students who were Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, and Pakistani. These students’ religious traditions included Catholic, Pentecostal, Hindu, and Muslim, as well as those, I imagine, whose families did not hold any formal religious beliefs. And while the makeup of this community was much more complex than its 1950s’ counterpart, it offered rich learning opportunities vital to our democracy as these young children came to understand the cultural experiences of their classmates and neighbors.

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