We are now in our twelfth year of public schooling, and between our three children we have totaled twenty-two school years of public education. This has taken place in a limited context, of course: one primary school and one high school in one school district in one town in one province in one country. I have written elsewhere about how and why we made the decision to educate our children this way and do not wish to cover that ground again today. What I do wish to do, though, is to reflect on the way that Christians speak about public schools and, even more so, about public school teachers. The last ten years have made me realize that many Christians speak unfairly about public school teachers. They may even speak slanderously.
To slander someone is to “make a false spoken statement that causes people to have a bad opinion of someone.”1 It is a deliberate or inadvertent misrepresentation that does damage to a person’s reputation. I have learned a lot about this sin from R.C. Sproul of all people. Several times Dr. Sproul has written books about Catholicism and he has often said that Protestants are prone to slander Catholics by inadequately understanding and unfairly representing their beliefs. Protestants tend to say things like, “We believe that justification is by faith but Roman Catholics say it is by works. We believe it is by grace but Roman Catholics say it is by merit. We believe it is through Christ but Roman Catholics believe it is through one’s own righteousness.” But as Sproul points out, “These are terrible slanders against Rome” because from “the sixteenth century to today, the Roman Catholic Church has said that justification requires faith, the grace of God, and the work of Jesus Christ.”2 The real debate is not over faith, but over faith alone. To right this injustice he has attempted to make a careful study of Catholicism, to represent it fairly, and to critique it for what it actually is. In this way he has modeled fair engagement.
When it comes to education in North America, the tides in the Reformed world have shifted away from public education and toward Christian or home schooling. The decision on education is for each family to make on the basis of beliefs, conscience, and context. I am convinced that any of the options are in play, at least for our family, and at various times we have seriously considered all three. To this point we have maintained public schooling.
However, if we were to begin again today, I am quite sure we would not enroll our children in public schools. What concerns me is that our decision would not be based on conviction but fear, fear generated by statements we have heard from others about public schools and, in particular, about public school teachers. Over the years we have encountered hundreds of statements about the dangers of such teachers. We have been assured that public schools are the breeding ground for every kind of social evil, that they are the lair of predatory teachers, that they are full of tenured and unionized employees who care nothing for children. We have heard that public school teachers care only for ideology, that they will allow no leeway for Christian beliefs, that they will do their utmost to undermine the hard training of parents who attempt to raise their children with biblical ideals. In many Christian circles, public school teachers are made out to be the enemies of the faith.
Our experience of public school teachers has been far different and far more positive. And I don’t think we are the exception, not from what I’ve heard when speaking to people in my church, in my city, in my family, and even as I’ve spoken to many of you at conferences or churches or events. Of course some have had bad experiences, but not all. Not nearly all.
Yes, we have bumped into one or two unskilled or uncaring teachers over those twenty-two school years. But on the whole our children’s teachers have been a delight and they have gladly partnered with us in the education of our children. They have brought skill, passion, and empathy to their job. On a few occasions we have approached the teachers with cares or concerns related to what the children will be learning and we have found them eager to discuss these things and eager to work with us, not against us. They have given us detailed outlines of all they intend to teach so we have had all the relevant information and been able to make informed decisions. If we have wanted to keep our children out of a class or two, the teachers have been glad to accommodate our requests without protest and without shaming our children. One teacher even skipped a whole section of a curriculum because I expressed discomfort with it. If we have approached the teachers with concerns related to interpersonal conflicts between our children and others, the teachers have been eager and tender in helping the children get along. Academic concerns have been met with extra time, extra tutoring, extra care.
When a high school teacher showed a video that was condescending toward a particular Christian belief, my son went to him after class to explain that he is a Christian who actually believes that. The teacher then modified the lesson to ensure it would no longer disparage such beliefs. When my son’s pro-life presentation caused students to complain to a school administrator, the administrator assured him he had freedom to express himself in such ways. One teacher has asked me to speak to his class about pastoring and I’ve also been invited by a teacher to speak at the school’s Christian club complete with an announcement that invited the whole student body to come and hear me lead a Bible study. (There are other things I would love to write but would not do so without permission of the teachers involved.)
We have consistently experienced teachers who have gone out of their way to be helpful to us and who have gone above and beyond to express respect to us and love to our children. They have allowed us and our children to believe what we believe without interference. A couple have told us how our children stand out because of the kindness and respect they have learned from the Bible. One teacher wrote us to say, “If my children grow up to be like yours, I will be so pleased.” They have expressed admiration because of what we believe, not despite it! The reality has been so different from the caricature. The things we keep hearing from Christians as they speak about public school teachers does not describe reality—our reality, at least. We know now that so many of these statements are unfair and untrue. They are slanderous. Yet they come from Christians.
Now, again, we represent the experience of just one family and two schools. And maybe things are changing so that there is a new boldness among teachers to speak out against Christians and their beliefs. But if so, we have not seen it. In fact, we have seen the very opposite, that the spirit of tolerance in the schools does not shut out Christians but extends to them. Our experience has been that God’s common grace, his love for all humanity, extends even to the classrooms of the nearby public schools.
So how do I wrap this up? Let me affirm once again that I believe home schooling and Christian schooling are perfectly valid options and in many cases the best option. It is entirely possible they are options we will eventually embrace for our children as we continue to decide and discern what is best for them. What I have written here is not meant to be a defense of public education and certainly not of all public education. Rather, it is a plea for Christians to speak the truth and to speak it in love. It is a plea to speak well of those who do their job well. If we are going to argue against public education, let’s do so on the basis of reality rather than fear and fiction.
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