Marilyn Anderson Rhames is the founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 165 chapters nationwide. She taught for 14 years in the Chicago public schools, after spending her early professional career as a journalist for outlets including People, Time, and Newsday. Marilyn is also the author of The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education and serves on the design team for Harvard University’s Leadership Institute for Faith and Education.
It’s an honor to take over Rick Hess’ Straight Up blog this week, so let me cut to the chase with some important, insightful commentary: Yo! Kanye’s new album “Jesus is King” is fire!! The beats are dope—plus hella horns, mad choir vocals, and best of all, the vibe drips with the guilt and glee of a prodigal son rap star collapsing in the arms of his forgiving Father.
I eat, sleep, and breathe all things Jesus, but when it comes to education policy, I like to take an ecumenical approach. I believe a broad coalition of faith is the brand of education reform that the public school sector has always yearned for but hasn’t had the courage to try since the early 1800s.
That may be changing.
I’m witnessing an incremental rise in the appetite for faith-based interventions within the legal bounds of public schooling. It seems the landscape of public education is warming to the idea that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship are some of the best strategic partners for local schools, especially schools in distress.
I’ve recently heard academic researchers ponder if the intensity of the religious faith of students, teachers, and administrators makes a substantial difference in their overall performance in school? That’s one of the questions I plan to study when I begin a Ph.D. program in education policy at the University of Arkansas next summer. Numerous medical studies link religious faith, prayer, and other spiritual practices to positive physical and mental-health outcomes, so why not academics, too?
On Oct. 28-30, the Harvard Graduate School of Education held its second Leadership Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE) convening. Professor Irvin Scott, the son of a Church of God in Christ bishop, founded LIFE, surmising that student motivation and achievement might flourish more if kids’ faith identities were affirmed in their public schools and if schools and districts found ways to partner with faith organizations.
(Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera and supporters were so fired up about LIFE that they rode their bicycles 400 cold-and-rainy miles to Massachusetts to raise awareness!)
On Nov. 6, the U.S. Department of Education hosted its second annual Faith Leaders’ Summit, drawing Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other people of faith to the nation’s capital to learn about the religious liberties and limitations that exist in public schools. For example, I had no clue that the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 led to the establishment of the Office of Non-Public Education to make a slice of federal education funding available to nonprofit, private schools—including both religious and nonreligious schools.
I also live-streamed education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ fireside chat where she explained her school choice proposal that would allow individuals and corporations to voluntarily contribute to private school scholarship funds that benefit low-income K-12 students in exchange for federal tax credits. States that choose to opt into this program would then be responsible for rule setting—but religious schools would not be disqualified from receiving the scholarship dollars.
Finally, just last week, I was tapped to help a group of African American pastors establish a nonprofit focused on advocating for better public and private school options for kids of color.
So much has happened at the intersection of faith and public education in just the last month!
When I launched my nonprofit Teachers Who Pray in 2011, however, it seemed that public education was in a bit of a cold war with faith. Eight years later, with the meteoric rise in school shootings, youth suicides, and students struggling with trauma and debilitating mental illnesses, exasperated school officials express gratitude for my work and are becoming more comfortable reaching out to local faith institutions for any support they can legally provide. (Tutoring, mentorship, recess monitoring, advocacy, and even optional after-school religious programming are just a few ways faith groups can help.)
Since the dawn of time, religious faith has been humanity’s social and emotional learning (SEL). But putting “Jesus” or “Allah” or “Jehovah” in a sentence with “public education” reads like a glaring grammatical mistake.
I understand many people’s reluctance to acknowledge a place for God—or any deity—in school. Our public education system has spent the last 50 years deliberately marking God absent, and now policymakers want to enroll Him in credit recovery?
Just look at how the paradigm shift is impacting Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West. In a recent episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” Kanye told his wife that since he found the Lord, he no longer wants her dressed half-naked in public. Kim rebuked his plea for modesty.
“You built me up to be like this sexy person and have confidence and all this stuff,” Kim told Kanye. “And just because you’re on your [spiritual] journey and you’re on a transformation doesn’t mean I’m in the same spot with you.”
Valid point: Kim voiced respect for Kanye’s spiritual awakening but respectfully exerted her right to hold true to her own beliefs.
Faith identities influence how people show up to work and school, and giving them space to express their faith is liberating—far better than pretending that faith is nonexistent, inconsequential, or unimportant. Faith matters to Kim and Kanye, and we’re better off when we admit that faith matters to students, parents, and teachers, too.
— Marilyn Rhames
This post was originally published on Frederick Hess’ Straight Up blog on Education Week.