In my former life, I was a teacher of young minds. Yeah, I know, right? Me! A teacher.
Please stop laughing. It’s true.
Anyway, I will always remember this one little girl in my class who had trouble learning to read. Not because she was challenged in any way, but because she just didn’t care. See, she fancied herself a psychic medium. She would stand for hours talking to the air. She would quietly mumble under her breath, dance, clap, laugh, and hold entire conversations with a wall. When asked to come in from the playground, if she was engrossed in a "show" for her ghosts, she would become oppositional, pretend she was deaf, and I had to resort to physically lugging her chunky, tapioca-scented body inside. As you might guess, she had very few friends after a while, mainly because she simply ignored the other children.
As I was tasked with getting this child to, you know, learn stuff, this became a problem. So, a parent-teacher conference was scheduled.
Lo and behold, it turned out that her mother actually encouraged her daughter to communicate with “ghosts and angels.” I’ll never forget, she said, “She sees spirits. Everyone in the family knows she can. We push her to reach out and contact them. Lately, she’s been talking to her granny who passed away two years ago. She has a gift.”
I remember that I felt an epic, whatdafuh head tilt of biblical proportions coming on, but I resisted the urge. Her response to her daughter’s apathy toward her lessons in lieu of designing choreographed dance routines for ghosts was blasé. She showed no overt concern that her daughter would actually strike out at her teachers like a little badger when they tried to engage her while she was “in a trance.” She apparently felt that her daughter’s psychic talents were first and foremost in importance. I felt utterly helpless.
Fortunately, about a year after this, the child finally realized that all of her classmates had passed her by, and she began eagerly seeking her teachers out for lessons instead of stubbornly dissociating, snarling, hitting at us, and ignoring her instruction.
This leads me to why I’m posting this. See, as one who did not believe in the afterlife and angels, I had to quietly nod and respect the spiritual beliefs of the mother and my student. There was no way I could criticize their particular choice of fantasies, even when the family's embrace of the "spirit life" and their gleeful encouragement of this kind of magical thinking stood in direct opposition to their young child’s education. This was not as benign as when my students would ask me if I believed that baby Jesus was our Savior every Christmas (smile and nod), or when I was repeatedly invited by the parents to attend church services and revivals (smile and nod).
Smile and nod. In other words, I felt like I couldn't tell the truth.
In the South, it’s okay to say that you don’t go to the same church as your neighbor, but it sure isn’t okay to say that you don’t go to church at all.
Here is a chance for you to speak up!
I received this call for interviews earlier. If this sounds like you, I encourage you to respond!
Atheist K-12 Teachers - Are you a Conservative, Republican, or Libertarian? Do you Live Rural? Are you African American? Are you Out There?
Craig and Aimee Howley at Ohio University are doing research on K-12 educators who are also non-religious. Having collected many interviews already, they are now hoping to expand their dataset for wider representation.
A great deal of research in education focuses on the experiences of marginalized groups. The aim of this study is to investigate the experiences of one such group — teachers who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or freethinkers. Little is really known about the experience of atheists in any realm of life in the United States, and no study has yet investigated the experiences of nonreligious people who are employed as K-12 educators. The role of teacher is particularly interesting as a site for studying the experience of atheists and other nonbelievers because teachers are considered to be bearers of community standards, and few communities uphold atheism (or other nonbeliever perspectives) as a legitimate point of view, let alone as a principle on which community life is grounded.
If you’re up for sharing your experiences as an African American, rural, or conservative nonbeliever educator, your contribution would be incredibly valuable to the outcome of this project. Email the project (firstname.lastname@example.org-- Marged Howley, M.Ed.) to learn more or schedule a phone interview! All interviews are held to the highest standards of confidentiality, and if you are interested, we can make sure to notify you once we publish the results of the study!