Jeff Haanen

The Soul of Education Q&A – Dr. Mary Poplin from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

[In a previous post, I summarized an interview I did with Dr. Mary Poplin, Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University. In the previous post, Poplin challenged constructivism, shared her findings on highly effective teachers, and encouraged teachers to teach about religion in public schools in a way that is fair and truthful to each set of beliefs. In this post, she discusses how to redeem history, teach virtue, influence the moral climate of a school through prayer, and be both courageous and compassionate as a Christian teacher in public education.]

4. Don’t romanticize history – either Christian or secular. Encourage students to seek out sources.

“We have to redeem history. History has been rewritten…I was astounded the other day. I was in LA and I saw an Asian woman with a t-shirt that exalted Ho Chi Minh. The people who I thought were villains—who really are if you read history—are now being exalted as heroes…Yet we also have to be careful not to romanticize American history…There was slavery in the south. We have to be honest about it. Sometimes you pick up a Christian history book and it’s sort of romanticized, too.” 

“Did you know Isaac Newton wrote more about theology than he actually wrote about science? We need to get his [original] work. Have people read the real stuff. Paul Vitz actually did a book on how our book curriculum takes certain things out of the actual documents, always about God or religion. Find the original document.”

It was news to me during our interview that, for example, Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, worried that his method would be used demonically. Demonically? Yes – he lived in a world where angels and demons were as real as matter and molecules. Dr. Poplin said, “[Bacon] believed that the purpose of the scientific method was to understand the natural world. And if you could understand the natural world, you could understand the mind of God. Now that’s just a historical, biographical fact.”

Revising history —either to romanticize the founding of America OR to omit pieces of actual thought and belief from people like Newton or Bacon because of a secular bias — is just bad teaching. The only way to “redeem history,” in Dr. Poplin’s words – is to find the originals. Seek out sources. Read biographies, old and new – and assign them to your students.

5. Teach virtue. Encourage moral conversations among students. 

“What’s our new narrative [for public education]? ‘Truth, goodness, and beauty’ comes to mind….Paul says ‘Concentrate your mind on what’s true, what’s beautiful, what’s of good report…’ In C.S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, which is a great book for educators to read, he has in the very back an appendix of all the virtues that every religion believes. Start there.”

“You can start with things [students] see in the movies. A new superhero movie comes out every month. Every culture has superhero stories. You can start a conversation about good and evil, and get their little stories out too. You know, we’re in trouble here on this planet, and we really need some help. Some guy comes and saves us.” 

Dr. Poplin is pretty honest with her students: she wants them to become people of virtue. To do that, she regularly encourages them with exhortations like: I want you to develop perseverance.  Paul encourages us to also focus on whatever is good, true or beautiful – whether ‘religious or secular’ (foreign categories for Paul). During the course of our interview, she said that she recommends teachers using lists of virtues and develops language in her classroom that is clearly moral in nature – without avoiding language like evil or even sin.

And the connection here can be made to religion. C.S. Lewis’ treatment of The Tao – moral standards across cultures – can be a good place to start developing rich conversations about right and wrong, good and evil, in your classroom. Each culture has hero stories, including our own. We can start here with the moral world our students live in today.

6. The best way to influence the moral climate of your school and classroom is through prayer.

Jeff: “Let’s talk about shaping moral culture in a school. Is there more we can do than just the positive behavior support committee? How can we create a more robust moral culture in a school? From your experience, what would that look like?”

Dr. Poplin: “Well, the first thing it looks like might not be what you’d expect me to say. But it looks like prayer. There should be a lot of prayer in every school. Prayer is a spiritual reality. Every day when you and I walk into our classrooms or our offices, we need Jesus. We need Him, we need the Holy Spirit to tell us, ‘Say this, and don’t say that.’ I have [doctoral] students who are Christian who tell me that they’d go in early and pray over every chair of the classroom.

I think we underestimate prayer. And I think if there’s just two of you in the building that pray, then pray more specifically over where the kids who have trouble are going to be sitting. We have to do that more. I have to do that more.”

I really was astounded by this response. Of course! I’m seeking the silver bullet to make schools more moral places, and Dr. Poplin is asking the Holy Spirit to do this for her! Christian teachers have incredible influence when they pray for their students. And prayer is not just a psychological trick, but a spiritual reality – one through which God actually moves and changes reality, and one through which demons are repelled. It changes the actual lives of students and co-workers alike.

Pray. Wow. After hearing this, I thought to myself, “I need to do this more, too.”

7. The best Christian teachers are both courageous when sharing their faith and compassionate for others. 

“I had an experience at the University of Arizona. I was in a huge auditorium for a Veritas Forum. I saw a group of atheists come in –  they all wear black t-shirts and have messages on them. Mostly young men. They took up the second and third row because that’s going to be in your eyesight, right? I’d seen atheists before but never in this number. And they’re going to snicker at you; they’re going to laugh at you while you talk. And I felt myself getting fearful.

And I felt in my spirit three times the Lord said to me—like He could have been really nice and just have said, ‘Don’t fear them. I’m with you.’ But that’s not what he said to me. Because he knows I’m a little harder to reach. So He said, ‘Do not fear them. Fear me.’ And I thought he said it three times. And after that, I walked up there. The second I hit the steps to the stage, I had no fear. 

Why does He say, ‘Fear me?’ It’s not like, ‘Oh, you’re going to knock me down if I don’t do it.’ That’s not His fear. The fear of God to me is a fear of disappointing Him. The fear of not doing what we’ve been called to.”

Fear rises in our hearts whenever we face strong resistance. I think at one point or another, every Christian teacher has felt fear when the opportunity to share faith in a public school context arises. What will my boss say? Parents? The student?

This is what Dr. Poplin felt God saying: “Fear not? NO. Fear me!” Christians are ultimately called to live to please God alone. Who of us really want to see Christ one day and realize that we were ashamed of the gospel of grace – and then hear that Christ is ashamed of us before his Father on Judgement day? Mary Poplin was and is clearly bold. It’s a boldness I aspire to. But let’s not be confused: she’s not harsh, mean or arrogant. So many “evangelists” today use the gospel to wound others or win a culture battle. This isn’t her. She has a reason for the hope she professes, but she does so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

And Dr. Poplin is compassionate. She shared another story: “Sometimes just the strangest things happen. You know, somebody comes in and all of the sudden this person who you think is not interested in religion comes in, and starts weeping about something in their life. And I just say, ‘Can I pray for you?’ And no one has ever turned me down.”

Summary: Being a Christian Teacher in Public Education

1. Kids need direct instruction. Constructivism is poor pedagogy, especially for low-income students.

2. The best teachers are strict, have high personal interaction with students, and believe in their student’s ability to achieve. 

3. Religion can and should be taught in public schools in a way that is fair and truthful. 

4. Don’t romanticize history – either Christian or secular. Encourage students to seek out sources.

5. Teach virtue. Encourage moral conversations among students.

6. The best way to influence the moral climate of your school and classroom is through prayer.

7. The best Christian teachers are both courageous when sharing their faith and compassionate for others. 

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