Many Christians struggle integrating faith into their 9-to-5 work lives. And yet, doing so is incredibly important to faithful daily living. How much more so for those tasked with teaching the children in our nation’s schools?
Several weeks ago, I (along with the rest of the Values & Capitalism team) had the chance to meet with Marilyn Rhames, a charter school teacher in Chicago, an award-winning Education Week blogger, and the founder of the nonprofit Teachers Who Pray. She was gracious enough to answer a few questions here, giving us a look into her story, the difficult job of teaching in America’s schools, and the inspiring work she is doing through this unique organization.
How did you become a teacher? Why?
When I was a child in elementary school, I always wanted to be a teacher. By the time I left high school, however, I decided that I wanted a career with more prestige, more pay, and less stress.
I graduated from Dominican University, just outside of Chicago, with a degree in English and immediately took a summer internship with People magazine in New York City. The internship turned into four years as staff reporter, during which I worked on special projects at Time and Life magazine, as well. I went back to school and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and started working for New York Newsday and The Journal News newspapers.
Then the September 11th terrorist attacks happened.
During the six years I lived in New York, I volunteered as a Sunday School teacher at a storefront church in Harlem. I looked forward to seeing my young students every week and they really loved me too. So when 9/11 happened, I, like millions of other Americans, paused to ponder the purpose of my life. With the perspective of a reporter who attended the victims’ funerals and interviewed devastated survivors and loved ones, I could no longer run from the truth: it was time to turn my childhood dream and Sunday morning hobby into my career. I was meant to teach.
Four months after 9/11, my husband and I (with our infant daughter) relocated to my hometown Chicago. There, I began applying to graduate schools and eventually earned a master’s in education and began my teaching career.
You’ve talked about there being spiritual deprivation in our schools. What do you mean by that?
A person is made up of three distinct parts: body, mind, and spirit. Education is heavily focused on strengthening the mind academically, and schools are now starting to focus on the body, with healthy school lunches and mandatory recess and physical education minutes. But what about the students’ and teachers’ spiritual well-being? That’s the part of a person that connects with a power that’s bigger than themselves. It’s the compass that navigates one’s sense of right and wrong and compels one to think unselfishly, trusting that one’s own needs will be met as he/she seeks to serve others.
Because of the well-defined separation of church and state, teachers cannot overtly address the spiritual depravity we see in our students. We can tell them to do good things only because it’s the right thing to do, but we cannot really explain to them why. I respect these limitations, but what can I do to relieve the pain of students who cut themselves, bully others, or struggle to give or receive love because of past hurts? Spiritual issues often show up in schools in the form of fights, gangs, chronic dishonesty, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and even suicide. There aren’t enough school counselors to deal with the epidemic that exists.
But spiritual deprivation is not just a student problem. Teachers are just as human and flawed as our students. We have failing marriages, health crises, and financial woes that can often be traced back to bad decisions and spiritual restlessness. Sometimes teachers carry childhood trauma, secret addictions, and unforgiveness that require spiritual counseling and interventions of prayer. Classroom teachers are under tremendous pressure without the added stress from personal fear, shame, and anger tormenting their souls.
Therefore, Teachers Who Pray intercedes for both students and teachers.
What is Teachers Who Pray? Why did you start it, and what is its mission?
Teachers Who Pray is a national non-profit organization that encourages Christian teachers throughout America to unite in prayer to transform the troubled climate of our schools and communities into a culture of peace, hope, and success. We want every student, every teacher, and every school to will be covered in prayer everyday.
That vision was birthed in my heart on my first day as a classroom teacher in 2004. I knew that I did not have what it took to fully educate my class of bright-eyed third graders. They were mostly from low-income African American families, yet so diverse. Some of them were reading beyond their grade levels and others were at the kindergarten and first grade levels. Some did their homework perfectly every night, while others did not eat dinner the night before let alone do their homework. As a teacher, I had the pressure of meeting all the needs of my students—and raising test scores for the school.
Meanwhile, dozens of school children in Chicago were being lost to gun violence. My young students were at-risk of getting shot during their walk home each and every day. To add to the stress, I had my first of four miscarriages during my first year of teaching. I needed prayer just as much as my students did!
Teachers Who Pray started informally in 2004, but three schools later in 2011, I finally incorporated the organization. Our mission is: “Believing teachers will pray together privately at least once a week at their schools for the specific needs of their schools. We will pray for the safety, social-emotional welfare, and academic growth of our students, as well as for the personal and professional needs of the school staff. Christian teachers across the nation will build a network of prayer and spiritual support.”
How has spending time in prayer with your colleagues affected your school’s atmosphere? Is there a notable story that you could share?
Teachers have to put on masks everyday for our students. We cannot afford to let our personal struggles get in the way of educating the children who depend on us. But when we gather with a group of teachers who have faith in the power of Jesus Christ, we can take off the mask and reveal what we are going through and what we need prayer for. Not everyone will be comfortable in letting go at first, but over time and by the leader modeling transparency for others, individuals will begin to open up and let their guards down.
Joe Pittenger, my special education inclusion teacher last year, is a perfect example. A husband and father of two young girls, it was Joe’s first year of teaching. He was also in graduate school and struggling to keep his head above water. Joe had been taking days off to go to the doctor; I didn’t want to pry so I never asked him what was wrong. But since we were co-teachers, I watched him get increasing more overwhelmed in class. I finally asked him how I could pray for him and that’s when he told me that the doctors found a cancerous tumor in his leg. He said he would need surgery and radiation treatments. I invited him to a Teachers Who Pray meeting after school, and another praying teacher revealed that she too had cancerous tumor removed from her leg when she was seven. We came together and prayed to Jesus for Joe’s healing over the course of the year. Joe went through treatment, and despite a scare earlier this year, has been cancer free for nearly two years. Though he is not yet a professed Christian, Joe says that Teachers Who Pray was a “life saver” that has renewed his faith in God.
How can teachers and non-teachers get involved?
Teachers can get involved by learning more about what Teachers Who Pray is and signing up to be a TWP chapter leader. All school staff is welcome to pray within a TWP chapter, however, non-school personnel are restricted at this time for confidentiality concerns. Non-school personnel who would like to support TWP can do so by praying for our organization, helping us spread the word, volunteering at regional prayer meetings, and also by much-needed donations to the organization.
Learn more about Teachers Who Pray, by visiting its website.