Join us for a conversation with Marilyn Rhames of Teachers Who Pray. We’re discussing some of our favorite takeaways from her new book Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons that Can Transform Schools & Revolutionize Public Education.
In particular, we discuss what it looks like to cross the street on race. We also tackle the topic of restorative discipline.
read the transcript:
[Linda] I'm here today with Marilyn from Teachers Who Pray, and she is also the author of The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education. Thanks so much for being here, Marilyn.
[Marilyn] It's my pleasure.
[Linda] Can you share with us a little bit about your teaching experience and a little bit about Teachers Who Pray?
[Marilyn] Yeah, so I have been a teacher in Chicago since 2003, and I’ve been running Teachers Who Pray full time for the past two years. But I worked in Chicago Public Schools, for about 15 years and I've worked in mostly elementary school, K through 8th. I also was briefly a counselor for alumni students who I had taught that were in high school and doing high school persistence work. But Teachers Who Pray was something that I felt was missing in my experience as an early new teacher, and I felt like I needed a community of believers to just build me up at work and help me get through a lot of the tough situations that most new teachers encounter.
[Linda] Yes, and you guys definitely need to check out all the amazing work Marilyn's doing over at Teachers Who Pray. Today, we are going to focus our conversation around a few topics from your new book, The Master Teacher. I have been enjoying this book. There are so many great lessons in there and honestly, great conversation starters, and I wish we had time to go into detail on all of them. We're probably only going to scratch the surface, but I suppose teachers will just have to get your book and form their own discussion groups for that.
[Linda] But we are excited to talk about a couple of the topics here today. So I picked out three. Like I said, there are so many great ones, but we'll just start with these. In lesson number four, you talk about crossing the street on race and then in lesson five, you talk about crossing the street on class. You talk about how racial reconciliation is a spiritual mandate and how serving the fatherless, the widows, and the poor is a key role in God's economy. Can you share a little bit about this and about some of the specific actionable ways that teachers can make strides in these areas?
[Marilyn] Yes. So I find that the discussion about race, people either really lean into it and want to talk about it or they just don't, and it becomes awkward. So I put this in here because I felt like Jesus crossed the street on race all the time. It wasn't race as we know it today, but there were boundaries. They were cultural boundaries and tribal boundaries. And when he came in and he healed people, he healed everybody. He reached out and loved everybody. And there were situations in the Bible where he crossed barriers, like the Samaritan woman. She says, "Why are you talking to a Samaritan woman? Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans." And that was just how it was.
[Marilyn] And he's like, "Not exactly. I am the Lord and I am reaching out to you." And so I feel like teachers are in a very special position to cross the street on race in a way that is maybe different than people in other professions. if you're a white teacher serving black students, your job is to serve and to love and to reach out to families. Like you're doing the Lord's work as you are doing your job. And it just opens that door for you to do those things. And likewise, if you're a black teacher serving white children or children of other races, it's your job to cross the street, it's your job to reach out and try to understand the culture in a non-judgmental way, in a way that empowers people and helps them.
[Marilyn] But also if you're on the receiving end too, like I say, no matter the race of origin, everybody has to give a little bit. And so if you are in a position where you feel maybe you are the oppressed group or whatever, you have to give grace to the person who you see in a dominant, more advantaged, privileged position. You also have to give them grace to allow them to come into your life. And so I try to unpack it more in the book, but I do believe it's a spiritual mandate because how can you love your neighbor as yourself if you don't reach out to your neighbor who might be of a different race? That is the whole story of the Good Samaritan. He reached out to someone who he shouldn’t even culturally have been dealing with. So I don't know if that really gets to your question. I was trying to break it down in short bits.
[Linda] Yeah, that was helpful. So do you think that it really just starts with getting to know people and getting to know who they are, about their culture, their history, what they enjoy, and just kind of building those relationships. Is that where it starts?
[Marilyn] I believe so. I believe the best thing a person can do, if they don't have any friends that don't look like them, then you need to pursue friendships, genuine friendships, close friendships. And that will definitely open the door to many opportunities because once you build those personal relationships with people across racial lines, then you can probe and you can ask the questions that you might have always wanted to ask. And it's a safe environment. You have a relationship where you know that they trust you and that they will respect your inquiry. And so I believe that's where it starts. It's hard to really cross the street on race in a big, systemic way if you don't have any personal friends who are from a different culture or from a different part of the world.
[Marilyn] And that's really where it starts, and you see Jesus, he's reaching out in a very personal way to people, like in the story of the Good Samaritan. He went to Samaria, spent two days with Samaritan people, and that was unheard of. Who does that? Well, once he met the woman at the well, she changed her perspective on what Jewish men were like. And then he changed the perspective of all the people in the village because they all came out to meet Jesus and they saw how loving and caring he was. And then he actually would stay in their homes and eat their food and just sit around and get to know them.
[Marilyn] And that's what I feel like we're really missing in this country, in education. I drive into this school and I work there, but I don't have any connection with the community or the people there at all. It would drastically change your practice if you changed that habit and you got to know your students and the families and maybe going to a birthday party or maybe spending a little time at a basketball game. Sitting with the families of students or things like that makes a huge difference. And that's what I believe is one of the reasons why public education in particular is struggling is because there's such a disconnect, a lot of times, between the students and the teachers who are teaching.
[Linda] That's really helpful. I like how you give those few examples about what this might look like. So maybe you are intentionally attending sporting events at your school and not just sitting with another teacher, you’re going out and trying to get to know the families. I'll be honest, as an introverted person, that is so scary to me. But it is so important. And I think just those relationships just continue to develop. Are there any other practical ways you can think of for teachers who maybe don't live near their districts? They're not in that community a lot except for when they're at school. Are there any other ways that they can be intentional about connecting with the community or with the parents and the students?
[Marilyn] So there's an endless number of things that you can do. So for example, I'm an African American woman. I worked in a Hispanic community. It was 12 miles away from my house, but there were things that I could do. So I wrote a grant and I got some books in English and in Spanish, it was the same book but with different translations. And I started a parent book club. So the parents who spoke only in Spanish read the same book that I read. And then there were enough parents who were bilingual to translate for this book club. And it was my way of crossing the street on race. It was totally my way of doing that. And it was great. It was a great book and they just really enjoyed that opportunity.
[Marilyn] But it did take a little bit of effort and it required me to stay after school longer, one day a week. But it was so worth it. And yeah, so there's tons of examples like that that you can do. The most important thing is that the heart has to want that. You have to want that and want community and want to not be “the other.” You want to be us, not just me and them.
[Linda] And I can just imagine how powerful that must have been. Even more powerful, like you said, with just the mix of cultures. But no matter, even if you are of the same race or same culture, just that power, really getting to know your students and their parents. I can just imagine how much easier that made it when you had to deal with issues and just to be able to understand them and they knew you and all the rich discussions I'm sure that came out of it. That's an amazing idea. And every teacher has different things that draw them, different passions. And so maybe if you can find a way to connect around one of your passions, then it will be something that is easier for you to do, right? And won't get left by the wayside when things get a little bit busy.
[Marilyn] Exactly. And then just learning. I was the choir director at one point and so the music selection that I selected wasn't just songs that I knew, that were part of my cultural tradition or background or something that I was nostalgic about. There were songs that the kids recommended and songs in a different language. I can sing a song in a different language if I practice hard enough. So those are the things that really make a difference. And involving the parents in helping you in the classroom, like, “Why don't you come in and volunteer for a day or during this time?” There are just so many endless ways to build community while you're in that building.
[Marilyn] And I can truly say some of the parents that I connected with the most were parents that I had very little in common with, but I just made that extra effort to reach out to them and to their children, so I became like a part of the family. I got those invitations to birthday parties and sometimes I could go and sometimes I couldn't go, but I wanted to be there because I cared about them and I enjoyed their company. And so those are things that, when your heart is open, then whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, people are drawn. It's magnetic when your heart is open toward people, and you'll find yourself building wonderful relationships without having to go that much beyond your level of comfort because people come to you.
[Linda] That's amazing. We talk a lot about building relationships and I would imagine, you never know what Gospel opportunities or Kingdom work that's going to open up as well, just as you get to know people outside of school. That's amazing. Well, I feel like we could talk about this forever, but I did want to talk a little bit about one of your other lessons and that was lesson number 10. You talked a little bit about discipline and you talk about the goal of discipline being not to punish but to restore and maintain peaceful relationships. And I completely agree. Can you explain that a little bit for us?
[Marilyn] Yes. So, in America, we have gotten used to a very strong penal system. We're tough on crime and we're tough on guns and we're tough on drugs and all of these things. But if you look at Christ, he recognized that a lot of misbehavior was rooted in hurt, was rooted in a cry for something. Christ told people, you love God and love each other and take care of one another. But when there was time for punishment, or I should say discipline, he was very restorative. He wanted people to be restored back to himself and back to God.
[Marilyn] And I didn't put this particular example in the book, but when you think about the woman who was found caught in adultery, her punishment according to the law was death, and he could have stoned her according to the law because she was caught in adultery. Interestingly enough, the Roman system of law though at the time said that you can't just kill someone. They have to be tried. So the Roman system was even more gracious than the actual law. But Jesus chose neither one of those systems. He didn't choose the Roman system of giving her a trial. He didn't choose the law of stoning her. He said, "He who has no sin cast the first stone." And he was the one, the only one who had no sin. So he very well could have cast the first stone. So the point is, he spoke to her and he said, "You know what, go and sin no more." His whole point was, "I don't want to hurt you. I want you to be whole. I want you to be better."
[Marilyn] And so I think we need to take a little more of a holistic, creative stance toward disciplining children and find out what is it? Why you are not behaving properly? Just going back to the woman at the well. He totally could've slammed her for her promiscuity and damned her, but he spoke to her and he told her about the living water and that he was the one that could provide water. She wouldn't thirst anymore, that all of her needs would be met through him, and it changed her life. So in the classroom setting, obviously we're not able to deliver the spiritual context in the classroom with students directly, but indirectly, we can take the time to unpack these behaviors and try to work with students to help them get over that desire to act out.
[Marilyn] And I've seen time and time again, that it is effective. Again, it's a matter of your heart and to know what you actually believe that these behaviors can change or that you have enough faith in the student to know and believe that they can get better. And there are things that you can do and I talk about them in the book. Different systems you can set up to be more restorative. But I just imagine if God wasn't restorative to me. I have to forgive my students when they act out because when I act out, God has forgiven me. He doesn't throw me under the bus. And this is particularly important because in this country we have a disproportionate group of students, black students, Latino students, that don't get those graces.
[Marilyn] And as I said, I've worked in schools with different racial makeups and I've seen it with my very own eyes where, oh, a student of a certain racial background acts up and they get suspended or expelled like almost immediately. And then another student with a different skin tone does the same thing or very similar, and they get talked to, they get counseled and they get maybe a parent phone call or conference, but they're not kicked out of the school. They're not suspended or expelled. And it's just, again, all of these values kind of intertwine where we have to see kids as a whole, not just what paint God put on them, on the exterior, but they are all valuable.
[Marilyn] Yeah. So I can go on about discipline, but it does take a restorative heart to implement these types of strategies that I mentioned in the book. And it's not something that you can just flip a switch and everything is better. Like the disciples-
[Linda] It's a lot of work.
[Marilyn] It's a lot of work, and the disciples were classic examples. They didn't always listen to Jesus. They didn't always pay attention. They had unbelief. Judas was stealing from the treasury bag. Peter was impulsive and he made some mistakes, like denying Christ and cutting off the soldier's ear and making decisions that he shouldn't have made. Nathaniel said when he heard about Jesus, he's like, "Nothing good can even come from this. I don't believe he's the savior." But he still chose them, and Jesus still took them under his wing, and poured into them until we have the word of God through a lot of their writings now. And you know, I just believe that there's a little bit of God in every person.
[Linda] Well, we are created in his image. Right?
[Linda] The goal in a classroom is to restore those relationships, right? For you and the students and each other to all be in a community where you can learn together. So when we make that the priority of the discipline and other conversations, that can be so transformative. And another reason that this is so helpful is because, as you talk about in your book, a lot of times the behavior on the outside is like the tip of the iceberg. It's not really what's causing the problem. It's just the outward symptoms, and we're throwing Band-Aids on these gaping wounds. And when we can take time to really get underneath and get to the issues, then it's so much more helpful.
[Linda] More of these strategies are in your book. We also talk about them in our Beyond Classroom Management course. I do have one question for you, though. What would you say to a teacher whose class is just out of control? They're frustrated and they're worried, thinking, “Well, if there are no consequences, how are we ever going to make progress?” Does this approach mean there are never any consequences or what would you say to a teacher like that?
[Marilyn] Yes, that's a great question. And trust me, I've had my moments where I'm just like, “Can I get some support in this classroom and real consequences?’ And so I don't think that consequences are in opposition to the philosophy of Jesus or his practice because we know the Bible says that, "The wages of sin is death." There is a consequence for bad behavior. You see a student acting out and maybe not doing his homework or distracting in class and he’s preventing other kids from learning, right? The consequence for that child, in time, is going to be some form of death in terms of maybe not learning how to read, which would lead to bad outcomes in life or not being able to have good self control in a work environment and not being able to keep a job or get into college or whatever.
[Marilyn] So the idea is that that's the ultimate consequence you are trying to avoid for the child. Okay. So you are going in and saying, “How can I restore this child so they don't suffer the ultimate consequence?” Because I see it all the time where if these behaviors aren't checked, they're going to be the end of the kid. There's no way that they're going to be functioning adults if this behavior just continues to persist over time throughout their school career. They do need consequences, but the consequence is in order for them to get in right standing with the class and with themselves. And so there are ways to get at that. There are, like I mentioned in the book, you could have peace circles, you could have a special part of the class where you have to sit there or you might have to be removed from the class.
[Marilyn] But that is all something that the student has to know and be a part of and know that we're not removing you out of this class because we don't like you, because we hate you and we want you to leave our school. You're a burden to us. You're a nuisance and we really wish you weren't here. And I think that is the key, when kids know why they're being removed out of love and not because we'd be better off without you. You mess up everything and you're a loser, and we just wish you would go away kind of thing. And I think too often that's how kids feel when they're disciplined or when they have consequences. But I feel like we have to go above and beyond to make it very clear that the purpose of this consequence is to restore you, to make you miss us, to make you want to be back in community with the class.
[Marilyn] And all of that is conversation, it's a culture. And when the class is completely out of control, I feel that that conversation and that culture hasn't been had effectively, and that does take some coaching. That does take a lot of effort. Sometimes it takes a second person in the classroom, depending on what's going on with the students and how disruptive. Sometimes you'll have a student who's dangerous, like behaviorally dangerous and they need to be escorted out. So I am very careful not to say that we don't believe in consequences, we absolutely never believe in a suspension. There are no complete absolutes. But the tone of the classroom has to be a restorative tone. It's a posture, it's an ambiance and that makes the discipline feel less about punishment and more about love and restoration and community.
[Linda] I love that so much. It doesn't start with the strategy, it starts with the teacher's frame of mind, and what is my goal? Yes, my goal is to create a great classroom environment, but part of that is loving these kids, restoring these kids, making sure they're all this vital part of it. And I think just always going back to that, right? Every discipline decision, as you are coming up with your classroom management plan, you're always going back to that. How can I create this system that's going to restore and help us all create this community? That's so wonderful.
[Marilyn] Yeah. You can see how they fold in on each other, right? You take one of the lessons away and it weakens your ability to do the other lesson. Right? Like my son, he's five and sometimes he's naughty. But I'm going to discipline him in a way that shows love, but also gets him to realize his boundaries and make sure he keeps those boundaries. And that's the same heart that I'm encouraging teachers to take with other people's children. You may need a break from the kids, and you may be super upset about something they have done, but the end goal is to restore that child to prevent them from the ultimate, -like if they take that behavior to the limit- where that's going to land them, and that's death. And so you're protecting the child because you want to help steer them into the right direction on the right trajectory for life and that's discipline done right.
[Linda] That's so wonderful. Well, I know we just scratched the surface on these issues, but I think you really gave us so much to think about. I really appreciate it and I don't know if everyone knows this yet, but you're going to be speaking again at our coming Christian Educators Summit with CEAI in September. Is that right?
[Marilyn] Yes, that is right.
[Linda] So you guys will definitely have to sign up for that and you can hear Marilyn again on some of these same issues and other ones related to her book, The Master Teacher. Like she said, the lessons do tie into each other. So we've talked about two of them, but there are so many more great ones in the book. Before we sign off Marilyn, is there anything else you'd like to share with teachers?
[Marilyn] Thank you so much for having me. And I would just encourage teachers again to go to Teachers Who Pray for ongoing support and to start their own prayer group at schools. We have over 140 different chapters of prayer groups right there in the school and it's legal to do if you do it right. So we talk about how to pray and bring prayer back into public schools legally, making sure that God is in our practice and in our community and that's how we're going to really make a difference in education.
[Linda] And yes, definitely go check that out. Well, thank you so much, Marilyn. We so appreciate you being here.
[Marilyn] Thank you.
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