Straight Up Conversation: Teachers Who Pray Founder Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Rhames is the founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a nonprofit working in 131 schools across 38 states to help educators ground their work in knowledge, faith, and prayer. Before founding Teachers Who Pray, Marilyn taught in Chicago Public Schools for 15 years and worked as a New York City reporter for People, Time, and various metro newspapers. She is a popular blogger at the Education Post, and she recently finished the forthcoming book The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education. I recently had the chance to chat with Marilyn about Teachers Who Pray and the role of faith in schools.
Rick Hess: Marilyn, so, what is Teachers Who Pray?
Marilyn Rhames: Teachers Who Pray [TWP] is a network of educators who believe in the power of God to transform all schools—public or private—from the inside out. The teachers, counselors, lunch ladies, bus drivers, and other adults of faith who work in the schools form a community of prayer and encouragement. They strive to breed excellence in professional practice as well as deep and meaningful relationships with students and families, even in the most difficult situations. I have well over a thousand teachers engaging with the Teachers Who Pray network. We have 131 school-based chapters, averaging about eight teachers per chapter in district, charter, private, and religious schools. Most of our teachers work in traditional public schools, though you can say that we are "agnostic" as to the types of schools we serve.
RH: What's the organizational mission—what are you hoping to accomplish?
MR: We are raising up a corps of teachers whose deep faith in Jesus Christ compels them to be excellent, committed teachers who sustain in the profession for the benefit of all students, but particularly the most disadvantaged ones. We have a three-part mission: Teach. Pray. Lead. One, we offer professional development that is rooted in biblical principles and scientific research. Two, we have a prayer network that consists of school-based chapters, prayer conference calls, and prayer guides. And three, we are leading a national conversation about how faith is a motivating, free, and legal form of effective education reform.
RH: What prompted you to take this on? And how did you get started?
MR: I was a reporter in New York City during 9/11 and on that tragic day, God spoke to my heart and told me to move back home to Chicago and become a school teacher. I didn't know why at that time, but I know now: He called me to raise awareness that the very nature of teaching is spiritual, therefore galvanizing teachers' faith is one of the most powerful, effective strategies of education reform. I started praying for my students and school during my teaching residency in 2003. I was placed in a highly dysfunctional K-8 school on the West Side of Chicago. The principal was crazy. She told us in the first staff meeting that she hired us because we were physically attractive. She also told us that whoever didn't follow her orders would be fired, adding that she wasn't going anywhere because she liked "the green stuff"—motioning for money with her fingertips. Most of the teachers were unhappy, unfriendly, or they just kept their heads down and doors closed. In this environment, I felt depressed and I wanted to quit every day. But, I've never been a quitter. My parents raised me in the church, and I learned early in life that God is real and that He answers prayer. So I started praying by myself and with anyone who would join me. Through prayer, I developed a strategy and courage to fight back. As a teacher-in-training, I led an effort to get the principal fired—though the best that the administration could do was re-assign her to a district desk job. She was gone by Christmas. Prayer turned me from a muted, frustrated new teacher into a fearless advocate for children, and that is when the idea of Teachers Who Pray was born. However, I didn't incorporate TWP until December 2011, and then after a six-year walk of faith, I received my first seed grant in July 2017.
RH: You mentioned that this organization is for teachers with a "deep faith in Jesus Christ." Given that public schools include students and teachers with a range of different views on religion, do you worry that this specific charge might be seen as divisive or exclusive?
MR: Every organization has to have its unifying principle or demographic, and for Teachers Who Pray it is our faith in Christ the Messiah—the one showing us the way to live full lives. That said, I'm hard pressed to think of a more inclusive education organization in America. We don't bill ourselves as "urban," or "ethnic," or focused on "union" or "conservative" or "liberal" organization. Our faith in God transcends those distinctions. Our ambition is to rally around something that to us is so much deeper, more transformative, and more powerful than partisan politics or endless food fights about ideology. We are united in our belief that we need God to help us do our jobs—jobs that get more demanding every year. So if bringing educators of all races, regions, and types of schools together to pray to the God we serve is "exclusionary," then so is every other nonprofit education organization that exists.
RH: So, if a teacher isn't a Christian but is still supportive of what you're doing, is TWP open to them?
MR: Absolutely! To be a chapter leader, a teacher must be a professed follower of Jesus Christ who is following the tenets of the faith; however, non-Christian educators can participate in our chapters and events, as long as they are respectful of the biblical tenets upon which TWP was founded. It's very much like the church: you are welcome to attend even if you don't fully believe.
RH: More generally, what role do you see faith playing in American public education? After all, plenty of readers might argue that religion should not have any role when it comes to 21st century public education. You have a different view—can you talk a bit about how you see things?
MR: Faith has played an important, if not central, role in American public education from the inception of the first public school in 1635 all the way until 1962, when, in Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that agents of the state—like teachers and principals—violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by making students recite a prayer. TWP isn't in the business to try to relitigate that decision. However, I don't believe the Court ever fully took away a teacher's First Amendment right to pray. In fact, teachers praying together on campus either before or after school, or on their duty-free lunch break—outside the presence of students—is and has been protected as free speech. In other words, the courts never told teachers they had to stop praying; it just told them to stop praying with students. TWP seeks to educate teachers about our religious liberties in schools and empower them to pray together. I've seen the power of prayer and faith to make schools safer, more joyful, more creative places for teachers to teach and students to learn.
RH: Is this a strategy to bring prayer into public schools? And are you wading into legal gray areas in any of this?
MR: Yes and no. I absolutely want to bring prayer back into public schools. The minute there's a mass shooting at a school or a student suicide, what follows? Prayer vigils! No one dares complain about prayer in schools then. But prayer is also a proactive strategy against evil. We're not praying to the walls—we're praying to the almighty, powerful God who hears us and grants us mercy and grace. But no, in the sense that I'm not wading into legal gray areas. Prayer in schools has been litigated until the cows come home. The problem is knowledge sharing. I talked to a leading attorney in education law in Washington, D.C., and she could not tell me what the law says regarding teacher prayer in schools. She referred me to a constitutional law attorney. Now if an education lawyer doesn't know about religious liberties in school, then how would the average teacher know? Colleges of education don't usually offer a course in religious liberties—at least I don't know of any that do. In fact, school districts are not supposed to encourage or discourage religious activities, so they can be sued for denying teachers' and students' religious liberties just as they can be for promoting religion. Whether a teacher believes in God or not, we all need to know what the law says about religious expression in schools.
RH: Do you think that existing laws, policies, or norms hinder teachers of faith? And how much of your focus is on trying to alter those?
MR: Honestly, the biggest hindrance is fear. Miseducation breeds fear among both teachers of faith and their school administrators. Conventional wisdom says that the so-called "separation of church and state" prohibits any form of faith expression or prayer in public schools, but that's not true! Students have enormous religious freedom in school—almost unrestricted—and teachers don't have to completely leave their religious liberties at the schoolhouse door either. My goal is not to alter the law, but to explain it. The law allows teachers to pray together in a classroom before the morning bell rings; so, if they want to do it, they shouldn't let fear or misinformation stop them.
RH: Obviously, all of this brings to mind hot-button issues relating to things like sex education or accommodations for transgender students, where some in education may view people of faith as part of the problem. Do you sense any kind of anti-religious bias in public education today?
MR: I suppose it all depends on where you live. In California or Massachusetts? Yes, I have teachers who have "underground" TWP chapters at their schools, meaning they don't want to be publicly listed as being TWP chapter leaders on our website for fear of retaliation—even though what Teachers Who Pray is doing is 100 percent legal. Then there are schools in the South where just about the entire school staff prays together. That's America for you. Of course, religious bias exists and it can be frustrating. But you can't be a wimp; change only happens when someone is bold and courageous! I've learned to take the emotion out of the discussion and be very clear and matter-of-fact about it. Bottom line, I am not ashamed that I'm a follower of Jesus Christ. I have the unalienable, God-given right to have faith and to pray. I advise my members to respond to naysayers with a smile and say "We disagree on this and that's okay. I still love you no matter what." Thank God for the First Amendment!
RH: How concerned are you about frequently voiced concerns that public education has become hostile to people of faith?
MR: I'm not all that concerned. The world has always been hostile to the things of God, so that's expected. We just keep praying and we have lawyers ready to support us should it ever come to that. The best defense for TWP is that teacher who tells me he couldn't have overcome cancer without our support, or that teacher we prayed with who almost lost her job for low performance but was given a local Teacher of the Year award two years later.
RH: How do teachers get involved?
MR: The primary way is to join a TWP chapter at their school, through which teachers pray with each other every week. But if there's no chapter at their school, there are several other entry points to the TWP network. For example, teachers can attend our annual conference or our EDify Retreat—to be held October 5-7, 2018, in Mukwonago, Wisconsin—or call in on our weekly Monday night prayer calls—7-8 PM CST at 720-820-1447. And many teachers have downloaded our prayer guide, O Heart, Vigilant and Sincere, for their own personal devotion. However, one perk of signing up to be a TWP chapter leader or member is that teachers then get login access to our online social networking platform, allowing them to share teaching tips, lesson plans, prayers, and encouragement among themselves.
RH: You've mentioned that you want to expand Teachers Who Pray across the nation. Can you talk about how you plan to do that?
MR: My book, The Master Teacher, will be out by January 2019, and I'm hoping the book will draw attention to Teachers Who Pray and tip off a national conversation about the role faith must play in equalizing education in America. I also did a TEDx talk earlier this year entitled, "Why Faith Will Fix Education." Getting on the speaking circuit is another way I hope to expand Teachers Who Pray across the nation. I'm also on the design team for Harvard University's Leadership Institute for Faith and Education, which will pilot its multi-faith convening in late October. While TWP is already in 38 states and in Cameroon, our 131 chapters are just a drop in the bucket compared to the 120,000 public and private K-12 schools in America. I won't be satisfied until TWP is in every school district in all 50 states and in dozens of countries. Teachers Who Pray needs to become a household name like the Salvation Army or the American Red Cross because we're in the business of education disaster relief. That's not hyperbole. As the only full-time employee for Teachers Who Pray, it's still very much a start-up, since I only received seed funding last year. Fundraising is a top priority this year; and, I'd love to have a conversation with anyone who would support us in this area!
RH: Speaking of fundraising, are education funders interested in this kind of effort? What kind of reception have you experienced?
MR: Cutting-edge funders like NewSchools Venture Fund, who believe in me and see my work as groundbreaking with enormous potential, are like rare jewels. Foundations generally love the idea of TWP, but their own guidelines are so formulaic that there's no room for spiritual or faith-based school interventions. I think it's time for education funders to invest in the humanity of teachers—body, mind, and spirit—and acknowledge the divinity of our work. They need to know that a teacher's heart is the straightest path to a student's success, or failure. Ed reformers and philanthropy have poured millions into charters, ed tech, advocacy, standardized testing—worthy causes, but they haven't moved the needle very far towards systemic change. Faith is the major blind spot in ed reform. I'd guess the average school district has at least ten percent of its teachers identifying as devout Christians. Harnessing even half of that faith, that powerful faith, would cause an energy surge in K-12 education that's never been seen before. I know the power of faith to change a teacher's whole disposition and sense of self-efficacy . . . I'm a prime example!