~ by Chris Marchand ~
Several times over the course of every school year I am filled with the same unsettling feeling: That’s it. Today’s the day. I’m finally done for. Once parents find out what we discussed in class today they’ll complain, ask me to leave, and I’ll be out of a job.
The feeling typically lingers with me the rest of the day, immersing me in a fog of anxiety. Eventually though, a contrary sentiment rises up and I push back the imagined scrutiny of parents and Scholé administrators alike: What did they expect? The subject matter was part of the course. It comes with the territory if you teach American history and literature. I’m a humanities teacher…this is after all what they ASKED me to do…
One of the most compelling and beautiful aspects for me as a Scholé teacher is that we take a “Great Hall” approach to our curriculum and classroom discussions. I revel in having a learning environment that is decidedly Christian and Classical and yet includes students from families of different faith traditions and political convictions. The goal is to celebrate the “commonality” we share while honoring our “distinctives” and in so doing avoid stirring up contention and strife among us. But I teach history, government, and literature at the high school level. Contentious and complicated issues are embedded in our daily discussions and oftentimes my knowledge-hungry students are the ones who bring up the topics: “Mr. Marchand what do you really think about ________?”.
Take the canon of American literature. The Scarlet Letter challenges students to reckon with the ramifications of adultery, corrupt and hypocritical church leadership, and the ways men and women are treated differently in our culture. In The House of Mirth and The Great Gatsby they contemplate the effects of greed on our nation, ponder the consequences of an increasingly nonreligious and amoral culture, and wrestle with unfair societal expectations placed upon women. Then there is the ever-present issue of race and racism as portrayed in Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird. We inevitably end up discussing human brutality, usages of the n-word, and what it means to carry prejudice within us and as a society.
American government and history is not any easier as every subject known to humanity is relevant to our discussions as they relate to the American story, our government, and what it means to be good citizens. Over the course of a year we end up discussing: gun control vs gun rights, abortion, LGBT people and issues, the long term ramifications of racism and slavery vs. seeing racism as a thing of the past, the balance between good laws and too much governmental control, America’s treatment of native peoples, public protest and the limits of freedom of speech and religion, being a Christian nation vs. a secular nation, the morality or immorality of our leaders (both past and present), and finally our political parties and the bitter divisions they cause.
All of which is to say: my classes are a topical minefield. By default I know there is a significant chance something I or another student says will be found offensive, hurtful, or potentially un-American or even immoral. Someone is bound to take issue with the many viewpoints students share as they work out their understanding of this complicated world in which we all live. As their teacher, I know I have a dual, seemingly paradoxical duty: to on one hand guide and shape their sensibilities of truth, beauty, and goodness, and on the other to respect the role of their parents as the primary educators. My sincere hope is to lead good discussions, ask engaging questions, and be faithful to the texts we read.
In wrestling with these tensions, my realization is this: I have to embrace the imperfection and messiness of the humanities classroom. My role is to create a kind of laboratory of ideas where students are allowed to experiment through dialogue and there is an open invitation to embrace failure as they learn how to express their thoughts. This process applies to me as a teacher as well, where we allow ourselves to be sharpened by each other and the authors we read. Instead of living in fear that some parent will confront me for discussing contentious issues I can be at peace knowing I helped my students contemplate those issues from numerous angles all while learning how to listen to their fellow classmates.
A few years ago I cheekily mused on social media that every town should hire their own “Neighborhood Socrates” to go around asking endless questions about truth and reality to anyone who would listen while also infuriatingly failing to answer any of the questions they posed. I then raised myself up as the perfect candidate for such a position. I can thankfully say that as a Scholé instructor I am partially able to fulfill this obscure dream. However, although I am forever attempting to employ the “Socratic method” in my classroom, I could never become a full-on Socrates, stirring up the youth to corruption and eventually leading to my own dose of ingested hemlock at the behest of the governing authorities. Instead, my role as a teacher is much more delicate and nuanced, one that understands we are all lifelong learners forever in the process of being shaped into who God has called us to be. Although I only see my students for a narrow window of their lives, my hope is that what they read, write, and discuss in my classes will play a significant part in shaping who they become as they grow in maturity and seek God’s purpose for their lives. It is an honor to be a steward of this kind of learning environment, as beautifully imperfect as it is.
Chris Marchand is a music pastor and priest within the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), serving in Peoria, Illinois. He holds a Master of Theological Studies and a Master of Arts in Music Ministry from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, and was trained as a hospital chaplain in a residency program at Saint Francis Hospital. A former headmaster and teacher at Aletheia Classical Christian School, he has taught humanities, history, science, and government courses. He is married to Elisa and they have four children. The author of Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas: a guide for churches and families, he also produces podcasts, composes music, and loves to discuss anything related the arts and his favorite sport tennis.