Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Your Local News

From just down Highway 1 in Apex comes this bizarre story about a teacher who is now threatened with firing after complaining about and mocking her students on Facebook. The idea that this is a firing offense is ridiculous on its face - she's surely not the first middle-school teacher to complain about or make fun of her students. While doing so publicly is probably worthy of reprimand, expecting a teacher not to do so on pain of unemployment in this day and age is pure foolishness.

But what makes the story truly interesting is why she was complaining:
Parents said the situation escalated after a student put a postcard of Jesus on Hussain's desk that the teacher threw in the trash. Parents also said [the teacher, Melissa] Hussain sent to the office students who, during a lesson about evolution, asked about the role of God in creation.

On her Facebook page, Hussain wrote about students spreading rumors that she was a Jesus hater. She complained about her students wearing Jesus T-shirts and singing "Jesus Loves Me." She objected to students reading the Bible instead of doing class work.


The flash point for the comments came after the Bible was left on Hussain's desk in December. The Bible was accompanied by an anonymous card, which, according to Hussain, said "Merry Christmas" with Christ underlined and bolded. She said there was no love shown in giving her the Bible.

"I can't believe the cruelty and ignorance of people sometimes," Hussain wrote on her Facebook page.

Hussain also said she wouldn't let the Bible incident "go unpunished."
It appears that the students were proselytizing Ms. Hussain, and that she reacted badly to it. There are a few questions here:

1) Is it appropriate for students to attempt to proselytize their teacher?

2) Where is the line between proselytizing and harassment?

The former is the easier question to answer, though it's hardly clear-cut. I've written previously about the centrality of "going and making disciples" to Christianity as regards Brit Hume's attempts to convert Tiger Woods via newscast. Clearly a teacher proselytizing students would be inappropriate due to the power differential, and clearly a school administrator trying to proselytize a teacher would be unacceptable for the same reason. Since parents have influence over school administration and thus have some perceived authority over teachers, parents proselytizing teachers would make me uncomfortable. But students? Unless the students complained to the administrators about their witnessing efforts being rebuffed, and unless the students complained to their parents who in turn brought it up with administrators, I don't think intimidation by power differential is really in play here. I have no reason to believe that parents or administrators participated in pressuring the teacher to accept Christianity - rather, it seems that students were clearly taking the lead here. So while trying to convert your teacher might be unwise (of course, who expected wisdom out of middle schoolers?), it's hardly inappropriate, and I can't get too mad about it in principle.

The second question is a tough one. Did the students' behavior cross the line from proselytizing - which I believe is acceptable in principle - to harassment? I believe that it did, for a couple of reasons. First, the students conducted their activities in an oblique, anonymous manner. They made no attempt to engage Ms. Hussain directly - rather, they left little "you should convert" hints. Such anonymous hints are not witnessing because they do not make people engage and confront Christianity - rather, their intent is to make someone feel shame for not being Christian, which is harassment. Second, instead of respecting Ms. Hussain's desire not to be witnessed to, they instead escalated the situation and redoubled their efforts. That's clearly harassment. Third, we have to take Ms. Hussain's claims that the students were spreading malicious "Jesus-hater" rumors seriously - if this was, indeed, occurring, it reveals that the students were not trying to save Ms. Hussain's soul but rather to enforce conformity upon a non-conforming member of the community, and were thus harassing and not proselytizing.

Had the students in question merely approached Ms. Hussain and proselytized her respectfully and directly, her reactions would be an extreme overreaction, and she would indeed deserve disciplinary action for that. But that's not what's going on here - Ms. Hussain reacted like one would expect a young, relatively inexperienced teacher to react when faced with harassment by her middle-school charges.

Tangentially related song that I just wanted to post because it's awesome:


Mike said...

Okay, maybe I'm too far removed from adolescence, but it seems to me like middle school students should be much more concerned with grades, bullies, and boobies than whether one of their teachers has accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. Honestly, how are the kids wearing "Jesus Loves Me" T-shirts not getting the everloving shit beaten out of them? Has middle school really changed that much?

Ben said...

Given our past debates on the subject of evangelism - even with your recent change of mind - I'm a little surprised to say I agree with you 100%. Well, maybe 99%. I don't know if I could say it's NEVER appropriate for someone with more power to proselytize someone with less power....but the would-be witness must be EXTREMELY careful that he/she is in no way (even by implication) bringing his or her power to bear as a means of pressure to convert. To me, the duty to preach the Gospel is too strong to say that, categorically, one should never witness to a certain person. Although it would be extremely tough and delicate in certain circumstances.

That said, you're totally correct that it's appropriate for students to RESPECTFULLY proselytize their teacher....and that this conduct crossed the line into harassment and attempts at forced conformity.

Another aspect of this story: It's harder and harder to find a forum to vent about one's job. The age-old lesson from this....you can never, ever assume that anything you do online is private. Even/especially when you think it should be.

This really sucks.

And Mike - as a former "Jesus Freak" middle-schooler who often had the everloving shit beat out of him - I must assume with you that the times, they are a-changin'