Point of View

Learning from a classroom controversy

April 13, 2010 

— I am happy to be back at work and thrilled about my new position with Wake County Public School System. I return having learned a valuable lesson in tolerance and humility earlier this year while teaching evolution to my eighth-grade students at West Lake Middle School in Apex.

Evolution is a subject that often raises questions from inquisitive young students. The scientific theories we teach about the Earth's history don't always fit nicely with the Bible stories about how God created the world. I certainly understand the challenge of trying to reconcile scientific facts and religious beliefs - it's an issue that I personally dealt with when I was growing up.

As a lifelong Christian, I purposely kept my own views about evolution out of the classroom. Out of respect for other students' religious beliefs, I asked that my students refrain from bringing religion into our classroom discussions.

But last year, I experienced something that had never happened before in my teaching career. Students began to question my religious beliefs and started spreading rumors than I was a Muslim or an atheist.

My new last name - I was married before the school year started and began teaching with my new married name, Mrs. Hussain - and my decision not to share my Christian beliefs with students fueled the fire. I was accused of throwing away a picture of Jesus (it was a folded note passed between students that I did not open) and refusing to allow a student to read the Bible (reading any type of outside material during instruction time is inappropriate.)

When students began showing up in class wearing religious shirts and singing "Jesus Loves Me" when they passed me in the hallway, I grew frustrated. I simply couldn't understand why these students had formed such strong opinions about my perceived religious beliefs. I wondered how much of this was because of my new last name.

It certainly wasn't because of the material I was teaching. I taught the exact same material that is used by every other middle-school science teacher in North Carolina.

The students' disrespectful behavior finally got to me right before winter break when I learned from another teacher that some students referred to me as a "Jesus hater." When I got home, I shared my frustrations with friends and family on my private Facebook account, which became public without my knowledge after Facebook changed its privacy settings last year. After reading about what I was dealing with, some people offered words of solace and some tried to make me laugh with outlandish humor. Among friends and family, it was clear that those comments were making light of the perplexing situation I was experiencing. But, to others, I now see that these comments appeared insensitive and even insulting.

It was an ironic situation. I had vented about the perceived intolerance of my students, and now I was the one who appeared intolerant. In hindsight, I regret using social media to discuss a professional problem. Also, I am incredibly sorry that the conversations on my Facebook page offended so many people.

When we returned to school after winter break, I was determined to bring trust and respect back to the classroom. To that end, I asked administrators to join me in leading heart-to-heart discussions in each of my classes. We discussed all of the rumors - what started them, what really happened and how they made us feel.

The students were honest about why they behaved the way they did and I was honest about my mistakes. Apologies were exchanged and we moved on to a new and exciting unit in our curriculum with a renewed sense of teamwork. I was so heartened by our discussion that I went home and updated my friends and family through Facebook, expressing how happy I was to have been able to have such an open, honest and beautiful conversation with my students.

I have since moved on to a new position with the Wake County schools middle-school curriculum and instruction team that allows me to draw on my collective teaching experiences.

When I reflect on my time in the classroom, the most important lesson I learned is that intolerance, whether expressed in jest or in earnest, is destructive in ways that we could never imagine. I learned that an honest conversation among human beings - no matter their age or station in life - is the best route to understanding. I learned that the support of caring administrators, parents and students is a rare and wonderful thing. I think that Helen Keller summed it up best almost 100 years ago when she said, "The highest result of education is tolerance."

Melissa Hussain is science coordinating teacher for grades six through eight in the Wake County Public School System.

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