Martinez: Keeping the faith with teachers

September 5, 2012 

There’s a management truism that if a person is to assume great responsibilities, he or she must also have the authority to carry them out. That scenario is playing out for teachers, who have the heavy responsibility of educating all children who walk through the classroom door, but who increasingly are being stripped of their authority to do the job.

Consider the plight of sixth-grade science teacher Patricia Corbino, who was suspended with pay from her position at Leesville Road Middle School in Raleigh. Her offense? She told students not to wear rosaries as jewelry in her class. As a Catholic, she finds the display offensive.

What happened next is so familiar. A student complains to a parent, who in turn complains to administrators, who then suspend the teacher while an investigation is conducted.

Sometimes the facts of a case warrant suspension. But most of the time, teachers like Corbino are hung out to dry because it’s expedient for administrators. Mind you, Corbino never forced anyone to take off a rosary. But a 10-year-old student became concerned that Corbino’s ban extended to other religious displays, specifically crosses on folders, and thus complained. Corbino told the student’s parent that was not the case. Still, that didn’t satisfy the parent, Yvonne McCarty, who told The N&O’s T. Keung Hui, “She (Corbino) made a public expression that infringes on our kids’ religious rights.”

Hardly. Truth be told, Corbino respected Catholic teaching. The rosary is central to prayerful life for many Catholics. Its use has been cited and encouraged by popes and saints as a useful tool toward holiness. It is not jewelry, and the church is clear in its view that the rosary is not to be used as a decoration. If Latino students are wearing the rosary, as was reported in the Wake case, (or hanging it from their rear view mirror, which drives me nuts) that is notice that the students, and their parents, need guidance from their priest.

From what I know, this is not a matter of a teacher trying to infringe on religious freedom. Actually, it is the opposite. Corbino was being respectful of religious expression by instructing students on what is socially appropriate for Catholic prayer beads. We would not expect a teacher to tolerate a student pulling back the head covering of a Muslim girl. Instead we would expect a teacher who observed such behavior to instruct the offending student on why such behavior is disrespectful. As a Catholic, I appreciate Corbino teaching her class that wearing the rosary is offensive, even if the offense is inadvertent.

I understand Wake County school officials are in a tough spot. Under the law, they can’t speak about the specifics of this incident. Common sense tells me there is probably more to this story. But even if this isn’t the teacher’s first controversy, this case has been misunderstood and Corbin deserves the support of the district and parents.

Wake County school system policy states that principals have to make reasonable accommodations for students’ religious beliefs. That courtesy should also apply to teachers, and in this case, it appears that it doesn’t.

Parents and taxpayers will rightly ask who decides what is appropriate to be taught outside of the textbooks and where the line should be drawn in a public school classroom. For me, the answer is easy. Inside the classroom, the teacher is in charge and the teacher should only be overruled if there is blatant disregard for student welfare or belief.

If we hold teachers responsible for instructing kids to defined academic standards, we must not strip them of the authority to control the environment in which they’re expected to work, teach and motivate.

So now we wait for Wake County to decide Corbino’s fate. Those who believe in religious standards hope Corbino will be returned to the classroom. Those who want to keep and attract strong, principled teachers to public education should want the same thing.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com

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