Those are pretty shocking words to read in a classroom, and even more so when coming from a student. But that is exactly what S.K. saw scrawled across the last page of a biology exam she graded last year.
S.K. teaches middle school biology in a diverse community with a strong Christian base in New Jersey. She always begins the year as many teachers do: starting with the cell, then moving on to heredity and DNA, and then talking about “change over time” with plants and animals (aka evolution). In the past, she found that even her most religious students didn’t typically struggle with evolution, although sometimes she would need to spend more time on human evolution to help the students overcome some of their misconceptions on that topic.
Last year was different, though. As soon as S.K. started talking about evolution, a boy in her class challenged her. Once the challenges started, they kept coming. Each day he came into class with a new argument for her to address. In all, there were ten full days of the student’s unrelenting attacks on evolution.
Rather than ignore or dismiss the questions, S.K. calmly explained the evidence behind what they were discussing that day. Although the student got upset as he talked, she noticed that the other students were paying close attention. They wanted to know the answers! This sometimes took time away from the intended lesson for the day, but S.K. felt that it was worth it.
At the end of the unit on evolution, S.K. gave an exam. As she started grading the tests, she noticed that the student unhappy with evolution did really well. He knew the material and was able to display his knowledge effectively. But when she turned to the last page, she saw the words: “Confess your sins, repent, and you will be saved!”
She could not ignore this, but she had to think about how to respond. In the end, she asked him to stay after class, and then calmly asked him why he wrote those words on the test. He said that he had concluded, based on the things she was saying, that it was “obvious” that she did not believe in God, and this was a problem for him. She told him that she was proud he had strong beliefs and stood up for them, but that it was not appropriate for him to be preaching his religion to her—in fact, it was quite disrespectful. Her job was not to preach, but to teach science; his job, by the same token, was to learn science, not to preach. She remarked that she had noticed he had been asking a lot of questions in class over the past two weeks, which she appreciated. But she also noted that there is a time and a place to share one’s religious beliefs, and it’s not in the science classroom during school hours.
He seemed to respond well to their conversation and left the classroom if not with a spring in his step and a song in his heart then at least not in a huff. But later that week, S.K. got a message from his father, asking her to call him as soon as possible. She was understandably nervous—would she have to go through this all over again with the father, too?
It turned out that the father called to apologize. The student’s mother had joined a church that was preaching against evolution and had been coaching the son on what to say in class each day. The father apologized to S.K. for the disruption to her class and the disrespect from his son. She thanked him and was relieved to not have to deal with further problems from that quarter.
What is S.K.’s recommendation to other teachers dealing with students challenging evolution? When it’s possible to do so without compromising the effectiveness of teaching, she recommends answering such questions just as you would if they were posed by an adult, and commending the students for being skeptical. She also added that if you do need to confront them about inappropriate questions, you should do so privately.
S.K. handled this situation effectively with grace, without getting disconcerted or offended by this student’s challenges. How would you have handled this situation? Would you have been as patient, or would you have taken a different tack?