by Ann Marie Gidus-Mecera
While the trend of many Christians today, including a growing number of Orthodox Christians, is to home school their children, many have chosen (or do so out of necessity) to educate their children through the public school systems.
Any concerned Orthodox parent is aware of the negatives attached to a public school education, and very often struggle with this on an on-going basis. While the purpose of this article is not to defend the benefits of a public school education, it will attempt to help Orthodox parents turn those negative factors into positive learning experiences.
Let me site one example that prompted me to write this article. My oldest daughter is in fifth grade and was assigned to read the book Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. She was given a booklet of questions to answer as a way of testing overall comprehension. To give a brief synopsis of the book, the main character, Leigh, writes letters to a fictitious Mr. Henshaw. The book is comprised of these letters, and illustrates how much letters can reveal about a person. In the letters, Leigh describes his parents who are separated. His father is a truck driver who was gone from home a lot and didn't call home frequently. This worried and upset his mother. As a result, the couple separated. In the letters, Leigh expresses his hope that his parents not get a divorce but get back together again, which they don't.
Following are some of the questions testing the students' comprehension: "Did you predict that Leigh's parents would get back together again or that they would remain apart? Do you accept the actual ending of the story, or do you think it would have been better if Leigh's parents reconciled. Explain your answer.
When I read the set of questions, I know my heart rate increased dramatically and my first inclination was to yell to her, "This isn't right!" after which I would get on the phone to the principal and then to the teacher and yell the same thing (with much more to follow).
I didn't do any of the above.
The particular issue of divorce has been handled by society in the past few years in a totally anti-Christian way. Divorce is viewed as an acceptable way to "fall out of love" with someone and start all over again. What's more, families are defined in the local school health class (and I suspect many others) as the unit in which you happen to live, whether it means mom and kids, grandma and kids-even the traditional mom, dad and kids! There is even a Barney song that sings of the different kinds of families there are. In society's attempt to build up a child's self-esteem (so they don't feel bad they aren't part of a "traditional" family unit), the sanctity of marriage has been grossly redefined. What's more, children are also getting the message that divorce is okay.
To get back to the list of questions: they hadn't been answered yet, so I took a deep breath, tried to sound as casual as possible and asked my daughter to tell me a little bit about the book. Why had the boy's parents divorced? Because his mom didn't like worrying about his father being on the road, she replied. He didn't call home much, either, she added. My heart sank. Was this acceptable to her, I wondered? I asked her what she thought.
After I listened to her (biting my tongue so I wouldn't jump in with my two cents) I told her that Orthodox Christians didn't believe that divorce was right. Sometimes there are problems in a marriage and they can make us unhappy, but we don't get divorced just because we are unhappy or don't like the situation, I explained. There might be a lot of things we don't like that will happen to us, and sometimes we have to make sacrifices, I added.
Would my daughter accept what ! told her? Would she ignore me, knowing that plenty of the children in her fifth grade came from split homes? I knew what the answer was: There are no guarantees. Yet one thing's for sure: God expects us to lovingly teach our children our Faith.
While I could have chosen to view this episode in a negative way, I chose to turn it around and use it to teach my daughter about several important issues: life, love and marriage. As Christian educators (and that's what we parents are), I believe we must use every opportunity to show our children how everything relates back to God and His one true Faith.
The public school can be one of those opportunities. Learning to exist peacefully among those with different backgrounds can be practiced in the classroom. Learning to question everything against what's pleasing to God can be practiced in the classroom. Having compassion for others can be practiced in the classroom. This is all possible because as good Orthodox parents, we have already greatly shaped our children in the first few years of life.
What, then, can we do as Orthodox parents to make the most of our children's public school education and help them grow in the Lord?
|Get involved. Let the teachers and administrative staff
know you are willing to volunteer in any capacity. If you have
young ones at home and can't volunteer in the school itself, offer
to work on projects at home. This shows the school and your children
that you are interested in their education.
||Be visible. Plan to eat lunch with your children. Send
snacks or cookies in occasionally. Drop them off at their classroom
or meet them at their classroom after school. All of these things
help make you visible, which helps you have a feel for what's
going on in school. Education experts say that being visible shows
your children and their teachers that you care.
||Review school work daily. Have a set time when you
sit down and look over your children's school work and assignments.
Education experts say that taking an interest in your children's
education helps boost their enthusiasm about school and help them
get better grades. Reviewing school work takes only a few minutes
and can develop into a special times for you and your children.
||Listen. Your children have a lot to say and you'll
not only learn a lot, but foster good communication habits. As
you put your children to bed at night, ask them to tell you something
good that happened that day; then ask if something not-so-good
happened. You'll get a better idea of how their day went, what
might be bothering them, and also spark some special conversations.
||Set a good example. This may be easier (or harder)
than you think! Our children learn from our examples. No matter
how much they teach about drugs, values, or "fair fighting"
in school, in the end, children usually adopt their parents' values.
||Use bad behavior and situations as teaching opportunities.
When you hear of or see something that is inappropriate, use it
as a way to reinforce proper behavior. Simply state the behavior
or situation as it happened, say that it was wrong, then state
what the appropriate behavior is. For example, if you see a group
of children purposely making fun of a mentally retarded child,
you can say, "Those kids are making fun of that boy. He was
born mentally retarded and can't talk or think as clearly as we
can. Making fun of him is not right. It probably hurts his feelings.
Making fun of someone isn't pleasing to God because God loves
everyone." Keeping your statements simple and short will
make it easier for your child to understand your position and
seem less like a sermon. You can even end by saying "As Orthodox
Christians we believe
" which may seem less threatening
(especially when children are older).
||Trust in the Lord. Probably the two most important
factors to remember when raising our children are 1) we do not
have the power to mold them into perfect people and 2) there are
no guarantees. Even if we do everything "right", our
children may choose a different path to follow than what we had
in mind. That's because they were born with their own free will.
Ultimately, they must choose to live as Orthodox Christians. Our
task is to do all we possibly can to train them up in the Lord.
After that, we must practice our faith by having faith that Christ
will bless and guide His (yes, His!) children along the right
||Give them credit. Once they reach school age, our children's
character has already been greatly shaped. They will be capable
of discerning basic rights and wrongs, although they will still
need loving guidance when they steer off the right path. We must
still give our children credit for being able to make many right
decisions, lovingly correcting them when they make the wrong ones.
||Send them off to school with a prayer. As you send
them out the door or drop them off at school, pray that God bless
them and be with them (even if you've already said morning prayers
together) during the coming day. You may even want to tell them
directly, "God bless you and be with you," to remind
them that God is watching over them.
||Sending your child to public school can be a rewarding
experience. The situations that arise and the interaction
your child has with other children can provide opportunities for
teaching and reinforcing sound Orthodox values. Most importantly,
we must put our faith in Christ, believing that He will help us
raise His children as true Orthodox Christians.
Ann Marie Gidus-Mecera is the author of Orthodox books for children including I Go To Church and The Storm and The Sea-the Life of St. Nicholas. She also wrote the religious education manual A Way of Life. She is currently a member of St. Gregory of Nyssa Orthodox Church in Columbus, Ohio, where she serve on parish council and is a member of the Diocesan Council for the Midwest Diocese. She has presented workshops on parish renewal, acted as a facilitator during the Administrative Summit, and was a consultant to the Administrative Task Force.
© 1996 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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