Ask Richard: Daughter Conflicting with Religious School Science Teacher May 14, 2012

Ask Richard: Daughter Conflicting with Religious School Science Teacher

Dear Richard,

I am a divorced mother whose religious ex-husband has custody of my daughter. He chose to send her to a religious high school, which she has attended for 3 years. Recently, she started asking a lot of questions about her religion, which has caused people to suspect she doesn’t believe in God. Her science teacher, who caught wind of this when she didn’t agree with his disparaging comments on evolution, has now started to pick on her, getting into confrontations with her about subjects ranging from evolution to global warming to abortion, etc. This teacher is one of the angry, confrontational, red-faced types, who is always ranting about random topics, making disparaging comments at people, and spewing nonsense whenever he feels like it. Unfortunately, complaining to the school about this has achieved nothing, and the kids tend to egg him on into acting like this daily by purposely asking questions that rile him up, and then agreeing with him and attacking my daughter when she respectfully disagrees. I have no control to pull her out of the school, but my daughter is miserable and needs advice on how to deal with this situation. My ex refuses to help in any way. Do you have anything to offer?

Thanks and Regards,
Exasperated Mother

Dear Exasperated,

Your daughter has a strong spirit and a sharp mind, and I admire her willingness and ability to challenge her teacher so bravely and so frequently. I have to wonder if she is quite as miserable as you think, since she voluntarily does this so bravely and so frequently. When her teacher foolishly allows himself to be goaded by the other kids into one of his rants, she could just sit there quietly letting him make an ass of himself, but instead she speaks up and challenges him with her respectful disagreement. She has not been cowed by his ad hominem attacks in return. She keeps doing it. She has more courage and pluck than I do at three and a half times her age.

I can understand her frustration because they don’t respond reasonably or honorably to her respectful challenges, but she may be unhappy for other reasons. One might be that her intellectual hunger is not being satisfied by the school. Some religious schools have high academic standards, but some push education through a filter that removes anything that conflicts with dogma. They also often discourage students from asking probing questions that go too far, and cannot be answered by whatever diluted, cliché, simplistic explanations have made it through the filter.

Another reason that she might be unhappy is that her need to ask tough questions about both religion and science sets her apart socially, and if other kids are beginning to suspect that she doesn’t believe in God, she might be feeling the beginnings of shunning by her peers.

The most important thing for you to do is to strengthen your bond with her. She needs adult allies, and you are the only suitable adult described in your letter. Since your ex husband has custody, your time with her is presumably limited. Make the most of it by making it easy and safe for her to share with you her thoughts and doubts about everything and anything. Help her to freely express whatever she discovers in her explorations of her beliefs, giving her full permission and license to believe, to doubt, to question, and to tentatively try on answers to see how they fit. Let changing her mind always be a completely legitimate option.

Give her access to any books or materials that will answer her questions about religion and science better than whatever is inadequate that the school offers. Encourage her to find friends who seem to have that same demanding curiosity, or who at least do not judge her for having that wonderful quality. Having just one or two comrades will get her through the last year of high school. If no one at school is suitable, help her find social outlets in a club or some kind of activity for young people that is not centered around religion.

Always take the high road when helping her deal with your ex husband. Even if she disagrees with her father on important issues, she will have natural loyalties to him as well as to you. Letting her know that you understand that will help to prevent tension building in her trying to satisfy both loyalties, like a rope stretched too tight. Let your growing bond with your daughter be an alliance for the two of you, but not an alliance against him.

Now for two sets of advice directly to your daughter:

Hello. Apparently these classroom discussions are not resulting in your getting called in to the Principal’s office or some other authoritarian tactic. It’s apparently something that the teacher is permitting to happen. If you are initiating these arguments by asking challenging questions or disagreeing, and if you don’t mind the attacks and whatever social fallout there is, then all you have to do is improve your argumentation skills. When the teacher or classmates attack you rather than what you ask or say, then with a nonchalant shrug say, “That remark about me does not answer my question,” or “Attacking something about me does not attack my argument,” or “Coming back with an insult means you couldn’t come back with a good argument.” If the teacher or a student makes an unlikely sounding claim, say, “Since this is a science class, I’m just curious what scientific evidence there is to back up that claim.” Always put the burden of proof onto the person making the claim. If they say “You can’t prove it’s wrong,” Calmly (always calmly) reply, “You’re the one who is saying it’s true, so it’s up to you to prove that it’s true. I’m just not convinced by you simply saying that it’s true.” Smile nicely, with no hint of triumph or smugness. Really be as open to acceptable, credible evidence as you are saying you are.

However I can understand that for a young person that kind of critical arguing and debating can be intimidating. If it seems too risky, or if you’re just getting tired of it all, then here is another way to channel the energy of your demanding curiosity into something that keeps you from becoming too frustrated:

Hold your tongue, and switch to Secret Psychologist Mode. Think of the classroom as your lab, and the teacher and the other kids are subjects whom you are studying. Quietly watch how they interact. Look for the intentions underneath the things that people are saying. See how some kids are the provocateurs who try to goad the teacher into some off-topic rant, probably just for the entertainment value. See how some kids are the yes-persons, looking for a chance to please the teacher by agreeing with him. There will probably be a couple of class clowns, who either provide release from mounting tension by making people laugh with a clever wisecrack, or who are sneaking in some frustration or anger of their own disguised as a sarcastic joke. Notice the quieter ones in the background. Some are interested but seem intimidated. Some are bored and are distracting themselves. There might be one person who sits there quietly and seems to be observing in the same detached kind of way that you are. Catch that person’s eye. You might have found an ally. Take notes about what you observe, and keep them safe.

The teacher himself? There’s enough material there for a Master’s Thesis. He might not be very good at teaching science, and he might be a boorish person, but you can think of him as a gift. You can turn him into something useful for you, a good practice subject for a young woman who is becoming a keen observer of human nature. Whatever walk of life you end up taking, that skill is extremely valuable.

Mother and daughter, I wish you both well. Love and support each other. Stay relaxed and positive. Find the useful thing, information, or lesson in every situation. Share what you learn. Both of you make the other person a lucky person.

**Update** The letter writer has left a comment under her own name that clarifies some important details, and so my response is amended in my reply to her to focus more on directly combating the teacher’s abuse of her daughter. Please find this in the comments below.

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • 0xabad1dea

    The difference between me now and me ten years ago is that I now think getting expelled on purpose is a reasonable course of action. Warning: may not actually be a reasonable course of action.

    It’s probably a good thing that my atheism did not set in until I no longer had creationist teachers. Instead we just clashed over things like whether the KJV was the only acceptable edition of the Bible.

  • feadog

    ” Her science teacher, who caught wind of this when she didn’t agree with his disparaging comments on evolution, has now started to pick on her, getting into confrontations with her…..”
    It sounds like it’s now the teacher who’s pulling the daughter into the debates, not the student speaking up first. If so, the daughter needs help deflecting attacks, not just keeping her head down.

  • This is why we need a law that allows minors to make decisions about their lives if they’re being put in a detrimental situation. This girl is being abused by her teacher and she has to sit there and take it. This is horrible.

  • I think if the daughter is truly unhappy at the school, she should simply make it absolutely clear to the staff that she’s an atheist and thinks some of what they’re teaching is garbage. If she’s lucky, she’ll get kicked out. Otherwise, I’d say that this school is good practice in preparing for the idiots and religious bullies she’s bound to encounter as she enters the real world as an independent adult.

    Maybe there’s a local secular organization she can get involved in, which could help smooth over some of the social issues bound to come with being at odds with many other students at a high school.

  • In her place I woould kick the teacher in the groin the next time he gets confrontational and maybe kick the father too because he’s a douche.

  • Isilzha

     This is how I read it too.  That the girl was asking questions does NOT mean that she was confrontational!  She may have believed she’d get reasoned answers to her questions and not punished for asking them.  Sounds as if the teacher now has a vendetta against her.  It’s also disturbing to hear that other students are making sure that this girl gets targeted by the hostile teacher almost every day.  School must be a very miserable place for her.

  • How about leaking the teacher’s docs so others can contact him. I guess that’s frowned upon, though.

  • Gus Snarp

    I guess we just have to assume that the relationship is such that the mother can’t even discuss this with the father. It would certainly be nice to try, unless it’s truly impossible, because the outcome might be different than you expect.

    I wonder what effect the father providing a substandard education would have in a new custody hearing. I’m guessing it would be difficult with the broad acceptance in our society of all things Christian as “better” for children.

  • This ^^

    Three years in this high school makes this girl at least 16 if not 17, she should be able to say, “Dad, this school is awful. They aren’t preparing me academically for my future plans. We need to find a solution to this problem. I know you want what you think is best for me, but a school that lacks decent science education and employs teachers that bully students for disagreeing is not best. I want to make something of myself, but I need my father’s help to become all I can be and this school is holding me back from that.”

    Play on daddy’s ego. Manipulate as needed for your sanity, young lady. Sometimes we need to fight the dirty, emotional battle in order to survive the war. When our hands are tied it’s time to use whatever you can to break free.

  • One could covertly record a rant with a cell phone and then youtube it anonymously.  Might not help, but sure would be fun!

  • MV

     No, the student doesn’t have to sit there and take it. First, the parent and student should collect specific information about what is happening.  Bring this information (specifics) to the attention of the school (it almost certainly is against the letter of the school’s philosophy/policy).  Determine the professional responsibilities of the teacher.  Teachers are a licensed profession ( contact the State to see how this is affected by a private, religious school) and this type of behavior is not professional.  If you document the behavior and cannot resolve it with the school, file a complaint with the licensing board.  Complaints against your license as a teacher are serious. 

  • A Portlander

    I have to wonder if she is quite as miserable as you think, since she voluntarily does this so bravely and so frequently.”

    Richard, I wonder if you realize how close this comes to the conflict-averse authoritarian party line. “Ignore the bully and they’ll stop.” “You must be inviting conflict, what are you doing to provoke this?” I don’t think you’re actually trying to reverse blame (and I’m glad you opened your advice to the daughter with those if-statements) , but I hope you’ll re-read your first paragraph after considering that those of us who have borne the brunt of a campaign of bullying have learned, if you don’t stand up for yourself, you invite escalation. E.M.’s daughter has reached a point where if she lets this baiting go unchallenged, her submission signals reward and the prospect of repeated successes to her antagonists. Keeping that at bay isn’t bravery, it’s a survival tactic.

  • Gus Snarp

    I was put off by that language as well.

  • I anticipated that my first paragraph might be read by some people as blaming the victim, but that is certainly not my intention, and I think that my position is made clear by the rest of my response. The letter is a bit ambiguous about who initiates the arguments, the teacher, or the daughter, or if it’s a mixture. My reading of it is that she is more often initiating it, and even if the teacher is calling on her first, she is boldly responding with her contrary opinions or her challenging questions, rather than saying “yes Sir,” or shrugging her shoulders and mumbling “I don’t know.”  I wanted to empower her and encourage her in that, rather than to increase her seeing herself as a victim. 

    My second set of advice about being silent and using the Secret Psychologist Mode is there because I try to avoid only advising a person to do the brave and scary thing, with no other option.  It would be easy for me to talk tough when I’m not the one standing in harm’s way, so I must be sensitive to their anxiety and their vulnerability.  They have the right to decide that retreat is their better option, and I try to offer some suggestions to make that option as positive as possible, if they choose it.

    I also deliberately omitted advice about documenting the teacher’s behavior to build a case to bring to the school administration as well as to the father, and even perhaps to a judge for reconsidering the custody arrangements.  The letter seems to categorically state that those options are already determined to be closed. But I knew that there would be some good advice from the commenters about that, in case the mother does have more power than she thinks she does.

  • Go over every single piece of graded work by that monster with a fine toothed comb. Proving that the student is being picked on is hard because it is basically a subjective matter. If she is being punished through unfair grading, though, it might be possible to present objective evidence that the teacher is discriminating against her. There is probably also already a process to resolve those issues at the school (or higher up), so it would be harder for them to blow you off.

    Of course, she is not necessarily being graded unfairly. If she is, though, it’s low hanging fruit.

  • amycas

    The dad has full custody, so if he doesn’t want to do anything about it, then she’s pretty much on her own in this. It also sounds like she and her mother have already complained and the principal didn’t do anything about it.

  • Alexis

    In many places, after the child reaches a certain age, she may pick which parent she wants to have custody. If there is no other reason that E. M. cannot have her daughter with her, and the daughter wants such a change, I would suggest requesting a new custody hearing.

  • Debbie Klatzman

    Just to clarify:
    She was asking these questions in other classes which are run by more tolerant teachers who allowed them. She specifically avoided asking this man questions due to his rants and personality, but a certain student who has some issues blurted out that “Oh she disagrees with you, I heard her say so elsewhere” which set the teacher’s target on her. Also, she’s in a small school and community with a limited social life, so she has nowhere else to turn. Thanks for the advice!

  • Situations like this are a lot easier to endure when you have a friend to endure it with. I hope she can find (or rediscover) that friend.

  • Debbie, thank you for this clarification. Although my suggestions to both of you might still be useful, this information makes it clear that the science teacher is acting unilaterally as a bully in his classroom.  This is unprofessional and unacceptable, and it looks like you might have to fight him or it will get worse.

    Begin to document every detail of his harassing your daughter, as well as his wasting class time with off-topic rants. Although you have already complained to the school administration with unsatisfactory results, do not assume that further attempts are futile. Presenting them with a copy of a detailed chronology of his inappropriate rants and harangues, as well as his vindictive browbeating focused on a specific student will more likely get them off their complacent butts. 

    When you visit the administrators again, make it clear that you are also taking copious notes about their responses as well.  Let the implication arise that this could be the foundation of a possible lawsuit. Hopefully that will not turn out to be necessary. When you become a bigger headache to the Principal and the school board than the science teacher is to them, hopefully he will be firmly told to back off and get back to his job.  Also as a commenter here has suggested, keep a sharp eye on how he and other teachers grade your daughter’s work, and if it seems unfair, complain to the administration immediately.

    The issue of your daughter’s religious belief or lack thereof is completely irrelevant to this, and if any faculty or administrator tries to bring that up, that is an attempt to put you and her on the defensive. Don’t fall for that! Immediately say in very strong terms that that is immaterial, and refuse to address it further. The science teacher’s behavior is what is “on trial” here, not your daughter’s private thoughts, opinions or beliefs. Let them see you writing down what they said. Keep him and them on the defensive.

    Perhaps consulting candidly with one or more of those more tolerant teachers will net you either an ally on the faculty, or at least some insight into how to more effectively combat this abusive teacher.

    I wish it was never necessary, but sometimes the most important lesson we have to teach our kids is how and when to kick ass.

  •  Yep!

  •  I’d love to hear that.

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