Avoid Stereotyping

By Wayne Jacobsen

Caricatures drive the current debate between education and religion almost more than the issues themselves.

Educators are pictured as a monolithic group of liberals, valueless monsters out to create students with no moral compass. Religious activists are vilified as miniature ayatollah’s forcing other people into compliance with their own faith. I’ve not met anyone on either side of this debate that comes close to fulfilling these images.

Adhering to these stereotypes will thwart any attempts to find respect or mutually-satisfactory solutions in the current debate. Violating them, however, can be a godsend in opening doors of communication.

First, violate stereotypes by refusing to trust them in your responses to others. When I talk to educators or religious parents, I consciously lay down my preconceptions. I’ve not been disappointed. In both camps there is a vast continuum of perception and agenda. Many conscientious religious parents don’t champion school prayer amendments. Many teachers and administrators hold a vibrant religious faith. If we can forego stereotypes we will be ready to listen and respond to the person before us.

Second, violate others’ stereotypical expectations of you. When I was a pastor in this community I had administrators seek out my advice on issues they were facing. One even asked me to pray with him before I left his office. When such a requests are sincere it is a powerful tool to open doors of communication and trust. Attendance by key administrators at ministerial functions or Youth For Christ banquets can accomplish similar results.

Districts can also work at staking out their identity apart from educational stereotypes. Fundraising letters from religious organizations paint school districts with a broad brush. Because of that many associate their own local district with the most extremist positions voiced by people in the National Educators Association or the latest political appointee at the Department of Education. If you don’t work at discounting those associations, you’ll pay for them the next time a crisis emerges.

Remember stereotypes divide; violating them can accomplish just the opposite. And the more unfair the stereotype may be, the more room you have to maneuver in a way that can be helpful.

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