Time and time again, as a Seventh-day Adventist educator, I have seen my teacher friends and coworkers leave our church’s schools and become much happier. They report less stress and increased job satisfaction. One friend who now works outside the denomination recently stated, “I didn’t know teaching could be this fun.” Why are many teachers happier when they leave the Adventist education system?
Our schools contain high potential for amazing educational and spiritual student transformation. Yet the fact remains that building a teaching career in the Adventist system can cause great mental stress and, in some cases, even spiritual abuse. If teaching was not hard enough, some Adventist institutions have systematic fault lines that produce an overabundance of fracture points. These weaknesses result in teachers leaving, while also warding off new educators.
Church as Employer
The difference between being a member of a church community and being an employee of a church community must be better understood. Without this understanding, the lines between workplace standards and voluntary religious engagement get blurred, often leading to spiritual abuse. For example, a fellow teacher was once told during a job orientation that employees were “highly encouraged to pay tithe.” This expectation completely killed my friend’s love of giving. Legally, the church cannot make monetary giving a requirement, nor can it automatically take tithe off of paychecks—a practice some older employees might remember. In what other organization could a boss ask their workers to return a percentage of their paycheck while already paying them below average wage standards?
Another difficulty that Adventist teachers face is a lack of rest and reinvigoration at church on Saturdays. If a teacher has been dealing with difficult students, parents, administrators, or coworkers throughout the week, the last thing some want is to see those people again during Sabbath. Furthermore, due to outdated Adventist cultural norms placed on teachers, they cannot truly be themselves in a church setting. Imagine if a teacher mentioned that their favorite eatery is also a local brewery. Or if they admitted to having some kind of addiction at a worship night during an elevated spiritual moment. What would that do to their teaching life? Teachers are often on guard, careful not to reveal too much about themselves.
While there is no perfect system—public or private—I have never quite understood the Adventist model of school management. Outside of education, how many other jobs allow untrained volunteers to govern trained professionals?
In the past, a teaching-vice principal friend of mine dealt with a school board member who ignorantly argued with him about how many hours teachers actually work throughout the week. In response, my friend took the time to interview all the teachers in his school individually and recorded the genuine number of hours they put into teaching. He presented his findings to the school board in an extensive report. This report not only included the time spent teaching students and attending mandatory staff meetings. It also covered the time that teachers dedicated outside normal school hours, including researching and creating teaching activities; creating unit plans and lesson plans; creating and grading assignments and assessments; meetings with parents and others about students’ behavior or learning needs; attending online professional development seminars; leading extracurriculars like band, choir, or sports; and the list goes on. The report also noted that the extreme workload caused the teachers to have limited quality time with their families, friends, and hobbies, often resulting in burnout. Unfortunately, the report caused minimal change in the board member’s outlook on teachers and didn’t foster any substantial support from the rest of the board.
If we are to overcome this rickety system, some extra steps will need to be taken. One such step is establishing detailed descriptions of what each school board member’s responsibilities are. Chairing a board is not simply about claiming a title, warming a chair, or pushing a personal view. Teachers are all too familiar with the old story of school board members going to their respective churches, hearing random complaints, and then returning to the school with threats of pulling funding if they do not get their way. Perhaps it should be a rule that a person cannot sit on both a church board and school board? Maybe some mandatory training should be implemented? Could requiring volunteer hours in the classrooms help board members have a clearer picture of what goes on at a school?
More Religious Diversity
In my previous school, it was estimated that only 25–30% of students were Adventist. This is a growing theme. The ramifications of this spiritual diversity are widespread, and a broader religious perspective is needed in order for students to feel safe and nurtured. We shouldn’t stop teaching from an Adventist point of view, but we should recognize that Adventist schools are no longer just for Adventist kids. A lack of support for this pluralistic reality from the church and community only causes further strain on teachers.
Who Protects the Teachers?
Stress around school boards, maintaining a healthy local church life, and teaching to an increasingly less-Adventist student body can create a work environment that degrades job fulfillment. Without engaged and supportive administrators, when these and other issues arise, teachers don’t know who to trust. Who stands with teachers when board members disagree with curriculum requirements? Where is the support for educators when principals turn into workplace bullies? Or when teachers have to stand up to parents alone because school management does not want to upset a “good, tithe-paying Adventist family”? When does the help come for teachers who face racism, sexism, or homophobia? All these things happen. Without a union-like department or an established HR office, there is little in place to protect teachers.
Knowing the difference between training and education may help solve some of these tensions. But the starting point is recognizing that Adventist teachers face inexorable odds between the burdensome demands of Adventist culture and the diverse needs of students.
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Kevin R. McCarty is a former Adventist teacher and local church board member who lives, works, and worships on the unceded traditional S’olh Temexw territory of the Stó:lō people.
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