Meet an Episcopal priest teaching in a public school
Meet an Episcopal priest teaching in a public school

Girl drawing at school

It is 9:30 a.m. and the line is long. One of the most sacred rituals of my calling is at hand. It is that moment when I look into the eyes of these wondrous people in my care as they come forward, hands cupped and outstretched before them.

Some are shy, and respond only with a quick glance and a barely audible whisper. Some are exuberant in their expression of  gratitude. Some come forward with a hunger that is much bigger than this moment, a hunger I do not have the power to fill on my own. All are grateful and eager to receive.

As the next set of hands and eyes approach, I reach deep into the box for another handful of Honey Nut Cheerios.

It is snack time in my classroom, and I am an elementary school teacher at a public charter school. It also so happens that I am an Episcopal priest, but the story of my journey from the pulpit to the playground is one for another day.

For today, I invite you to imagine your way into my school. My little class has traversed the morning, turning in homework assignments—or, alternately, heartfelt and homespun excuses for missing math pages and reading summaries.

They have shared in team-building time during our morning “community circle.” They have rotated through the “The Daily Five” language arts program we follow: reading to self or with a friend, working on writing, working on spelling and grammar, and listening to an audiobook chapter from the work of a classic or contemporary author. An hour and a half has passed quickly and for now they have given their all of focus and hard work.

Snack time, even just a few minutes, brings freedom—an opportunity to chat and tell jokes and to “get some wiggles out.” Through the generosity of attentive parents, everyone either has a snack from home or can crunch on a treat from our communal basket. As with the feast we Christians share at church each week, this daily bread represents hospitality, belonging, and abundance, most especially for students who might not have a snack otherwise.

Snack time is one of many moments throughout the day when I willingly and respectfully wrangle my reveries—about the innate holiness of the classroom, of children, of our school and the world around me—into a sort of nonverbal vibration, a meditation. In those moments, when I feel the Spirit moving, I look. I smile. I listen. I pray—silently, of course—words of gratitude and supplication. And I do speak, with great enthusiasm, but only those words and phrases that are appropriate for public discourse. I have, after all, chosen to teach in a public school.

I am a believer in the separation of church and state. I respect the boundaries set forth by some of our church’s and nation’s most revered leaders who have determined that it isn’t my place in a public school to speak about my personal faith. But what I have found is that the Holy Spirit is not diminished in the least by my lack of words.

It turns out, in fact, that the Spirit is sometimes more palpably present teaching in my public school than I knew it to be in my days of church ministry:

  • in that moment of silence after the pledge of allegiance, when the day is new and I breathe a quick request that I might be worthy of the task that is before me;
  • in those “aha” moments of math (Lord help me with math; it was never my forte), when those learning light bulbs come on and little faces begin to glow with smiles of understanding;
  • during science class when my 8-year-old friends can barely contain themselves as we learn about and discuss craggy, chilly oceans; ruby red magma; or “interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home” (as Eucharistic Prayer C comes alive);
  • in those myriad of moments through the day, when my students are bursting with the wonder of it all, the Spirit is so very present.

So on any given day, though I might be bursting to verbally attribute all of this joy, all of this wonder to the God who created it and all of us, I am learning to trust the reach and movement of a Spirit who is so much more than words, who sighs the sighs too deep for words, whose joy and inspiration already infuse each little person in my midst, who asks of me only to be fully present, to love and listen and breathe, to bear simple witness in the language of my workplace to the awesomeness of the world and all that it is in it.

Of course, and I have to confess it, the Spirit is also there when teaching is difficult. When my patience wears thin and I am grumpy and exhausted and the students are too. When I look back at the end of a long day and wish I’d have corrected them in a kinder, softer voice, or taken the time to listen a minute longer to a kiddo reaching for just the right words to express an idea. When I find myself regretting my gossip-tinged contribution to a conversation with colleagues or when I ache with worry about the burdens of those students who, out of some cruel necessity, are learning to be much too strong for their age.

Instead of a collar, I wear a lanyard with a badge and a key. In place of bread and wine I offer Goldfish crackers and a smile. I give my all for field trips now, and not mission trips. But I am called and I am blessed.

I am a teacher and I am a priest.

Demery Bader-Saye (@demerybadersaye) is an Episcopal priest and teacher at the NYOS Charter School in Austin, TX.

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