The Ethical Dilemma: A Teacher at Odds With Superstitious Beliefs in School

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at (subject line: Ethical Dilemma).

All inquiries are kept confidential.

Teach Your Children Well: I am a teacher. I have twenty-two years’ experience and am well respected in my current school, where I have worked for sixteen years.

My problem is that I find it harder and harder to tolerate any superstitious content in the curriculum. I should reveal at this point that mine is a secular school; it is not as though I’m trapped in a religious establishment run by a specific faith.

It’s an international school with students from all over the world and of many faiths (although Christianity and Hinduism dominate the demographic) and various elements of those faiths are routinely presented as fact to the students.

My dilemma, really, is this: do I try to actively and overtly counter the superstitious content to which the children are subjected (often, but not exclusively, in whole school assemblies at the hands of the school’s senior leaders) or do I quietly ignore it, perhaps responding only to specific inquiries by any of my students (my current tactic)?

This might not seem the most intense or dramatic dilemma, but it is wearing away at my self-respect as I constantly feel that I am being somewhat disingenuous and even cowardly by not being more forthright in my defense of the rational. My health has been affected by this situation, it being a contributing factor to my diagnosed and now successfully treated depression.

Ironically, my own residual Catholic guilt (I was raised in that particular abomination and found reason when aged about nineteen) makes all of this the more difficult to deal with.

Any observations or suggestions deeply appreciated.

—Stick To The Lesson Plan?

Dear Lesson Plan,

Since you are employed in another country and I’m not familiar with the particular laws and customs there, I suggest you do some homework on the issue of religious messages in secular schools in your area. You also don’t mention what age group you teach or what subject matter. All these factors could have bearing on your best course of action. So reach out to local secular and humanist legal organizations and teacher groups to learn what rules and precedents exist, and then figure out how far you might be able to go against the flow in your school. The fact that its leaders are leading the superstition lessons suggests that you will have an uphill battle even if there are regulations on your side.

The first consideration is that you don’t get yourself sacked for expressing your views or dissing those of others. You can’t communicate rational thinking to your students unless you remain employed. Perhaps there are other schools without such a religious bent where you’d be happier, or maybe it’s better to stand your ground and do what you can where you are. Even religious schools have nonreligious or other-religious teachers who serve as examples that not everyone buys into what’s being promoted.

Another consideration is your emotional health. I’m wondering if, in seeking treatment for depression, you explicitly addressed this circumstance that is bringing you down. If not, please do. A professional may be able to help you determine the best way to express your position or deal with suppressing it so that you can work within whatever limitations you must, without feeling guilty or oppressed.

There are often under-the-radar ways to communicate what you do or don’t believe and cast doubt on dubious teachings, without sticking your neck out. There’s simply speaking for yourself, and letting others decide whether your assertions might apply to them. There’s passive resistance, where you are absent or you excuse yourself from assemblies you don’t support, or you sit them out without nodding or applauding on cue. Students often observe their teachers more closely in terms of what they don’t say and their body language than in terms of the lessons they present. Your facial expressions (smiles, snickers, eye-rolls) and silence can speak volumes—just be cautious about when, where and with whom you do such emoting.

And remember, you are one teacher, with finite access to your students. Do your best with the time and circumstances you are allotted, and don’t be disappointed if your efforts don’t appear to reach their minds or environments beyond your classroom. It’s quite possible you will make an impact, even if you never know it. Don’t we all remember special teachers and the seeds they planted in us that are still bearing fruit years, even decades, later? Work with what you can as well as you can, and try not to sweat what’s beyond your control. Just the fact that you are doing no harm in terms of propagating superstitions means you are doing good.