To Have Religious Guest Speakers or Not?

Posted On 1 Jul 2021 by religionmatters

Tim Hall, Ph.D.

For many teachers, to understand the diversity of a lived religion is a difficult task when relying only on textbooks. In response, many invite guest religious speakers to the classroom to address this need. The results have been mixed and not without some controversy. So in this blog, I will detail some of the precautions from the experts. Additionally, I will provide some guidelines an educator can take if they’re going to invite a guest speaker into the classroom to speak about a particular religion.

We will start with the First Amendment Center’s Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, which has been used by many educators to help incorporate the teaching about religion in the classroom. The guide encourages the use of local professors and academics to speak about faith traditions in the school. Furthermore, the guide cautions educators about the use of a clergy with the assumption that academics can be more objective in teaching about religion. Finally, it is recommended that speakers be briefed on the First Amendment guidelines associated with teaching about religion in public schools which I detail in previous blogs.

But with the Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States, there is a more stern tone. These guidelines were produced by a task force of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). The AAR is a diverse academic organization focused on religion and religious studies with over 10,000 members. In the guidelines, the task force explicitly discourages the use of religious leaders in the classroom, while it encourages the use of professors of religious studies who could better represent diversity within a faith tradition. But the guidelines imply that classroom visits can be very unpredictable. And if the goal is the understanding of diversity within a faith tradition, the use of films or personal written narratives can be more productive. An example of this representation of diversity within a religion would be the PBS Frontline documentary, The Muslims.

In addition to these recommendations by the First Amendment Center and the AAR, Linda Wertheimer, the author of Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance, provides some guidelines from best teacher praxis in bringing in guest religious speakers. Educators should follow these guidelines: 

  • Inform social studies supervisors and building administrators of the classroom visit and its goals related to the curriculum.
  • Provide speakers the context of the course and the student outcomes.
  • Provide speakers First Amendment guidelines for teaching about religion in the classroom. 
  • Coach speakers on ways in which to articulate unique and personal perspectives on faith tradition as appropriate. 
  • Clarify as needed if contradictions arise during the presentation. 

From these three expert sources, educators, administrators, and superintendents can develop the most appropriate guidelines for guest religious speakers in the classroom that fit their local needs.  

Source: Linda K. Wertheimer, “Chapter 3: Whose Truth Should Students? The Debate over Guest Speakers on Religion,” in Haynes, Charles C., ed. Teaching about Religion in the Social Studies Classroom.

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