(Excerpted from edweek.org. Read the full interview.)
Marilyn Rhames is the founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a nonprofit working in 131 schools across 38 states to help educators ground their work in knowledge, faith, and prayer. Before founding Teachers Who Pray, Marilyn taught in Chicago Public Schools for 15 years and worked as a New York City reporter for People, Time, and various metro newspapers. She is a popular blogger at the Education Post, and she recently finished the forthcoming book The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education. I recently had the chance to chat with Marilyn about Teachers Who Pray and the role of faith in schools.
Rick Hess: Marilyn, so, what is Teachers Who Pray?
Marilyn Rhames: Teachers Who Pray [TWP] is a network of educators who believe in the power of God to transform all schools—public or private—from the inside out. The teachers, counselors, lunch ladies, bus drivers, and other adults of faith who work in the schools form a community of prayer and encouragement. They strive to breed excellence in professional practice as well as deep and meaningful relationships with students and families, even in the most difficult situations. I have well over a thousand teachers engaging with the Teachers Who Pray network. We have 131 school-based chapters, averaging about eight teachers per chapter in district, charter, private, and religious schools. Most of our teachers work in traditional public schools, though you can say that we are “agnostic” as to the types of schools we serve.
RH: What’s the organizational mission—what are you hoping to accomplish?
MR: We are raising up a corps of teachers whose deep faith in Jesus Christ compels them to be excellent, committed teachers who sustain in the profession for the benefit of all students, but particularly the most disadvantaged ones. We have a three-part mission: Teach. Pray. Lead. One, we offer professional development that is rooted in biblical principles and scientific research. Two, we have a prayer network that consists of school-based chapters, prayer conference calls, and prayer guides. And three, we are leading a national conversation about how faith is a motivating, free, and legal form of effective education reform.
RH: What prompted you to take this on? And how did you get started?
MR: I was a reporter in New York City during 9/11 and on that tragic day, God spoke to my heart and told me to move back home to Chicago and become a school teacher. I didn’t know why at that time, but I know now: He called me to raise awareness that the very nature of teaching is spiritual, therefore galvanizing teachers’ faith is one of the most powerful, effective strategies of education reform. I started praying for my students and school during my teaching residency in 2003. I was placed in a highly dysfunctional K-8 school on the West Side of Chicago. The principal was crazy. She told us in the first staff meeting that she hired us because we were physically attractive. She also told us that whoever didn’t follow her orders would be fired, adding that she wasn’t going anywhere because she liked “the green stuff”—motioning for money with her fingertips. Most of the teachers were unhappy, unfriendly, or they just kept their heads down and doors closed. In this environment, I felt depressed and I wanted to quit every day. But, I’ve never been a quitter. My parents raised me in the church, and I learned early in life that God is real and that He answers prayer. So I started praying by myself and with anyone who would join me. Through prayer, I developed a strategy and courage to fight back. As a teacher-in-training, I led an effort to get the principal fired—though the best that the administration could do was re-assign her to a district desk job. She was gone by Christmas. Prayer turned me from a muted, frustrated new teacher into a fearless advocate for children, and that is when the idea of Teachers Who Pray was born. However, I didn’t incorporate TWP until December 2011, and then after a six-year walk of faith, I received my first seed grant in July 2017.