Witnessing in a high school?

I’m a substitute teacher for a high school. I was in the library with another sub one day, learning the ropes at the circulation desk, when we began making small talk. He mentioned that he was a baptist pastor for a church, but he needed extra income. I said that my grandfather was a baptist reverend, and that he had recently passed away, and how much I missed him. This led into a discussion about people in several local churches that we knew.

A little background: I’m an atheist, but I grew up in a largely Christian family. I grew up in the church. It doesn’t mean I approve of it, but I can talk shop about religion. I have great respect for all people and their religious beliefs. But I am not religious, and during the conversation, I never said I was. I spoke specifically of family members.

So he asks, in earshot of many students, “So, do you have strong faith?”

I was speechless, and probably went a little wide-eyed. I shook my head and made that “uhhhhhhhhhh” noise that indicates a big, fat no. I wanted so much to say what I believed with authority, but I remembered reading in the school policy book that religious discussion was prohibited. So I tried to change the subject. I said I had great respect for people of faith. He wouldn’t stop.

“Yes, but do you have faith yourself? No? Then I believe god has brought me into your life today, because [snip snip snip the long-windedness] and I really hope this will re-ignite your faith in god so that you can become closer to him.”

I wanted to say, I should have said, “This is inappropriate. These kinds of discussions should be done in private, away from students. I’d be happy to discuss religion with you off of school grounds or after dismissal.” But all I could do was clam up and stare at him. The thought of confrontation just makes me freeze.

I guess that got the message across, but I have this nagging feeling I did something wrong by not stopping him. Now I’m worried he might be doing this to students. This high school is very diverse—we have Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and atheist students. All walks of life. I would be so mad at myself if I found out he was witnessing to these kids, and I could have stopped him.

What would you have done? I feel like such a gutless loser. What do I do now?

Well, I would have frozen too, and I am religious.

Now you take him aside and have that exact conversation. Maybe ask him to sit down over a cup of coffee in the break room? You can even start off by saying that you’re uncomfortable with this conversation, but this is something he needs to know in order not to get fired and make everyone unhappy with him.

Well, I can be a stickler for rules, so I think my reaction would have been to say something like “That’s not something we can discuss on the job here.” If he brings it up again, that’s what I’d suggest you say, and repeat as needed. I’m religious, but I don’t think you owe him anything in terms of a discussion. I also don’t think you need to take on the burden of concern for what he might say to students. That’s just a hypothetical at this point. Most teachers I know are a lot freer in what they say to each other than what they say to the kids.