I want every teacher who reads this to know that they are so valuable and my hero. We have always discussed the importance of teachers and education, but Covid has shown me how far our educators are willing to go to help our students.—Justin Hicks, member at Fernwood Baptist Church in Spartanbug

Outstanding middle school teacher talks about education and religion

Faith—Family—Education

I grew up in a house with my parents and younger brother and was fortunate enough to live near many of my family members in the small town of McBee in Chesterfield County.

Faith, family, and education were important parts of my upbringing and have helped define who I am. I grew up in a Southern Baptist family where I spent most of my youth in Gum Branch Baptist Church. 

I transitioned from Southern Baptists to CBF after I met my wife. I was attracted to the idea of being a part of an ecumenical organization in which people of all denominations, or in my personal opinion, peoples of all faiths, can work together to create a better community.

I have always seen this idea reflected in the Lords prayer “…Thy will be done, on earth, as in Heaven.” Scripture teaches us heaven is not only a place we go when we pass away, but a divine community we should endeavor to help establish on earth.

While I am from McBee, my journey through education and marriage has taken me to Conway, where I earned my Masters Degree in Education to Macon, GA, where my wife attended Mercer Law School to earn her Law Degree.

We landed in Spartanburg about three years ago for job opportunities and now call the surrounding area home.

After we returned to South Carolina, we began the process of finding a church family and fell in love with Fernwood. We learned about Fernwood from pastor Matt Johnson at a Spartanburg Pride event, and we knew we had to visit. Their message and actions of inclusion were the very thing we had been searching for and a place we felt at home. Matt offers a challenging message each Sunday that forces us to ask hard questions and truly think about what it means to walk in the steps of Jesus.

Justin's thoughts on education

While we often talk about education in a language that describes what students have learned academically, education and all that comes with it is much more important than just that. I believe education is a place where children can see the good work of religions every day. I want to share two stories to describe what I mean.

1. When schools first shut down, school staff became immediately concerned with how students on free and reduced lunch would have access to food during the day. It was quickly decided that we would use our school buses to deliver the food to students every day. Many teachers volunteered to help our bus drivers with these deliveries. While I was running during my lunch break, I saw a bus dropping off food near my house and thought of Jesus’ famous command to Peter “Feed my sheep”; our schools were carrying out this command.

2. This story, which is not unique but still powerful, involves a teacher in our school who was concerned about one of our students’ grades. Trying to find a solution, our teacher decided, with permission, to go to the student’s house and tutored the student using the glass storm door as a barrier. With all the possible dangers with Covid, she risked her safety to make sure our students were getting the best possible education and checking on his/her wellbeing; “Peter, feed my sheep.”

How religion fits into history class

Being a history teacher has given me many unique opportunities to discuss a wide range of issues from history and politics to geography, economics, and religion. The last of these is often the most rigorous— yet one of the most rewarding—topics we cover through the year.

I have found over the years that religion does not have to be a battle between beliefs or religious structures and norms, but rather a celebration of the pursuit for a greater meaning and attempts to build better societies in which all humans can benefit.

An example of this is the connection between the Eight-Fold Path in Buddhism and The Ten Commandments in the Abrahamic Religions. While the views of the divine and the division of Nontheistic and Monotheistic are clear, they both focus on the relationship between human beings and how we should treat each other. In this way, talking about the works of Jesus and the different prophets has become an interesting conversation.

This being said, I focus on the actions we as individuals can take in our society to make it better and more accommodating for all people. Over the years, I have tried to remove personal opinions and focus on teaching students how to most effectively help people.

Even my book choice reflects the idea that others around the world need help as we do. I begin every class with read aloud and most of the year we read from The Breadwinner series and A Long Walk to Water. I chose these books to explore the difference in cultures, the struggles different people are going through, and the impact our actions play upon the world. I also use these books to discuss the danger of religious extremism and the importance of building bridges—not walls— between people.

It is not only important to teach these different ideas but to also reflect and practice these in my every day life. The extent to which I have ever had a deep religious and philosophical conversation in the classroom is discussing what the Bible says when we discuss Christianity.

I would rather attempt to foster a healthy curiosity for a student’s own religion and that of all religions. I see my goal in the classroom as living out the actions of scripture rather than to discuss the nuances of theology.

During Covid: "These students need us"

I have had so many conversations with teachers discussing their fears about returning to school with the pandemic still in full swing, but went to work anyway citing in some way, that these students need us. They have placed their own safety aside to help, in so many cases, “…the least of these.”

While this has been a most chaotic year, remember that this teacher and future father of a sweet baby girl has seen your actions and has been moved to tears by what you do.

Education has been the one and, for the most part, only thing I have ever wanted to do. I have always felt that education was my calling and could not see myself doing anything else.

I have been teaching sixth grade world history at Chesnee Middle School for three years and have taught for a total of six years. While there have been plenty of trying times, I believe that education is one of the most important fields to which a person can be called.

Since I have been at Chesnee, I have learned so much and feel I have grown as an educator by working with amazing teachers. Everyone shares the common belief that the students are our number one priority and we always go above and beyond for them.

While this year has been trying and difficult, it has also held very special moments as I was chosen Distinguished Literacy Teacher of the Year and Teacher of the Year. While I was excited about both of these awards, I was most excited about the Literacy award because it focused on my attempts to pull ELA skills into my history classes. Having been chosen among such amazing teachers was certainly humbling as well.

Justin’s students congratulate him on his awards.

Treating children as Jesus would

I try to think about the children in my classroom the way Jesus described children that were blocked from interacting with him. In Jesus’ time, and sadly during our own time, children were/are undervalued and often overlooked within society.

They were seen as an economic burden and strain on the household and society. This is why Jesus’ decision to value children was so powerful. Jesus rebuked his disciples when they tried to keep little children from him. Jesus, instead, call the children to his side. In doing this, Jesus was looking to the forgotten and oppressed and drawing them to his side.

The goal then for all teachers should be to allow students a voice, representation, a place where they can express their ideas and feelings. This has been important during Covid because so many have gone without a safe place to discuss new ideas and opinions.

We as teachers must also remember to truly engage with students and make sure they are seen and heard. When interviewing for the Teacher of the Year award, I was adamant to discuss the necessity for mental health care providers in schools, so that students could discuss their struggles and hardships without the worry of being dismissed. If Covid has revealed anything to us, it is the importance of mental health and the power of being able to connect with each other.

Teaching is a calling, and not a day goes by where I do not feel the impact we have on these children. The gospel goes so far beyond words and finds its way into the smallest actions. It is truly an honor to wake up every day and be able to teach the next generation of students, but the best part is when we can teach each other how to live out our convictions, religious or otherwise.

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