The Baltimore public school system hired Eric Whitehair as a history teacher, but his heart was in World Religions.
Teaching at the public Maritime Industries Academy High School in 2004, Whitehair, then a second-year teacher, pitched the idea of an elective World Religions class.
"I had to sit down with the principal and calm him down," because religion can be a hot-button issue and the school system had other pressing needs.
Whitehair, 41, of Charles Village, has since moved to Boys' Latin, the oldest nonsectarian school in the nation, where he is once again teaching World Religions.
"I talked them into a class," he said. "I guess I can't help it. You can't keep me from teaching religion."
Now, Whitehair and religion teachers around the region are getting some help in raising the profile of religious studies in their schools. Whitehair and Amy Schmaljohn, his counterpart at Friends School, have joined forces with the Towson-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies to form The Religion Teachers Network, whose goal is partly to popularize the teaching of religion for today's students and instilling a respect for religious traditions.
About 30 religion teachers from private and parochial schools as far away as Frederick County came to the institute's first network meeting and dinner on Nov. 13. Future meetings have not been set yet.
"Religion plays a huge role in all aspects of culture and society," said Leslie Goldsborough III, director of development for the institute at 956 Dulaney Valley Road.
"Part of our civic identity is being more broadly informed," said Schmaljohn, 48, of Beckleysville near Hereford in northern Baltimore County. Now in her ninth year at Friends School, she was hired to develop a diverse religious studies curriculum at the Quaker-based school. "That's part of good citizenship in the 21st century," she said. "That's what we're doing in our classrooms."
Like teachers of any subject, from math and English to social studies, religion teachers need professional development and the support of their fellow religion teachers to exchange ideas, Whitehair said. But he said religion teachers are a small and lonely group, often with only one teacher per school.
"I'm it. I'm the only person teaching religion at Boys' Latin," said Whitehair, who takes his students on occasional field trips, including one trip planned to the Jewish Museum of Maryland in two weeks.
Schmaljohn said some of her students have visited the Baltimore Shambhala Meditation Center in Charles Village.
He and Schmaljohn met last year at a conference sponsored by the Association of Independent Maryland & D.C. Schools and began to talk about how to reach out to the region's religion teachers. Then, they hooked up with Goldsborough, who said a similar idea had been "percolating" in the back of his mind.
"We've just been dreaming and planning what could this network could become," Schmaljohn said.
They decided to base the new network at the 27-year-old Towson institute, where a diverse staff of scholars, including a rabbi and a Muslim scholar, are creating educational programming to further interfaith dialogue.
"The ICJS holds no religious affiliation, and we pride ourselves on employing scholars rooted in different religious traditions," the institute's brochure states.
Schmaljohn said the institute was "a place to meet in a scholarly context. It's the perfect place for this."
"We're starting from scratch," Goldsborough said. "It's our hope that (institute) scholars will be able to support the network from an academic standpoint."
He added, "We are academic, but we are very interested in bringing knowledge to the local level," especially in schools.
The region's private and parochial schools were well-represented at last week's meeting, with teachers from Loyola Blakefield High School, St. Paul's School for Girls, St. Timothy's girls' school in Stevenson, Calvert Hall High School, Gerstell Academy in Finksburg, Oldfields School, Bishop McNamara High School and St. John's Catholic Preparatory School in Frederick, among others. Some schools, including Gilman and McDonogh, did not send teachers to the meeting, but have expressed an interest in joining the network, Goldsborough said.
Among those excited to attend the meeting was Fred Wise, who teaches World Religions and Scripture (Old and New Testaments) at Loyola Blakefield, a Jesuit school.
Wise, a Catholic, said that when he came to Loyola Blakefield in 2001, World Religions was not being taught and that he was hired to teach a class on Christian lifestyles. Now, he said, his World Religions and scripture classes are well attended by about 80 students each semester. He too, has taken his students on trips to area mosques and a Thai Buddhist temple in the Washington area.
"I think it's interesting to be meeting with teachers from other schools," Wise said, "not only with teachers of my own faith. We're here to step into the shoes of the other. Let's just get together and see what comes of it."