The following is written as a co-blog with my friend Dawn Cox. (https://twitter.com/MissDCox) Dawn’s blog puts forward the case that teachers shouldn’t tell students their religious beliefs. Mine is written in response, and you should read her’s first here. I think we should be free to do so (with care) and that there might be a number of reasons why this might be a good thing. Both Dawn and I work in nominally non-religious (non-faith) schools and I would think we would both agree that our points relate most to those environments rather than schools of a religious character. Being taught RE by the school chaplain in a church school would kinda give the game away! We also both teach in secondary schools and again our points are made from that perspective.
Background – I trained as an RE teacher at the Institute of Education in 2006/7. One Friday afternoon someone in our cohort asked the course tutors how to respond when a student asks what religion you are. The answer (so far as I remember it) was guarded. The first option was to say something like ‘this isn’t about what I think but about what you think’ and the second was to be completely straight (where appropriate) and tell them and move on. From that point on I’ve been guided by the second option.
For ease of comparison the following thoughts are written under the same headings as Dawn’s blog. Where I’ve quoted directly from Dawn’s blog I’ve used italics.
1.RE is the study of religions
I agree wholeheartedly with Dawn that RE is primarily the academic study of religion. However, she goes on to say that any programme of study whether it be at KS3 to GCSE will include the ‘taking account of different interpretations of beliefs & teachings and critiquing them.’ It is at this point, when interpreting and critiquing, that a student is going to naturally ask, ‘Sir, what do you think?’ If for instance looking at the Design Argument for GCSE I would respond that I find Hume’s criticisms very convincing and explain why. The student asked an honest question and I gave an honest answer, justified by reference to philosophical material. I have encouraged a student to critique religious and philosophical beliefs and I enjoy finding myself in disagreement with them.
2.Students/parents may accuse you of bias
I’ve never encountered this in my decade of teaching. Again Dawn uses the phrase ‘what religion you are’ without seeming to acknowledge that there will be many teachers of RE who are non-religious. Dawn also implies that it is possible to maintain ‘neutrality’ when teaching though I’m unclear what this means. By bias I take it to mean that Dawn is wary of being confessional. But the more I think about this, and I have thought a lot about it recently, I’m led to think that confessionalism is probably a useless term in education. For me education happens in a class mainly due to the relationship between the teacher and the students. And because that is in a relationship no exchange between the two is completely value neutral. Students may be aware that I am ‘personally’ criticising a particular position or idea, but then that is part of what make RE an interesting subject to learn.
- It’s not needed
‘Decent RE happens without it. RE isn’t ‘better’ for a teacher sharing their beliefs.’ Maybe true but so much in learning depends upon the relationship between the students and the teacher. If the students trust the teacher to have mastery of their subject then sharing beliefs and ideas can lead to better learning. This is ultimately the reason why I made the decision years ago to be honest about my beliefs with my students. If my classroom is a ‘safe’ space where ideas can be debated and beliefs analysed and criticised then I cannot exempt myself from that model. If I am expecting students to answer questions where they need to justify a belief then, when I am asked a question, what message does that send to the class when I say ‘sorry I’m not prepared to answer that?’
- You’re one example
I think my students struggle to see me as a human being with a life outside the morning and home-time bell. I’m not sure they would see me as representative of anything, I should ask them!
- You can share your view without telling them it’s yours
I’d struggle to do this. Teaching is hard enough trying to manage activities, answer questions, keep an eye on someone at the back of the class. Saying ‘It must have been hard for Siddhartha to leave his family’ is one way of approaching teaching that story. Saying, as I might do, ‘as a father of two beautiful children I find this story very difficult as he must have found it so hard.’ is another. I go with the later because it gives a human side to what can be a very abstract story for children in the the 21st century.
- The mystery helps dispel stereotyping
My life is still a mystery to my students. When they ask me why I teach RE. I’d rather give the honest answer that I was brought up a Catholic, went to a Jesuit school, and studied Theology and RS at university. I say that the more I studied about the religion I’d been brought up in the more I began to question it. The more I learnt about religions that were not my own the more I then began to doubt if any of them were ultimately true and that’s why I’m now a humanist. I tell them that I cannot believe in any religions but still find them completely fascinating.’ That tends to leave them a bit bemused and with a touch of mystery but not in perhaps the same way Dawn suggests.
- We’re role models
Some students struggle to separate us being role models of behaviour & attitude with what we believe. In younger years they may lack the critical thinking skills to be able to understand that what a teacher says they believe in terms of religion is a personal opinion and a choice, not a ‘fact’.
I’ve left the section from Dawn’s blog unadulterated above. I take my responsibilities as a teacher very seriously. It is not my place to proselytise a particular view and if I felt I were doing that I would change approach with a specific class or student. I do emphasise that my journey of belief has been just that ‘a journey’ and much of what I believe is as a result of first-hand experience, learning, influence of teachers and friends, music, art, sport, upbringing etc. What I think about a lot of things changes on a daily basis and in some cases depends on what I’ve heard on the radio on the way into work that day.
Responses to counter arguments
1.”If I’m asking them to say what they believe I should be prepared to say what I believe”
I’ve answered this above. But as a riposte sometimes it can be a useful tool to push students into justifying their analysis or evaluation by me giving a personal anecdote or belief.
Not sure I get this point. Dawn and I will have to continue arguing about this online!