At the end of this year’s A2 Religious Studies course I received a lovely card from one of my brilliant students, Hannah. On the front was an image of Socrates and inside some flattering comments about my teaching. Towards the end she wrote:
It was nice to know that Hannah wanted more of my own participation in the very lively and often heated discussions I conducted with her class over the last two years. But I was equally satisfied with this being valuable evidence (if it was ever needed) that I never brainwash my pupils!
Hannah’s comment inspired me to write this post, and to ask openly: can or should the personal views of a teacher be shared with young people that walk into their classroom?
That’s a question every classroom practitioner has to grapple with, especially those who teach RE – a subject where students explore a whole spectrum of ideas and beliefs, and are provided frequent opportunities to ponder over the big questions about life, meaning and purpose, which naturally lends itself to dialogue and debate. Click here to watch a great introduction to what my job is about.
Teachers are certainly there to facilitate that all-important process of critical enquiry – but is this best done by keeping our own perspectives to ourselves? Are we compromising expected standards of professionalism and trust if we chip in with our two pennies’ worth?
I’m not referring to particular strategies aimed to extend thinking (like playing devil’s advocate) to tease out deeper responses from pupils. That’s part and parcel of what we must do. What I’m talking about is actually telling them our opinions.
Hannah clearly wanted me to share mine. But I am not convinced the classroom is my place to do that.
Schools with a religious character have the dual purpose of delivering the curriculum as well as inculcating faith. Parents who send their children to Catholic or Sikh schools do so for this very reason, as knowledge and belief go hand in hand.
But this is not so with maintained schools. The lines between what we teach, and what we think, cannot be blurred.
As we know, kids are very good at turning the tables and will ask the same questions we often put to them:
‘Sir, do you believe in God?’
‘Miss, what are your views on abortion?’
‘What do you think about homosexuality?’
Tempting though responding to such questions sometimes is, I strive to resist (and usually succeed), preferring to ‘keep the mystery’, however frustrating my students find it.
I aim to be consistent, so if it comes to a choice between delighting or disappointing them, I choose the latter.
Am I right in doing so?
The President of the UK Ismaili Council, Amin Mawji, said at the London RE Hub conference in March: “I cannot think of a time when it’s been so exhausting being a Muslim”. I would add that there hasn’t been a more exhausting time being a Muslim RE teacher. The ‘Prevent’ strategy, Operation Trojan Horse and numbers of radicalised youth joining ISIS have all to be thanked for that.
You can understand, then, my aversion to sharing my Muslimness with pupils. Not that I have anything to hide, be ashamed or embarrassed about – I wear a ring with an Arabic inscription that means ‘God is sufficient’, which often intrigues students. But I genuinely consider my faith to be an irrelevance, even a distraction, in the classroom.
Yes, I might have the advantage of being able to speak about my personal experiences of, say, fasting, that can certainly aid students’ learning, but there is no reason why non-Muslims cannot do just as good a job as me teaching Islam, breaking stereotypes and countering Islamophobia.
I am not suggesting that teachers completely withdraw themselves from debates. On the rare occasions that I do divulge my thoughts, it is with the aim of ensuring pupils are exposed to a balance of different viewpoints. At times this has been prompted by things they have heard elsewhere – including from outspoken colleagues.
For example, following Charlie Hebdo, some Year 12 students told me how during a lesson in another subject, their teacher expressed her view – quite strongly – that Muslims shouldn’t be so oversensitive when it comes to free speech. It was clear that they were very uncomfortable with her comments, and some a little offended, as the group did include Muslims. So it seemed appropriate to contrast the other teacher’s arguments with my own response to the whole affair. On hearing my points, the students were very appreciative and desperately wanted to organise a debate between her and me. Alas, it never materialised!
Standing at the front of the classroom, with up to 30 maturing human beings at any one time listening to and learning from you, is both an immense privilege and enormous responsibility. What we say, and how we say it, may be etched in those young minds forever.
As a Muslim, I’m not there to convince anyone that Islam is a religion of peace, however much I believe in that myself. It isn’t my or any other RE teacher’s job to tell young people what is true or false religion, or to be apologists for faiths when people do horrific things in God’s name.
Like everyone else, I have views about many things, but is school really my platform to share them? Do parents send their children to school, and taxpayers fund the education system, so that I can say my piece? I very much doubt it.
Because the moment I step into the classroom, I am a teacher, not a preacher.