The Importance of a Coherent Teaching Identity: Reflection on Belief and Education

It has become an accepted idea that teachers’ ways of thinking and understanding are vital components of their practice. 
Nespor’s article goes on to explore the beliefs of a teacher as to how a subject should be taught. Within my own subject, Religious Education, there are various pedagogies that could be enumerated to fit into Nespor’s exploration. For example Grimmitt highlights some of these pedagogies, which are again usefully summarized by Blaylock. In this simplified approach to pedagogies Blaylock uses terms such as “Jacksonians” and “Coolingites” to fully situate the main person identified with a particular approach. Within this pedagogical framework my experience has been that most teachers would adopt a kaleidoscopic approach; meaning an approach to RE that dips into, and makes use of, existing pedagogies to make as varied and stimulating experience for the pupils as possible.

As useful and integral a knowledge of a teachers beliefs about pedagogy are in the teaching of RE, this article is concerned with the beliefs of a teacher on a much deeper level. Behind these pedagogies are deeper beliefs that inform and create the framework within which a teacher works. These beliefs may be termed religious beliefs in the vast majority of cases, however the worldview of the non-religious teacher also leads to the construction of a framework. Parker Palmer has argued that “we teach who we are”; he develops this further in explaining:

Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge- and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject.

This framework of inward reflection on the soul, and the background against which we all teach could be termed a teacher’s spirituality, but this is a term that means different things to different people. Non-religious teachers may feel it anathema to speak of them having a spirituality. Various explorations have been made of the term, Ofsted and SCAA both produced their own interpretation, as have others. They generally all agree, though in different language, that spirituality within education is to do with a person’s understanding of themselves, their relationships with others, the transcendent, and to some degree the world:

The first objective is: to promote those qualities and dispositions which affect how people engage with life- how they relate to themselves, others, the world and (for some) with God or Ultimate Being. 

This is perhaps most succinctly discussed by Hay and Nye who base their findings on classroom based interviews with a number of children. They construct four ideas of consciousness based on the premise that spirituality and spiritual development is natural and biological. It can’t be taught because it is “more about the realities of human relationships than it is about detailed lesson plans.” The relational consciousnesses that they develop are:

1. Self-consciousness (I-self)

2. People consciousness (I- others)

3. World consciousness (I- world)

4. God consciousness (I- God). 

To make the model acceptable to all and broad enough so as not to exclude those who might reject the idea of a God it might be beneficial to amend I-God to I-transcendent. For, while the majority of teachers may accept the idea of God, for a significant minority the identification of the transcendent as God may be an obstacle that does not need to be there. Having argued that point, it may be possible that that aspect of an atheist’s spirituality is identified by a rejection of a relationship with God. Interestingly there has been some research done recently by Patrick Hampshire, admittedly among RE teachers who will perhaps be a little bit more aware than others, that concluded that over 50% of teachers did not feel their beliefs affected them in their teaching; significantly this percentage was higher who did not self-identify with a religion. The argument of this paper is that to suggest that a person’s value system does not impact their practice is both wrong, and is ignoring a very valuable resource in a teacher’s profile. Borrowing a quote from the Dalai Lama and replacing politicians for teachers it is possible to argue that:

If the hermit acts inspired by bad motivation, he’ll harm only himself. But if a [teacher], who can directly influence an entire society, acts with bad motivation, a large number of people will experience the negative consequences.

So why do teachers want to place their beliefs outside of the classroom? Very early in my career I would have counted myself among this majority who felt that their religious beliefs had no impact on their classroom practice. Indeed, in my PGCE interview how my faith would affect me in the classroom. To contextualise I had spent 2 years on a proselytizing mission for my church prior to my undergraduate study, so my cv highlighted my religious commitment. I was very insistent that my religious beliefs and my persona or role of a teacher would be to use a Dawkinsesque term “non overlapping magesteria”– never the twain would meet. I was worried that, belonging to a missionary oriented aspect of Christianity, I would be accused of undue influence.

I realize now my youthful naivety in trying to compartmentalise areas of my life. My faith, my beliefs, my view of God, human nature, who I am and the process and importance of learning are part of who I am, rather than bolt on and off accessories that I wear when it is convenient. But what does this mean in practice? An example of an English teacher may help crystallise the first effects beliefs may have:

Although I have to teach ‘Of Mice and Men’ as a mandatory GCSE text I have found myself skirting over the inappropriate language and references to Christ particularly when reading aloud and this has been noted and is respected by many of my students.

This might extend to the language that a teacher is prepared to accept in the classroom. This teacher is not actively promoting her faith; she is just modelling her desire to not lower her standards in any aspect of her life. There are, however, much deeper aspects of learning and teaching that are developed and, I would argue, enhanced by a reflection on the beliefs that we hold.

If we take one Christian belief, that we are all children of a loving Heavenly Father, this may, with reflection begin to have an impact on the way we teach some of these children. As I look at the students whom I teach, how does believing that they are children of God affect me? It does not mean that I tell them so as exemplified in a recent interview for a potential teacher when she was asked the question, ‘What would you say if someone asked you the relevance of Jesus for today?’ She answered, ‘I would tell them that Jesus had died for them, and that he was willing to help them in their lives’. This candidate suggested a confessional approach that saw the teacher’s role to nurture in, or even to convert to, a specific religion. I would be opposed to such an approach in the school classroom; rather I suggest that a teacher’s beliefs could legitimately affect their approach to, and interaction with, the pupils. As such the belief that I teach pupils who are children of God suggests that I treat each child with respect. As I believe that “God has created [every person] with a mind capable of instruction,” it is my responsibility as a teacher to find a way to teach that touches the innate desire to learn in every child. This has become known as ‘personalised learning’ or reflecting the imperative that ‘Every Child Matters’. It means to me that every child is worthwhile and that I should do my very best to speak to them as children of God (i.e. not in a mean or coarse way) and try to help each child reach his/her potential. Space does not allow for me to fully explore how this can be accomplished but, for the purpose of this paper, the main point is that each child is treated individually and positively. 

In response to a similar enquiry about beliefs affecting their teaching, two teachers respond in similar ways, but without articulating the beliefs behind their approach. Consider this teacher of RE:

I also believe every child should be taught RE! We have a learning support unit for those who have convinced us (with no SEN problems) that they are unable to learn or let learning take place in the classroom. We have an LSU for naughty people – who I think the school send over there and write off with three non-teaching (poorly paid) staff. We send WORKSHEETS ………… my belief is they are worth teaching – and I have to find a way to teach them….. so am going to go over every other week to do a P4C lesson with them and set them some ‘meaningful’ non-worksheet stuff to do the alternative week – I want them to engage with thinking and learning – in their own way….

This response is echoed by a teacher of English:

I have a strong sense of equality and patience both of which come from my religious beliefs and this has led me to spending large amounts of time dealing with particularly difficult students and has led to some miraculous results where students who feel they have been given up on by the school recognise that I haven’t and I will put the effort in!

Let me iterate that I am not suggesting that religious beliefs are the only beliefs that lead to such approaches; similarly, I am not suggesting that they automatically produce such astounding teachers. What I am suggesting however is that beliefs, when reflected upon, can lead to better classroom practice, and indeed hold teachers to a higher level of responsibility and practice.

Linked with this, is the “patience” alluded to by the English teacher. As Christians we have a responsibility to ‘Come, follow me’ (Luke 18: 22); or as one Christian leader has articulated:

I would invite all members of the Church to live with ever more attention to the life and example of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially the love and hope and compassion He displayed. I pray that we might treat each other with more kindness, more courtesy, more humility and patience and forgiveness. 

If I explore what lies behind this invitation I am led to the experiences of the life of Jesus; whether it is him being moved with compassion to raise the son of the Widow of Nain, when he blessed the little children, or when he bore the pains and humiliation of the cross with grace and love for all people. This teaching builds on the belief that every person is a child of God. As such, I should treat every person or every child in my classroom in the way that Jesus would. He would not turn any away because of the way that they looked (the woman anointing his feet with oil), what they have done in the past (the woman caught in adultery), or how they treated him (he died for all of humanity even those who nailed him to the cross). Am I fulfilling the command to “strengthen [everyone] in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations, and in all your doings” (D&C 108:7)? I must build up every child whom I teach in every aspect of my dealings with them, I must not lose patience when they stretch it to breaking point, I must offer time and understanding. Every year as I address a new group of trainee teachers I offer my philosophy of teaching which is to ‘be the kind of teacher I want my own children to have’ which is only a slightly disguised plagiarism of the Golden Rule. For me, as a Christian, I must follow Jesus’ example in every aspect of my life. The command to follow him was not a part-time exhortation.

I am convinced that being a Christian is about the formation of relationships. Salvation is the realisation of a completion of a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The unity of the Godhead expands the definition of exaltation to mean a unity of individuals with the Godhead: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17: 21). As joint heirs with Christ to receive the same inheritance of Christ (salvation), we must strive to develop this unity throughout our lives. The Church and also the wider world is crucial in the development of this relationship. The relationships we form is every aspect of our lives, to unify our own lives, and also to express unity with those whom we are in any kind of relationship with is a prelude to the service and unity that can be found within salvation. Thus, a participation in the development of positive relationships is a necessary preparation for salvation. In the novel, The Shack, an explanation of what the Church is, by Jesus, could have been written to describe this ideal: “It’s simple, Mack. It’s all about relationships and simply sharing life. What we are doing right now− just doing this− and being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people and life is all about relationships.” Those relationships should not be limited to those who are immediately identified as like minded.

Interestingly, if a Christian bases their teaching practice on Christ they are led to apply this approach to all the children whom they teach, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexuality or any of the things that can be used to categorise people. This belief is reflected in a response from a beginning teacher:

I recognise that in my practice I am more aware of the diversity in children’s home culture and beliefs. Thus, being more aware, it helps me be more sensitive with how I deal with children and how it may affect their beliefs and the child themselves. The summary of that thought is simply that I would treat the children with the same respect I would want my belief to be treated.

This paper has necessarily been about Christian beliefs and how just two teachings can affect a teacher’s practice in the classroom. There are numerous other examples from within Christianity, for example, I would argue that a belief that learning comes “line upon line, precept upon precept” (Isaiah 28: 10) argues for a constructivist approach within the classroom, while some of Jesus’ responses to wrongdoing might have an interesting corollary to a behaviourist approach. However, just as a Christian worldview can have these results, so too can an atheist who places a value on human life, and learning. Consider Richard Dawkins’ reflection on humanity:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here… Admittedly we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder. 

With such an appreciation of human and natural life, can any atheist not have a desire to help any child make the most of this life to realise their potential?

I digress, however. Returning to the Christ centered nature of my teaching I may have painted an overly utopian ideal of my teaching practice. I do not mean to suggest that I always remember that every child is a child of God, rather than a little ‘so and so’ who has just assaulted another pupil. Nor that my patience is not driven to, and beyond, breaking point with various whinges and bad behaviours. I have not even mentioned my personal penchant for sarcastic retorts that seem out of tune with following the Saviour. Rather, I am grateful for the belief I have in repentance that enables to pick myself up and try again.

In ending this paper I am aware that some people may consider me to have been far too confessional in my approach. I would suggest that this article argues for a softer approach that recognises the value of a teacher’s beliefs but does not articulate them in their practice. I may have painted the picture of a monk at the front of the classroom – but this caricature could not be further from reality. If you were to ask my pupils what I have explicitly taught them about my faith during lessons they would struggle to know, but they might do better in listing the qualities that they believe a Latter-day Saint Christian has. Religious confessionalism (as a form of nurture in, or conversion to, a particular belief) is not my intent: rather, I have wanted to alert teachers to the fact that all of our beliefs (whatever they may be) affect us in the classroom. They affect how we act, behave, view others and engage in the learning process. I have only touched on two aspects of my beliefs, but by focussing on them I have been able to reflect on how I can improve as a teacher. By acknowledging their influence on my teaching practice I can live a more cohesive life where I don’t have to separate aspects of my personality and identity. I am a teacher but I am also a Christian. This does not mean that I preach my faith in the classroom, just that I live it as best as I can. For the individual teacher as they reflect on their view of humanity and morality they will be able to similarly evince a more cohesive life, and find greater joy in teaching.

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