One of the aspects of teaching that I most enjoy is introducing children to Shakespeare – it leads to all sorts of interesting discussions. One day, while thinking about exits, entrances and the seven ages of man as metaphors for birth, death and the passage of life, we started to talk about the line ‘one man in his time plays many parts’ (As You Like It Act 2 scene 7). A pupil asked me what it meant, and I explained it by saying that I started life as a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter and a niece. Then I began to list the other aspects of my identity as I grew up – student, youth worker, friend, neighbour, wife, daughter-in-law, auntie, mother; now mother-in-law and perhaps, one day, grandmother. I was also a teacher to them, a manager to the rest of the school, and a trainer to the staff. They soon got the idea – they listed the aspects of their own identities and realised that their lists were still short because they were only 9 or 10 years old. They saw that as they get older, their roles will grow and change.
Then they decided to take it one step further. To analyse characters in books, we use an activity called Role on the Wall. It involves drawing round a pupil, taping the child-sized outline to the wall, and inviting everyone to use sticky notes to show something that they see about the character in question – external attributes around the outline, internal attributes inside the line. They got involved in their own Role on the Walls, producing some fairly astute self-analyses before passing their outlines on to friends to see how others viewed them. That led to a circle time discussion about how we listen to what others say about us, how we learn about ourselves, and how that might help us to make choices as we grow up. A fascinating morning exploring self knowledge and relationship, and all from one line of Shakespeare.
It also got me thinking about my core identity, the unifying factor in all the roles I play. I am Christian. The way I express that varies depending on the person with whom I’m interacting, so how does that impact on my role as a teacher, working in a secular context where the concept of neutrality underpins the community? I am Christian – do I hide that and develop a bunker mentality? Or is there a way to live out a Christian worldview without offence?
Several years ago, David Smith, then a languages teacher, now a Professor at Calvin College, came to the conclusion that he was actually teaching his students to become effective tourists and, therefore, consumers. What, he wondered, would language teaching look like if it was taught from the Biblical perspective of offering hospitality to strangers? He developed a curriculum with this as the underpinning principle, so his pupils were not only learning German, they were understanding what it is like to be German. Just as one example, he taught his pupils how to forgive in German, not just to apologise. The curriculum was distinctively Christian, yet appropriate to any community. Rather than acquiring skills to become consumers, his students were developing an understanding of the role of language in building relationship.
So can Christians live out a Christian worldview in a secular classroom? Yes, I think they can. It involves thinking about what we teach in each subject, questioning why we teach in particular ways, and being willing to change underpinning principles that are materialistic. Much of the complaint about the current obsession with standardised testing is that it prizes academic achievement at the expense of all else. That is because our education systems are dominated by materialistic thinking; each child is just an economic unit with potential productive value. No Child Left Behind, Sure Start and closing the gap teaching are all about social mobility for economic, consumerist purposes. Distinctively Christian teaching is about considering the whole person, about living in effective relationship with others and about achieving full potential as a human being, not just a consumer-producer.
Speaking in an interview this week, Ed Miliband, the son of Jewish refugees and leader of the UK Labour Party, talked about the marginalisation of Christians in our society. While he personally wouldn’t claim to do God, he does want a country where Christians feel comfortable. And that got me thinking – what would it be like to live in a country where it felt comfortable to say ‘I am Christian’? What would it be like not to be accused of proselytising and indoctrinating, just because I am living and teaching consistently with the principles of my faith?
Because the problem with the neutral spaces that are so desired in our learning communities is that they are a myth. If you bring people together in community, each person will have a unique worldview. Everybody believes something and therefore, by implication, rejects all other things. People express their views in a myriad of ways, in all they say, and do, and think. It affects their relationships – the way they interact with students and colleagues. Wouldn’t it be good to live in the world that Ed Miliband envisages, one in which Christians can be comfortable being Christians?
Christianity is no longer our country’s dominant narrative so it is not entitled to be the only voice. That is entirely right in a pluralist society where many voices need to be heard and balanced. I don’t expect people to believe what I believe. But Christianity is still entitled to a voice in the debate. I am one of those voices and I will speak, because at the core of my identity, I am Christian.