Category Archives: Comment

FAITH AND FITBITS

At a church away day recently, the speaker talked about Fitbits. The point of a Fitbit is to track our movements, regardless of where we are, who we’re with or what we’re doing. It’s always there. It’s an integral part of everyday life and apparently, it’s changing our view of exercise. We no longer see keeping fit as a particular activity which needs a special place, such as a gym. It doesn’t demand time in a busy day, or require special clothing or equipment. It’s simply our state of living, moving and being – every step we take, every move we make. And that got me thinking about being a Christian in the classroom.

Our faith isn’t something for Sunday; something we need to juggle in a busy day, or something that requires a special place or particular words. We worship and serve ‘The God who made the world and everything in it’ and our Lord ‘is the Lord of heaven and earth’ (Acts 17:24-25). It means that God is with us wherever we are, whoever we’re with and whatever we’re doing. We take God into the classroom with us. Of course we know this in principle, but do we know it in practice?

Apply the Fitbit concept to faith in the workplace. Seeing your faith as your lived experience changes how you see your role as a teacher. Your subject is no longer just an academic discipline – it is one facet of the knowledge and truth which is God. You don’t simply transmit information to pass exams. You create a seedbed for knowledge formation; you’re the person who encourages a search for truth.

You see each of your students as uniquely created, each given life and breath by the Creator God you worship. You pray that your students ‘would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him’ (Acts 17:27). That shapes how you speak and act. It informs the way you foster your learning community. It moulds how you think.

In Cretia, his ode to Zeus, the Greek poet Epimenides wrote, ‘you live and abide forever, For in you we live and move and have our being’. It’s a phrase that Paul borrowed and related to God when he was talking to the people of Athens (Acts 17:28) and it sums up the Fitbit concept perfectly. We live and move and have our being in the God who created and sustains the world. Although we are exhorted to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us (I Peter 3:15), most of our witness as Christian teachers will simply be because we’re alive – in Christ.

SEEING STUDENTS AS HONOURED GUESTS

The media was buzzing at the beginning of this week with the news that Nigel and Sally Rowe were considering legal action against their son’s school over a transgender issue. Plenty of air hours, column inches and social media posts have been devoted to discussion about it, but in all of the outrage on both sides of the debate, nobody has considered the role of a teacher when conflicting parental beliefs become an issue in the classroom. Can teachers create a class community which is based on genuine equality?

The answer, as has become very clear this week, is no, certainly not by mandate or statute. The Equality Act 2010 may be the legal bulwark for the government’s diversity agenda, but it doesn’t always work in practice, because it’s nothing more than a surface level fix for the complex problems of human relationships. It causes conflict where we need connectedness.

One answer lies in the concept of ‘shalom’. I’m told that the greeting ‘shalom’ doesn’t just mean blessing; it means peace, well being and wholeness. So seeking shalom in the classroom offers an opportunity to create genuine community – a place where each person is at peace in their relationship with the other, not simply a space in which the teacher is constantly juggling legal protections and mediating conflicted points of view.

Classroom community isn’t about friendship with likeminded people. It’s about groups of 30 strangers who will never become close friends, but who have to somehow work and learn effectively together. For everyone to flourish as people and as learners, the ethos has to foster tolerance and respect and those are characteristics that are nurtured through relationship, not forged by legislation. We must actively choose to recognise the inherent worth in each other, even those with whom we profoundly disagree.

Part of the problem rests with an education system that equates worth with grades and success with money, because it teaches children that they must compete. Part of the problem lies with a society that enshrines individualism – character education teaches children to develop certain personal behaviours for their own wellbeing, without any consideration of the common good. And part of the problem lies with successive governments that have obsessed about social mobility without understanding the basic human need for rootedness and a sense of belonging.

So seeking shalom in a cosmopolitan classroom is about creating space in which each child feels rooted, with the confidence to share ideas, knowing that they will be listened to and met with consideration and interest, not merely tolerance or courtesy. Students are encouraged to see difference in others as an opportunity to learn, not a reason to reject. Children can learn to think critically about the world around them, and pursue questions without being told the answer by a teacher anxious to meet targets. Each person’s story is treated with equal honour, as part of the bigger narrative of the class and school community.

Seeing students as honoured guests in our classrooms isn’t about pedagogy, it’s about a way of being. It requires open hearts, not gesture politics. Unlike respect, which is earned, honour is a gift, given freely without looking for return even when we are offended or hurt. Honouring our students allows us to rise above a constant need to mediate in order to keep peace; instead it creates a community in which each person cares as deeply about the peace and wellbeing of others as they do about their own.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul offered a definition of love which has become one of the most well known passages in the Bible. In a paragraph that begins: ‘Love is patient, love is kind’ he goes on to say that love ‘does not dishonour others’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). In honouring our students as guests in our classrooms, each uniquely made in the image of God, we can rise above the conflict of belief and ideology. We offer a place in which students can flourish as they pursue their search for truth.

 

BULLYING: THE REALITY BEHIND THE RHETORIC

A few statistics to get you thinking: 54% of all children and young people in our country have been bullied at some point during their school lives. 20% have been bullied in the last year. 10% are bullied on an almost daily basis. That’s nearly 150,000 children and young people who dread going to school every single day of their lives, for fear of what awaits them. Of those bullied daily, 37% have developed social anxiety,  24% had suicidal thoughts and 36% have developed depression.

You might be forgiven for thinking that this is solely due to homophobic bullying. It’s a huge agenda, with money and training being poured into stamping it out. It’s pretty much the only kind of bullying that is talked about and schools have to produce anti-bullying policies which specifically detail how homophobic and transphobic bullying will be dealt with. That’s the perspective from the adult liberal elite who dictate policy.

If you talk to young people themselves, they tell quite a different story. Ditch the Label produces a comprehensive annual survey conducted only amongst students. According to these figures, 50% of those bullied say it involves attitudes to their appearance; 19% say it relates to them getting high grades, and 14% say it’s because of household income. Only 4% report being bullied because of their sexuality. So you are far more likely to be bullied because of your body shape, for wearing glasses or for having red hair than whether you are gay or transgender. The agenda has, quite simply, been hijacked by LGBT rhetoric.

A quick view of the Stonewall website is telling. Repeatedly, it focuses on the inappropriate use of the word ‘gay’ which is common youth parlance, often used without sexual connotation. Does the misuse of the word constitute bullying? Not really. There’s a difference between teasing and using inappropriate language, and bullying: it’s important to know the difference. Bullying is prolonged, persistent and planned – it’s what 10% of young people experience daily and it isn’t confined to school. Recent research shows that cyber-bullying isn’t deployed as an alternative to more traditional forms; it’s actually used in addition. Nearly all students bullied in school are also subjected to cyber-bullying, leaving them scared and isolated 24/7, wherever they are.

There has been considerable press coverage recently of the increased risk of poor mental health and suicide in those bullied because of their sexual or gender orientation. Here too, the figures show that the same is true of all bullied children, regardless of the reason for the bullying. But yet again, the LGBT lobby dominates the agenda.

None of this helps – in fact, it causes real harm. About 86% of disabled children report being bullied on a regular basis, yet that doesn’t grab any headlines or provoke a flurry of policy documents at the DfE. To highlight just one reason for bullying is to create a hierarchy, clearly signalling to the disabled, to ethnic minorities, to those of religious faith or to those who don’t wear the ‘right’ clothes that their pain and suffering are less important than LGBT suffering.

According to official statistics, the incidence of homophobic and transphobic bullying has fallen over the last few years. No surprise there – the Hawthorne effect (of which DfE officials must surely be aware?) says that if you shine a huge spotlight on an issue over a period of time, you will effect a change simply by your intervention. But shining a spotlight creates deep shadow and that makes others more vulnerable, because bullying is a behaviour choice. If bullies can’t pick on one group of people in their school, they’ll simply pick on another. Logic dictates that if you’re going to get caught easily for choosing those in the spotlight, then you choose people in the shadows where you’re less likely to be seen. It isn’t about the reason they bully. It’s about being a bully.

If you are gay, or transgender, or coloured, or disabled, or have red hair, wear glasses, are clever or from a poor home, the reason why you are being bullied matters to you deeply, because it strikes at the heart of your identity. But to those dealing with bullying, the reason shouldn’t matter – what should matter is that so many people are suffering.

Solving the problem should begin in a wider society where bullying is endemic. Schools have a part to play, but it’s not down to schools alone to solve the problem. The liberal ideology which says that if we stamp it out in the young we will have a happy society with the next generation is rubbish. When children are faced with a conflict between words and actions, they always follow the actions. So using any amount of words in the classroom won’t stop some children becoming bullies because that is a model which they see in wider society, in their communities and, sadly, often in their own homes.

In his letter to the church in Galatia, the apostle Paul wrote, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female’ (Galatians 3:28). Genuine inclusivity doesn’t prioritise one group over another – it’s colour, race, gender, ability and social status blind. So if he was writing to a Christian teacher pondering on how to nurture an inclusive classroom, he might well have written, ‘There is neither gay nor straight, there is neither male nor female, there is neither black nor white, there is neither disabled nor able bodied, there is neither rich nor disadvantaged’. The key is ‘for you are all one’ which means that instead of creating hierarchies, we should be focusing on each individual as a person uniquely created in the image of God and deserving of equal respect regardless of heritage, culture, belief or ability. Only then can we create just, fair communities where a commitment to the common good renders bullying obsolete.