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.