A couple of years ago, whilst at a Christian Education conference, I attended a fascinating workshop on avoiding conflict in the classroom. It wasn’t quite the standard reflection on conflict resolution that I expected – it was much, much more. It looked at some of the causes of conflict and how, as Christian teachers, we can address them. The presenter suggested a range of reasons why conflict arise, many of them either to do with factors external to our classrooms, or due to unresolved baggage that pupils bring with them when they walk through the door.
One word in particular grabbed my attention and got me thinking, because in contemporary use it implies an industry, which provides a service at a cost. It was the word ‘hospitality’. What does the word mean to you? The dictionary has two definitions: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers, and relating to or denoting the business of entertaining clients, conference delegates or other official visitors. Christian teachers, the presenter suggested, should exercise hospitality in their classrooms. Well, he clearly didn’t mean ‘entertain’ which is the thrust of the dictionary definitions and which rather skates over the full meaning of the concept. So what does the Bible say?
Answer: a great deal. ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers’ (Hebrews 13:2), ‘Show hospitality to one another without grumbling’ (1 Peter 4:9), ‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:34) and ‘hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined’ (Titus 1:8, all quotations ESV). Clearly, God wants us to be hospitable not in the sense of entertaining, but in a much deeper sense, and it’s not an optional extra. It is fundamental to our work for God.
So, we are to welcome people, even strangers from other lands. We are to love them as we love ourselves, in other words, to consider their needs not at the expense of our own, but as equal with them. We should seek to care for others just as willingly as we care for ourselves. Hospitality is about perceiving the needs of others and doing our best to meet them and it’s also about service (1 Timothy 5:10).
What does this mean in practice, in our schools, every day? The practice of Christian hospitality is about inclusivity. We look for God’s gift in each pupil, we treat each one with dignity and we teach each pupil according to their need. We also provide an environment where individual needs to belong are met and in doing so, we model to our pupils how to practice hospitality towards each other. If we are leaders, we have a role in helping our staff to accept responsibility for practicing such hospitality to everyone in the school, not just those who conform to particular norms.
I have spent much of the last week browsing through OFSTED reports for Christian schools. Despite their widespread geographical locations and the unique context of each of the schools, there were common threads to the reports. Teachers were excellent role models for considerate, caring relationships. Pupils talked about their schools feeling just as comfortable as their homes. Their behaviour was judged to be sometimes good and often outstanding.
Tens of inspectors over a long period of time noted the positive, caring and supportive relationships in schools which experience little or no bullying. And, not surprising for those of us who have experienced this kind of nurturing environment, children make good or outstanding progress regardless of ability, often surpassing national standards. The reports proved a powerful argument for Christian schooling.
A hospitable classroom is one in which the fruit of the Spirit grows in abundance. And it’s not just any hospitality – this is Christian hospitality, because we are ‘Rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man’ (Ephesians 6:7 ESV). Whatever our context, this is what makes us distinctive as Christian teachers.
British valuesChristian pedagogyEthosFaith schoolsRelational working September 16, 2016 Admin10
This blog was first published in October 2015, but following yet another call, this time from Edward Timpson, for mindfulness training to become compulsory in schools, it seems timely to publish it again.
Improved behaviour? Improved GCSE results? A drop in the re-offending rate of former prisoners? It sounds like a good idea, whatever the strategy is to achieve it. Following a yearlong enquiry into its efficacy, MPs this week were introduced to mindfulness, which, it is claimed, can deliver all of the above – the great panacea for the human condition. A call to roll out mindfulness, or secular meditation, across the public sector is expected to come soon – not to nurture the growth of children and young people, but to raise standards and improve productivity. It’s the same message as the one underpinning character education – fix people, fix the economy.
So what is it? The tradition of mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and stretches back over 2400 years. It’s about learning to control your breathing, your thoughts and your feelings – a form of cognitive therapy. It’s about directing focused attention to experiences as they happen in order to understand oneself and one’s responses. Some psychologists suggest that it is a technique which should not be consumed blindly or even that it can exacerbate negative feelings, including panic and depression.
The originator of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, makes a big claim about its effectiveness, saying that those using it ‘will be addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human heart and mind.’ He certainly identifies the crux of the issue – the most pressing problems of society are, indeed, caused by the human heart and mind, but by what the Bible calls sin, and the problem of sin can’t be solved by secular meditation. As the prophet Jeremiah pointed out: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure’ (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV). Only God has the cure, through the forgiveness of our sin.
So if mindfulness is about changing the human heart, can Christians engage in it? No, because we cannot transform our own hearts and minds. Christian meditation is different from all other forms of meditation because it involves focusing our minds outward on God rather than inward on ourselves. There are three components to Christian meditation; it is grounded in the Bible, it responds to the love of God and it leads to worship of God.
The Bible tells us to ‘Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it’ (Joshua 1:8). So rather than focus on personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, we focus on God’s word, allowing God’s love to fill our thoughts as we worship Him.
The key to our behaviour becoming more like Christ’s isn’t to be found in mindfulness. It’s to be found in allowing our minds to be transformed so that we see our behaviour and interpret our experiences not from a personal perspective, but from a God-perspective. We don’t ask how we might speak or act, we ask what God would have us say and how God would have us act. As the apostle Paul wrote: ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2 NLT).
While there’s no doubt that relaxation and the ability to identify feelings and their impact on our relationships are essential life skills, secular meditation is not the way to develop them. Humanity is not the protagonist in God’s story – God is. That’s why Paul urges us to: ‘Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4:8).
In contrast, mindfulness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate selfie of the soul.
Christian pedagogyMissional teachingPrayerRESecularism
Over the last few months, Ofsted inspectors have started to comment on the quality of careers advice and to use their observations to inform the final categorisation. The same thinking was picked up by the Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy this week. It has suggested formally reaching for the big stick, recommending that Ofsted should play a ‘bigger role’ in ensuring high quality careers guidance, including downgrading schools where it is not in evidence. The view is that the poor quality of careers advice is fuelling the country’s skills shortage.
Many of the report’s observations are valid – only 15% of apprentices find out about the opportunity through teachers or careers advisers. Too many past initiatives have made the system of advice complex and unwieldy. But even if those issues are fixed, it’s the underpinning philosophy which is fundamentally flawed. Nicky Morgan is keen to end the ‘outdated snobbery’ that surrounds apprenticeships and vocational training, yet the government continues to perpetuate the social attitudes from which that hierarchy of values stems. It is squinting through the wrong end of the telescope.
This government, perhaps more than any previous one, has taken the growth of the economy to the point of obsession. Nick Gibb is on record as saying that the purpose of education is to fuel the economy. Nicky Morgan plans to use tax data to create a database of earnings potential so that students can choose subjects to maximise their income. Living in a country which has one of the world’s strongest economies has its price and that includes the creation of a society which values people for what they possess and what they earn, not for who they are. Little wonder that the ‘outdated snobbery’ that Nicky Morgan eschews continues to create social hierarchies founded on money. The government is attempting to use education in general (and in this case, careers advice in particular) to treat the symptoms, rather than tackle the cause.
The economy is treated with reverential respect, as though it’s some kind of autonomous Minotaur that requires constant feeding in order to avert its wrath, rather than something which is of our own creating. That deity status is nowhere better exemplified than the post-Brexit hysteria and scapegoating which centred almost solely on our economic future. As Justin Welby wrote in On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s future ‘We believe that if we can fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will automatically follow … It is a lie …that casts money, rather than humanity, as the protagonist of God’s story’.
And that is the key – seeing humanity as the protagonist of God’s story. When we start looking through the telescope from the right end, we stop valuing people for their perceived social status, and we start to value them for their humanity. Any government that strives for equality through education misses the point that the only foundation for equality lies in our equal worth as human beings: ‘The rich and the poor shake hands as equals – God made them both! (Proverbs 22:2 The Message).
So while each student whom we teach, and each child whom we parent, will go on to achieve different things in life, they are all created equal by God – a truth which the Founding Fathers held as self-evident. And that impacts on our view of careers advice, because we are encouraging our students to be the very best people they can be, each with unique God-given gifts and abilities that can make a valid contribution to the common good.
The prophet Samuel went to the home of Jesse to anoint one of his sons as successor to King Saul. Samuel quite naturally thought that the eldest son, Eliab, would be the chosen one. He was tall and strong, and already a serving soldier. But Eliab wasn’t God’s choice, for all his kingly appearance. God said: ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7 NIV).
How different might our society be if we valued people for their hearts, rather than their appearance?
Christian pedagogyRelational working