Earlier this year, I conducted a survey to find out what Christians working in education thought about a range of issues. Here are the results from the 59 respondents.
The first two statements considered the purpose of work. Work is part of God’s design for me drew a positive response (strongly/agree) from 94.5%. Just 2% disagreed, with 3.5% not sure. I’m fulfilling God’s purpose for my life through my work drew 90% strongly/agree, with 10% not sure.
Some people, however, saw a distinction between paid employment and the work which they do for God, as if the former is necessary to provide an income but the latter is what we are really all about as Christians. Well, God doesn’t see a sacred/secular division in our work – that’s a false dualism created by human thinking. Genesis 1:1 tells us that ‘In the beginning, God created’ and Jesus said that this wasn’t a one-off work activity: ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day and I, too, am working.’ (John 5:17). ]
It follows that if we are created in, and bear the image of a God who works, then all our work is designed and valued by God, whether it’s paid employment or voluntary church work. ‘First and foremost’, writes Tom Nelson, ‘work is not about economic exchange … but about God-honouring human creativity and contribution’ (Work Matters). We’re all in full time work.
The next two statements were concerned with the effect of work: Work-based stress is affecting my faith and Demands of work reduce the time I can spend on church activities. 23% felt that their faith was affected by work-based stress (12% not sure: 55% strongly/disagreed). 87% said that the demands of teaching affected the time they spent on church activities, and some commented that it also impacted adversely on the time they had to spend with their families.
So for anyone who has chosen to teach, in the knowledge that it’s a lifestyle choice not just a job, here’s a thought. The Hebrew work for work is avodah. The Hebrew word for worship is avodah. The Hebrew word for service is also avodah. So, your work is your worship is your service: your contribution to nurturing the world that God created for us and your means of glorifying God. Don’t worry about the church work that you don’t have time to do – you’re glorifying God right where you are all day.
The place of faith in workplace relationships came next: I don’t talk about my faith at work and My faith informs how I interact with others. 86% do talk about their faith at work, although with the proviso from some that they include other faiths in their conversation. One person also commented that he would love to talk about his faith more, but nobody is particularly interested.
However, when it came to walking the talk, there was 100% agreement that faith affects the way they interact with others. Is being a Christian teacher, though, only about smiling a lot, taking assemblies and being the best behaved person in the building? The next three statements tried to establish the place of faith in what is taught.
I think about the spiritual and moral dimensions of what I teach (96% strongly/agree: 4% disagree), It’s important for biblical truths to be connected to overall learning (78% strongly/agree: 15% not sure: 7% strongly/disagree) and I understand the impact of secularism on contemporary culture (85% strongly agree: 12% not sure: 3% disagree). So while nearly all Christian teachers think about the spiritual and moral dimensions of what they teach, less think that biblical truth should be connected to learning – another dichotomy.
Yet, if the Bible is, as John Shortt describes it, ‘the place in which we live, move and have our being’ (Bible-shaped Teaching), then surely biblical principles must underpin all that we teach? What other way is there to counter the secular creep in the curriculum of which the vast majority of Christian teachers are clearly aware? Reading John’s book Bible-shaped Teaching is a good starting place to explore the issue. Look, too, at What If Learning – a new way of teaching by embedding Christian virtues in the curriculum.
Finally, the survey sought views on how supportive churches are of their teachers and of education: I am well supported by my church. 77% strongly/agreed, with one person commenting that they would value being able to spend time with other Christian teachers. That means 23% don’t feel supported – clearly churches have some way to go on this. If you are in such a church, introduce your leaders to Supporting Christians in Education – a book packed full of practical advice for church leaders.
Thank you to all those who took time to answer the survey. I’ll be writing more about the issues that were raised in future blogs, particularly regarding the work of churches. Meanwhile, as you take Christ into your teaching and learning community this week ‘May the God of peace … equip you with everything good for doing his will and may he work in us what is pleasing to him’ (Hebrews 13:20-21).
A few months ago, I was given five minutes in a church service to talk about education. What should I talk about? Ofsted was behaving badly at the time as the British values agenda kicked in. I was writing about the surge in mental health problems in children. I was pondering how to address secular creep in the curriculum. There are so many aspects to my work that it seemed hard to choose just one. So here’s what I did.
I asked everyone to raise one hand. Then I asked everyone who had a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbour in full time education to put their hand down. A forest of raised hands disappeared. Next, I asked everyone who had someone in their family, or a neighbour, or who themselves worked in education, to lower their hand. Lots more hands went down. By the time I got to anyone who lived near a school or who knew the name of a local school, there were no hands left. It demonstrated that nobody is more than three steps from an education connection. Then I introduced the work of Pray for Schools.
The concept, like all great ideas, is blindingly simple – every school in the UK a prayed-for school. I had just proved that everyone could connect with a school, so it was logical to conclude that every school could be prayed for and that churches have a vital role in mobilising people to do so. After all, as Richard Longenecker reminds us, ‘Prayer is the natural atmosphere of God’s people’.
Schools are in the frontline battle for the hearts and minds of our children and young people. Just pause for a moment and visualise your local school or college cocooned in a prayer wrapper. Then visualise a bigger prayer wrapper encompassing our whole country. Think what it might mean for the wellbeing of our children, our teenagers, our families and ultimately our society.
So what does Pray for Schools do? There are key dates across each school year around which events can be centred. These include Back to School with God at the start of the academic year; a global Pray Day for Schools in November, and a Pray for Schools fortnight in May. Resources are provided for all of these events and each group or church can decide where and when to pray and what resources are best to use in their own context. The website also offers a collection of many other resources to help you as you pray. These include prayer ideas and outlines, suggested letters and downloadable publicity, a video demonstrating a prayer walk and a leaflet outlining a Schools’ Ambassador project in Bristol.
Abraham Lincoln once said that he had been driven many times to his knees by the overwhelming conviction that he had absolutely no other place to go. And that’s why I chose to use those precious five minutes to talk about prayer – it’s the place where everyone can go. Groups or individuals can pray at any time, whether or not they are able to organise or promote an event. Everyone can encourage their church to pray for, and support, their local schools.
Pray for Schools asks those who pray or who organise events to let them know, so that they can offer support and encouragement – there’s an online form you can use to make contact. Imagine an interactive map of the UK light up as town after town, city after city, show that its schools are prayed-for schools. Then check out the website, talk to your church leaders, register with Pray for Schools, and start praying, trusting Christ’s promise that ‘whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours’ (Mark 11:24).
A couple of weeks ago I was pootling around on Twitter, as you do, clicking on links, reading the first line or two of various blogs and then moving on. One blog caught my eye – Secondary schools – trust, thank and love your Primaries. I clicked. I started reading. I read to the end. I cheered. Here’s why.
I have never, in my whole career, heard that level of acknowledgement from a Secondary Head. Transition every year is effective, only to be followed in September with dark mutterings about our level 5 not looking anything like their level 5. But then, Primary education is only about teaching children to colour by numbers, isn’t it? And Primary leaders are just the people who write the numbers. There’s always that unspoken thought that we’re just childminding until the real work of education begins – and always that delicious moment when Secondary NQTs spend their compulsory day with us and crawl away at 3.30, pale and exhausted, asking how on earth we do it day in, day out. One day is quite enough to put them off for life.
The blog touched on various issues that I found compelling. Firstly (with heartfelt thanks to John Dexter) was the observation that we are ‘fairly expert at everything’. I’ve heard non-specialist, I’ve heard generalist, I’ve even heard jack-of-all-trades, but I’ve never heard acknowledgement that we ‘seem to know everything’. We don’t of course – often we learn from, or with, our children or we’re only a step or two ahead of them, but great Primary teachers aren’t afraid to admit gaps and root out the knowledge needed to fill them. I once heard a colleague describe how she would (to her family’s intense embarrassment) dumpster dive to retrieve useful bits and bobs for craft work or display. The analogy wasn’t wasted on us that we do the same with knowledge.
Another acknowledgement I read into the blog’s subtext was that Primary teachers speak fluent child. People mistakenly assume that children are just mini-adults waiting to grow up. They aren’t. They’re a species all their own; childhood is a unique space in its own right, not a waiting room for later life. Great Primary teachers know this and they are experts in equipping children to deal with the ‘ups and downs of life … meeting issues of ill parents, or bereavement perhaps for the first time’. As the blog also comments, we know a great deal about our children’s families including, sometimes, those details that parents might be horrified to know that we know (yes, Mrs X, if your son’s friends are taking an inordinate interest in your kitchen it’s because he really did tell all the Year 6 boys in a Sex Ed Q+A session that you keep your contraceptive pills attached to the pin board so that you don’t forget to take one every day).
Then John moves on to consider the question of how ethos is communicated. He found part of the answer in visits to his feeder Primaries – it starts in Primary school. He is also Head of a faith school, so ethos is clearly defined. The schools in the Trust share chaplains, families worship in parish communities and Priests are involved in the life of the schools. Part of the answer also lies in the fact that he is now part of a Multi-Academy Trust which facilitates genuine partnership. There are a whole range of points where Trust, church, community, Priests, chaplains, teachers and managers intersect. And this is education at its best. As I often say, it takes a village to raise a child and there are a lot of buildings in the village, all of which have a part to play in raising the next generation of adults who understand community, the common good and the need for human flourishing.
I read John’s blogs regularly and I thoroughly recommend them. They’re full of passion, enthusiasm and hope. He isn’t afraid to think aloud and ask questions to which he is exploring answers. And above all, he is about relational living – with students, colleagues and the wider communities that touch his own.
When asked by an expert in the law what the greatest commandment was, Jesus answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22: 37-39). Christ’s two greatest commands are concerned with relationships – with God and with others and that is the heartbeat of missional teaching.
So, Mr Dexter, thank you for your blog. I hope that it will encourage all Christians working in the amazing world of education to trust, thank and love each other as we build those relationships.