Relational working Archives – Christians in Education


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 feature-672x372-9895383 September 9, 2016 Admin10

This week’s return to school has seen the predictable blowing of a single issue out of all proportion – in this case, a decision by the Head of Hartsdown Academy in Margate to send home pupils who failed to conform to the school’s uniform policy. I don’t intend to discuss this in detail – the case has been cogently argued by Behaviour Tsar Tom Bennett in his recent blog. But in the light of Team GB’s recent Olympic success, this story set me thinking. Here’s why.

Several years ago, I taught a child who, by the age of 10, was hovering on the edges of anti-social behaviour and showed every sign of becoming lost, despite the best endeavours of both school and family. He was a talented footballer, but spent more time in playground fights sparked by disputed decisions than he did actually playing. Most days, he ended up banned. He was disengaged in the classroom, sullen and often angry.

Football was the great and single passion of his life – watching it, playing it and talking about it. He regularly represented the school in league matches and generally managed to control himself, for fear of losing his place on the team. It was pretty much the only thing that kept him in school.

One day he was spotted by a talent scout. Following a trial, he was offered a place with the local First Division club junior team – but there were conditions. He had to change his diet. He was no longer allowed to join in with playground football or school league games. He had to commit to working in the classroom, showing respect to school staff and club trainers. Any infringement of the school’s behaviour code, any single incident of aggression, any suspension from school or any missed training session without good reason would mean instant dismissal from the programme. He would have to achieve 5 GCSEs at the end of Year 11 in order to progress beyond the junior team. To succeed, he had to change his life.

The conditions might seem draconian, but there was a purpose. To become a successful professional footballer, he would need to develop self-discipline in all areas of his life, and he would need to commit to a new lifestyle. He did commit, very willingly, and overnight, he turned his life around.

This has been an exciting summer of sport, as we’ve celebrated the outstanding success of our Olympians. But each and every person on Team GB understands, as my pupil did, about discipline, commitment and the need to set aside personal choices in order to succeed. Without accepting the discipline of their trainers, and the need to eat, sleep and train in accordance with their training programmes, none of them would have been there.

Why, I wonder, do we celebrate this determination and discipline in our athletes and footballers, yet cry foul when that very same attitude is enforced by a school Head? In order to get the best out of school life, pupils need to commit – to listening, working, to being determined and to keeping the rules. School is where young people learn how communities, society and the workplace operate. Staff who are lazy about enforcing rules are actually doing their students a grave injustice, allowing them to think that they can please themselves about which rules they keep and which ones they ignore. Life outside of school doesn’t work like that, so life in school shouldn’t either. Everything worth achieving costs effort, commitment and focus.

And what is true in the physical realm is also true in the spiritual realm. The writer of the Hebrews urges us to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (Hebrews 12:1), while the apostle Paul writes: ‘Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever’ (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).

As another school year gets underway, think about the example you set your students in commitment, perseverance and determination. They are values that help pupils to build solid foundations, not just during school years, but for whatever their future lives hold for them.

EthosRelational working feature-672x372-9895383

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