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Christian teachers in Christian schools: Benefits and criticisms

So I handed in my essay today. Which now means I'll post the finished results HERE!! I won't include the Bibliography, because it's BORING! But it comes in at two thousand, seven hundred and forty seven words. 3 words short of the 10% I'm allowed to go over. Hurrah!!

If you end up reading all of it (which I'm expecting no one too, but maybe, someday, someone somewhere will want to read it and cite it in their essay), I would really appreciate feedback. Please don't point out grammatical and spelling errors though, that would just make me feel bad because I've already handed this baby in. :)


Introduction

Within the cultural and political dynamic of schooling in Australia, there are many different schools that parents can send their children to. This decision is dependent on what each family prioritises, but it not one that only parents and students face. For teachers, the decision of what kind of school to teach at is one of complex reasoning. For the teacher of personal faith or conviction, the decision is particularly complex. Should they seek out people of like mind, so they can exercise their beliefs freely and without fear, contributing to the indoctrination of students already going on in the home and chosen social circle of their families? Or should they face the wider society by teaching in a school that promotes multicultural, pluralistic beliefs that they do not share?

This essay will be particularly concerned with the Christian teacher, though many of the arguments will apply to teachers of other religious convictions. It is my intention to show that the proliferation of religious schooling is beneficial for providing for the wants of teachers and parents, but ultimately promotes social segregation and indoctrination to the detriment of the students. I will do this through looking at the pros and cons of Christian and public schools; which for the purposes of this essay are assumed to be non-religious and pluralistic. The published opinions of Christian academics, as well as opinions from ‘lay people’ expressed on the internet will be examined and used in order to come to a conclusion. Finally, a certain pedagogical style will be endorsed, which can be implemented no matter which school a teacher makes a decision on.


Benefits of Christian Schools

There are three broad reasons explaining why teachers retreat to the safety of a Christian school; (i) the school and social community, including school staff, the school board and parents; (ii) the clear Biblical authority endorsed by this community and (iii) the teacher’s freedom to express their beliefs within their classroom to their students. All these reasons are interlinked. The teacher only has confidence to express his or her beliefs without negative repercussions because of the Biblical authority they can appeal to, with which the school community would also recognise.

In an article on religion in schools, Sellick (2003) begs the question of how the context of religious teaching can be upheld in order to make the values promoted in Christianity meaningful and relevant. For the kind of professional Religious Education (RE) teacher he is advocating to be properly resourced, they must be a genuine Christian; understanding values and morals in the context of personally applied Biblical and systematic theology. Furthermore, to sustain a school environment in which tradition involves, fascinates and provokes lifelong involvement, we can only see Religious Education as a defined subject resourced sufficiently within a school filled with Christian employees for whom their religious beliefs have provoked lifelong involvement. Deborah Linden, in an interview with Anne Turnbaugh Lockwood (1997, p. 59), asserted that character education for students is dependent mostly on parental support. Christian teachers have real anxieties about which values to uphold; which will be inclusive of the pluralistic community and not alienate anyone. They may well opt for the safety of a Christian school, in which these values are already agreed upon by the parents in the enrolment process (Martin, 1989).

James R. Rest and Kevin Ryan, also in interviews with Lockwood (1997), question when teachers have the authority to tell students what is right and wrong (pg. 37), and similarly how teachers have been robbed of necessary moral authority in the classroom (pg.14). Given that Christian schools appeal to an authority higher than themselves, it is not surprising that teachers would prefer to educate systematically according to the authority that shapes their world view. This shapes the principle of separatism which is one option that Hickman (1983) proposes. However, in his article on structured pluralism, he instead suggests larger school communities with more resources in order to match students and teachers to fit compatible values and needs. Although teachers would have freedom when interacting with individual students, it would not protect their right to express themselves in their school environment.

The last chapter of Matthew records Jesus’ command to his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, [...] teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20 New International Version). For teachers following Schwartz’s (1997) Christian Advocate/Evangelist role, the importance of this command means that the sacred will always trump that of the secular. In order to survive in an environment where this is the case, it is necessary for the Christian Advocate/Evangelist to teach exclusively at Christian schools. Even if the teacher is not proselytising, there is still the dilemma of education being an ideologically based task and any teacher being honest about this would find conflict in how the sacred in their personal life is worked out in their professional role as teacher (Hughes & Williams, 1977). As teachers themselves advocate, “I share my faith daily with my class. We pray together, pray for each other, and so do the parents. It is a great support” (ProTeacher, 2009).


Criticisms of Christian Schools

Although there is much to be said about the benefits of teaching in Christian schools, there are disadvantages to the Christian cause that have been repeated throughout history and when followed through logically, can result in extremist attitudes. This section will examine how Christian schools (i) hurt social cohesion as a whole through segregation, (ii) cause Christians become confused about the nature of their distinct faith expressed in love and the ‘laws’ embedded into a school community so that it can function effectively and (iii) how isolating oneself from culture is a form of social reproduction.

Jesus prayed that his followers would be in the world, but not of it (John 17:15-16) and Christians in this age have taken this to justify separating themselves as much as possible from the secular world around them. Martin (1989) points this out as being evident in the practices of the Exclusive Brethren and Amish in the USA. Hill (1985) draws parallels when students in Christian schools are prevented from discovering what a pluralistic society is like, because their teachers are only ever teaching from a Christian world view, perpetuating separatist attitudes. In his book on issues facing Christian teachers, Hill (1982, p. 78) warns against the indoctrination and the cultural isolation that tend to accompany the decision to segregate from secular society.

Clarke (2008) says it best in his critique of the Christianised: “If everyone you know who shares your faith also shares your culture then you end up with no way of knowing which is which, no way of knowing where the one stops and the other begins, no way of knowing the ways in which they have or haven’t been allowed to influence one another.” This is precisely what Hill (1982, p. 85) is careful to avoid in the promotion of church schools; the personal faith that makes one a genuine Christian can be easily confused with merely conforming to the school rules. It is particularly pertinent given the variety of student commitment to Christianity: children are not born Christians, but must make a decision for themselves. Assuming that all students are, makes the nature of Christianity confusing for those who are not. The film, “Saved!” (Dannelly, 2004) is a parody set in an American Christian high school. Although fictional, it satirises the legalistic attitudes of the Christians within the school, compared with the more sympathetic roles of the non-religious characters.

The legalism exhibited within the school community in the film is a common pitfall of Christian separatism. The attitude expressed by the main antagonist, Hilary Faye is that which is warned against by Martin (1989) and Hill (1985). That is, the encouragement of fellowship and support, compared with the mediocrity and tedium of outside life can have a debilitating effect; fulfilment can only be found in the Christian environment. The consequence of the inward focus of the teacher to the school and ignoring pluralism, is the student not being thoroughly and accurately prepared for the world outside the family and school community. As Hill (1985, p. 25) says, “For all practical purposes, they are out of this world.”


Benefits of Public Schools

Although there is apparent safety within the community of a Christian school, it is actually better for (i) society as a whole, (ii) the teacher in question, and (iii) the students that a Christian chooses to teach in a public school.

According to Hill (1982), the church first became involved in schooling, not for the purposes of preserving its flock, but to demonstrate “Christ-like concern for the social need in the community at large.” Although basic needs in our society are not covered by the education system, there are still distinctly Christian ways to be concerned with the social need in our community. As Martin (1989) affirms, there is a need for teachers to be salt and light in the world, a reference to Matthew 5:13-16, when Jesus is telling his disciples to integrate into society in order to favourably influence it. Martin (1989) draws on the judgement that God executed to the nations as recorded in Amos 1 and 2 as examples of God being particularly concerned about social justice throughout the world, and just as God is interested in it, so should Christians. For the Christian educator, that would mean being involved in prime environments (such as public schools where diversity is largest) to practice and educate regarding social justice. As Christian teachers have God-like concern for the world around them, teaching in public schools is beneficial for society.

As teachers integrate into society in this manner, it is fulfilling the purpose God has for them to act as salt and light. As Hill (1985) points out, Jesus and the apostle Paul, lived in pluralistic societies. Being involved in society holistically prevents what Schwartz (1997) calls, bifurcation: the separation between the religious and secular, or public and private. Hill (1977) affirms the Christian’s involvement in society as being far broader than “sporadic contact for evangelistic purposes.” Given that it is better for the Christian teacher to teach in public school for the benefit of society and themselves, it follows that is also benefits the students the most.

While teachers are preventing bifurcation within themselves, students are also being taught to integrate distinct knowledge into meaning that spans broadly across subjects and life. Schwartz (1997) challenges the assumption that knowledge is neutral towards religion; as mentioned above, all teaching is an ideological task that brings hidden assumptions and pedagogy with it. Hatton (2005), in her discussion on culture and schooling, questions how a teacher in a pluralistic classroom could respect a student’s culture of oppression, whilst implementing policy that nullifies those values. She calls on teachers to critically examine these (and their own) cultural practices to find out what is flawed. Hill (1982) draws on this critical examination in requesting schools to maintain their highest function of preparing students to cope with pluralism. Schwartz’s “Truth Seeker” teaching role makes this clearest (1997). He encourages teachers to “develop a community of inquiry” and to handle all issues justly, but not becoming a religious instructor in the process. Using this pedagogical model, the ideologies of the teacher and each student is considered worthy of open questioning. This challenges the teacher to always be prepared to give an answer for the faith they have (1 Peter 3:15), and teaches the students to do the same as they seek truth, preparing them for more abrasive inquiry outside the safe classroom environment.


Criticisms of Public Schools

The issues Christian teachers face in public schools are personal and relational. According to teachers sharing their experience, the poor attitudes and issues that they face from students means that actual “‘teaching’ seems to be the least important responsibility of teachers” (ProTeacher, 2009). For teachers, Christian or not, if they are not adequately prepared to deal with these issues, teaching in public schools with bad reputations can be a daunting task, leading many to seek jobs that are easier in comparison. As Hill (1982) mentions, Christian teachers must grapple with various injustices they see occurring to minority groups, possibly including their own. However, dealing with social justice issues and the bifurcation of sacred and secular, only becomes an issue if the school is expecting the teacher to keep their religious views private, as cautioned by Schwartz (1997). Instead, in his “Truth Seeker” role, he advocates opening personal beliefs to the whole class for questioning and encourage them to do the same.


Pedagogical Practices

Within Christianity there are disagreements. Hickman (1983) recognises this in what makes a Christian school and being a Christian school does not ensure 100% Christian student body. It would be incredulous to assume that all students are the same, just because of their family. Rather, whether in a Christian, church or public school, it is necessary to respect and examine every belief, character, culture and family difference. This examination would be best when a teacher is employing Schwartz’s (1997) “Truth Seeker” pedagogical practice. As all students are searching for truth, both collectively and individually, as Hill (1977) recommends, the teacher is also practicing a system of reconciliation between the students, society and reason.

Hickman (1983) recognises the temptation to adhere only to the lowest common denominator of rules and values in the classroom. But what good can possibly come of this? By what authority does the teacher appeal to, in establishing these rules and values? Hatton (2005) raises this question, but her answer is merely that teachers must critically examine their own, and their students’ cultures. The problem here is that the teacher, although working with as much information as they possibly can, will still end up suppressing alternative views in favour of majority values and their own personal bias. A far better practice would be to communicate this process with the students and involve them in it, as Schwartz (1997) recommends. Hickman (1983) warns that without examination on behalf of students, they can develop a “laissez-faire” approach, in which all view and beliefs are culturally relative. The paradox within this is that while the teacher is endeavouring to bring freedom and voice to their students, the students themselves are no doubt denying that same freedom to others in the very nature of having their own opinion on how things are, as Martin (1989) admits is the problem of minority groups within every pluralist society; neutrality within the classroom, both as students and teachers, is fiction.

To prevent this fragmentation of social unity, Hill (1977) promotes teachers adopt a role of reconciler, both to society and to reason. Christian teachers must start by looking at all students as God would encourage them; they all have inherent value because he created everyone in his image (Genesis 1:27) and sent his Son, Jesus to die for all (Hebrews 2:9). Although one student may come from a family in which there is a masculine hegemony, the teacher must reconcile this student to the value that women have in the classroom and society, in order for that student to be prepared to listen to women with respect. With regard to reconciling a student to reason, teachers should encourage students “to use reason without forgetting its limits” (Hill, 1977, p. 69). Essentially, make informed decisions, with the understanding that we are fallible and cannot know everything.


Conclusion

In conclusion, teachers must make careful consideration before they choose a school. It should not be made flippantly and in fear. Teachers, whether Christian or not, ought to be prepared for the challenges of teaching in public schools, else they may perpetuate social reproduction by their hidden bias and pedagogy that scares them into the apparent safety of private schooling. Christian teachers in particular ought to consider more seriously, teaching in public schools as it favourably influences society and prepares students more adequately for the challenges they face after school. As for the question of evangelism, if Christians believe that the Bible is true, then preparing students to be truth seekers will lead them eventually to the truth in the Bible on their own. If it is not true, then they will end up elsewhere, but at least the teaching is transparent. Calling students to be truth seekers is not proselytising, but encouraging and giving them tools of critical analysis for what all humanity is searching for.
Tags: assignments, christian, uni
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