Can the religious teach religion and should we tell?

Isn’t it interesting the things we do that we just assume everyone does? It wasn’t until discussing this issue on 

https://missdcoxblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/21/the-problem-with-teaching-re-its-about-opinions/
that I appreciated the range of views out there. I have always openly shared my religious views with students.  If I’m being honest, I don’t think this was a conscious decision as a trainee. A student will have asked whether I’m a Christian (I’m white and I teach RS so I must be, right?) and my brain will have been running on either ‘mustanswerstudentquestionstoproveIknowmystuff’ autopilot or after months of little sleep and busy days perhaps it just didn’t occur to me that it may not be the best idea…whatever the reason- I did. It is only the last few years that I’ve really seen sharing my own views as an asset in the classroom and I’m so glad that I do. 
I teach in a school that may appear very diverse, though actually in terms of religion the vast majority of the kids I work with are Muslim. This begs the question, would I would be so forthcoming with my views if they were likely to spark a debate, or cause a situation between us where they felt that their views were not being appreciated? I can’t say for certain what choices I’d make. However, I do know that my agnosticism has been a way to introduce so many positive qualities into my classroom. It helps promote tolerance of world views besides your own, my students never feel that I listen to their views but think they’re wrong (I hope) It also breeds a culture of being able to ask questions and the understanding that we don’t all know everything. I tell them that one of the reasons I class myself as an agnostic is that as an RS teacher I encounter all kinds of wonderful things from all religions, so how could I choose just one to subscribe to? With older students it enables me also to share the darker side of religious history (and present) and explain how this may make it hard for people to believe. The scene is set for me to play the role of devil’s advocate convincingly as they know I am not swayed by any religion, but I am careful to impress upon them the love I have for religion and it’s value for individuals and society. I love how it reminds them that I don’t suppose to know everything about life, death and beyond and that the beauty of RS is often in the questions we can’t answer- not those we can. A quality I’m working on is that of embracing ‘being stuck’ how rewarding it can be to not have a scoobydoo! (Then of course, how to unstuck yourself using a plethora or well differentiated resources, of course) 
At first people ask why I teach RS if I’m not even religious, I explain to them how I feel- that I just love the good that can come from it. The sense of community, morality and hope. I’m upfront that if I were, maybe I’d find it hard having to teach views that I categorically do not agree with, that I would worry about swaying students towards views of my own and that an objective nature plus a love of religion is the easiest way I can think of to deal with our subject. Usually the same people end the conversation by saying ‘I suppose it would be hard to teach RS with strong personal beliefs, actually.’ I respond with the fact that I’ve always envied that spark of faith I see in others and the way it gives purpose and strength to what they do, though I do wonder if it makes the job harder.
The very nature of the subject is designed to encourage sharing of ideas and the nature of the assessment criteria leans towards justifying opinions. The AQA spec we follow awards 50% of its marks for providing a range of views and justifying your own. Is it right to expect students to do this if we won’t? Are we just depriving them of an alternative view they may be able to use?

I guess what I’m asking is two fold really. I’m interested in how you find teaching a broad and balanced curriculum if you have strong beliefs of your own and then, whatever your beliefs, do you share them? 
@open_door_teach
More thoughts at http://www.blogsyncre.org.uk

Thanks to @missdcox for getting the ball rolling!

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5 thoughts on “Can the religious teach religion and should we tell?

  1. So pleased you’ve blogged. It’s much easier than Twitter for explaining.

    You’ve said that by telling them ” It helps promote tolerance of world views besides your own, my students never feel that I listen to their views but think they’re wrong (I hope) It also breeds a culture of being able to ask questions and the understanding that we don’t all know everything.”

    Surely this is possible whether you tell them or not? Otherwise there’s an implication that some with a religion can’t do these things? Or someone that doesn’t tell them can’t do them?

    I’m not sure that by telling them you can be ‘more’ of a devils advocate? Surely not telling them would allow for the same? Or are you arguing here that people with a religion couldn’t be devils advocate and you have an advantage as an agnostic? I’m not sure many with a religion would agree?

    Also, isn’t by saying you’ve studied them all and haven’t decided a little problematical when presenting this to someone with a religion? Isn’t it like saying, “I didn’t think there was enough evidence, including for your religion” ? Couldn’t that be seen as showing a heavy bias that could easily be misinterpreted?

    Finally it is just as easy to share a love of religion without telling them what yours may be? They aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Overall I’m not sure you’ve argued about why you tell them your beliefs but more your passion and skill as a teacher of RE that surely is the same whether you do tell them or not?

    Would be great to hear other views as we are at the opposite ends!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well first of all, comments regarding whether I’ve actually articulated why I tell them are very justified! Part of the issue is that I suppose sharing my views and being an agnostic are (for me) inextricably linked. Your blog really made me question whether I tell them because I think it’s the right thing to do, or because I find that my views can often help them develop their own.
      It’s also been such an experience to try and get all of the things down into a coherent post, perhaps drafting and adding to blogs are the way forward for me.

      Where I teach, and I suspect with all students, trust is key so I’ve found that being upfront about anything that isn’t inappropriate to discuss can build that understanding between you.

      How you respond when students ask could be the trick as well. I’m sure you’ve developed your answers to the question without having to just refuse to say anything. As I mentioned in your blog, we often ask students to be able to justify their opinions on a range of issues so I feel better placed to expect this when I am willing to demonstrate that, too. My attitude towards the beliefs of students in school is that I don’t mind what they do or don’t believe in, but I hope to teach them to understand where those beliefs come from, the holy books or cultural heritage that they may be based in. For me, telling them isn’t about me saying me view is important- you must understand it…it’s more about knowing that every view is important and that we can all learn from each other.
      Do your students ask once and leave it? When observing colleagues we use a streamlined version of the teacher standards and one of the elements we’ve included is to promote curiosity and love of learning, I feel that we’re in such a great position to do this- especially by encouraging them to be curious about us, to ask (appropriate) questions about our background and why we love RS. I’d assume that for religious colleagues their faith is a big factor in their love of the subject and the passion for teaching it.

      You’re right about here being a better conversation! So easy to miscommunicate even your own views in 140 characters,

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  2. I’m thinking you might not be so quick to share your views if they put you in a ‘box’. If you were, say, a Jehovah’s witness, a Catholic, an orthodox Jew, a Muslim, would you be so keen to state your views. I think what you’re getting at is what many RE teachers do, regardless of their own beliefs. They say, “I’m not so sure, what do you think?” and encourage students to explain and justify their own views. Teaching in a Catholic school, it sort of goes with the job that students know what faith you come from, but I don’t think for one minute that that makes students think I’m not interested in their views, or that their views aren’t valid, or that we can’t have an open discussion. Like the earlier comment, I think this comes down to pedagogy. I’m not suggesting teachers should share their religious beliefs (in fact, my favourite statement teaching in state schools was “this is not a study of Mrs Lynch’s religion, but…*whatever we’re studying*”) but at the same time, it doesn’t have to be a barrier to open discussion.

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    • You may be right, I cannot guarantee what I would do if my religious views were different. Do you think that if you were not religious would you be more likely to be open with yours? The way the AQA GCSE structure works requires multiple views, some of which should be religious and others not necessarily so I have found it an asset offering one which is mostly different to their own. If you worked in a school where very few of your students understood Catholocism would you be willing to offer them a different way of approaching a topic and help explain to them the teachings behind it as you understand them or would you feel they are better equipped by finding a textbook? I agree with the statement about pedagogy though, there are ways and means around everything. I have jut found it an asset to show students that people have a range of views. If a practicing Catholic were to teach in my school many of the students here will never have met one, so it would be a great experience for them to get to challenge their own misconceptions and appreciate the wonderful variety in the world of religion.

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      • We need to be careful not to imply that if you have a particular faith that you cannot teach in a balanced manner or conversely if if you don’t have a faith you will be more balanced. Neither of these are true.
        Also not to imply that if you do share your opinions it provides a richer experience than if you didn’t and conversely if you don’t share your opinions then the students are some how losing out.

        I believe the skill of an RE teacher is to teach all views but that one of those views shouldn’t be reliant on me sharing my own. It’s not necessary,

        Great discussion!

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