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Lessons from teaching: In the world

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I get on really well with my students. As I was describing my interactions with them to a friend and colleague a few weeks back, he told me I seemed to be “one of the lads”: jokes are exchanged gladly (so long, of course, as they are not distracting from learning for too long!); I try and share their interests, and they return the favour: some have even started to follow Stoke City!

Of course, even when trying to build a very close rapport with my students, I remain at all times their teacher. I am called on to both teach them mathematics and to bring order to the classroom. Depending on the class, balancing a relaxed atmosphere and effective teaching may be a difficult line to walk: if the students don’t have the maturity to understand that having a “nice” teacher does not excuse them from both behaving and doing the required work, things are going to go sour quickly. Either I would have to put my foot down (which is extremely difficult to do after a time of relative laxity), or the class would descend into mayhem, and I would no longer have any authority. Thankfully, this year, I had really great students who could get on both with me and my horrible puns, and with their work.

Building a good rapport is both enjoyable and a worthy end in itself; but it is also extremely important for other reasons. Firstly, it makes the lessons far more enjoyable – for teacher and students alike! Secondly, it supports learning and lets students feel they can come forward and ask questions without feeling out of place.

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Photo: Wikimedia user Dmvward, under CC license

As Christians, we have heard on a variety of occasions that we should be “in the world, but not of the world”. Yet it seems like liberals insist on being in the world and are criticised for following its whims; while conservatives insist on being not of the world, on living lives without associating with improper behaviours, etc. Of course, these are wild exaggerations. Not everyone is either a frantic liberal or a stuck-up conservative; most fall somewhere in the middle.

But rather than being “in the world, but not of the world”, we tend to go from one to the other: intensely “in the world” on a Thursday evening and “not of the world” on a Sunday morning; or conversely. Alternatively, we are “in the world” when it comes to stewardship of the world, but “not of the world” when it comes to approaches to sexuality (or, again, conversely). But we rarely comprehend it, let alone live it out. And this is where the analogy from teaching comes in:

  • Not being of the world is, at its core, a matter of identity. Being the teacher in all circumstances, even through the jokes. Being Christian at our innermost, regardless of what we discuss or what we do. That identity appears in all our interactions.
  • That identity stems from authority – an authority we must be confident in. Teachers know that students will exploit the slightest hesitation – and once that happens, we have pretty much lost the classroom, and must hide behind an authority we do not hold.
  • That authority comes from without. Behind every teacher, the school institution and the parents are there to support and when necessary discipline the students. We have to remember that we are not going it alone, that we are in fact sent out to be salt for the world, and that we are equipped and supported in our endeavours.
  • Being in the world does not mean looking down on it from lofty mountain tops. It does not mean simply going to soup cafés (although that is worthy on other accounts!), it does not mean Bible-bashing the downcast. It means investing a true interest in the things they are interested in. It means true empathy with all.
  • Still, being in the world does not imply partaking in all its dubious activities. Engaging with people does not turn us into yes men! Rather, we ought to remain on our guard and make sure we are not using “being in the world” as an excuse for simply doing whatever we want.

“In the world, not of the world” does not mean detachment. It does not mean workplace evangelism – because our faith goes beyond evangelism! It means living out Christian lives, truly caring for those around us and getting to really know them, their lives and their dreams.

Why ecumenism is bad, too

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Lots of words ending in “ism” are bad. Fundamentalism. Radicalism. Racism. Schism. But they’re certainly not all bad: Altruism. Prism. Arminianism.

Ecumenism is one of the things that gets bandied about as an intrinsically good thing. I’m a massive supporter of it: where possible, things should be done together with other Christians regardless of minor doctrinal differences. If we believe we make up one body, we certainly should act like it. That’s the idea behind ecumenism – and that sure is a great idea.

ecumenism

Photo: Bob Jones, reused under CC license

However, in branding an event “ecumenical”, or in trying to be deliberately ecumenical, we are not only recognising our differences, we are exacerbating them. A friend of mine, openly Protestant, once attended a Catholic fellowship group. As it turned out, all that was talked about was points of disagreement (Immaculate Conception, sola scriptura, etc.) Now all ecumenical events do not have to be like that. Thankfully, most insist on the commonalities rather than on the disagreements. Yet even then, if the event is branded as ecumenical, the denominational differences are likely to end up as the proverbial elephant in the room. The differences we try to bridge through ecumenism become all the more visible in the end.

Therefore, before we go out of our way to be openly ecumenical, we should make sure that there are differences between the groups involved, lest we create more divisions than we bridge. Worse still, if we do, we may make it impossible to do stuff together outside of the “ecumenical” label.

I fervently believe the aims of ecumenism (the visible unity of Christ’s people), just like those of mission, are best served by a “belong before you believe” attitude: unity will come from people from an unspecified variety of backgrounds hanging out together and just knowing each other as Christians. Crucially, denomination-membership is no prerequisite to hanging out together; and therefore, it is unlikely to be branded “ecumenical”. And a side effect of this is that there may not be many clearly defined theological statements.

Even in this approach, though, deliberate ecumenism can be dangerous. Not that the absence of a clear theological outlook means that the individuals see their own faith falter, or that the ecumenical action is devoid of any meaning. Of course not. Going to church does not mean celebrating all specific doctrinal points that the local church adheres to; or at least not every Sunday!

No – the potential danger concerns the rest of our activities, those done within the limited circle of our own local church and denomination.

I have been working in a school for the past year. Now in a school the staff is not made up of only teachers: there’s also admin, janitorial staff, pastoral care team, etc. Be that as it may, the teachers, naturally, tend to hang out together (this isn’t helped by the teachers having their specific staff room). Interaction between us and the rest of the staff often remains on a professional level. In the cafeteria, the teachers sit and eat together, and admin and the pastoral care team usually sit at another table.

I don’t like that separation. We are a team, and I feel this should not be limited to dealing with students. So I occasionally try to bridge that separation and deliberately spend more time with non-teachers. This makes it sound like it’s a chore, so let me insist that it isn’t! The staff at my school are all lovely and have been a true blessing to me this year.

But I’m left to wonder how it might feel to the teachers. When I’m deliberately eating at the non-teachers table, it also appears that I’m deliberately not eating with them. The time spent “ecumenically”, as it were, is also time not spent with my natural group. Now, in the case of my school, there is little tension between the two groups (outside of crises, of course); and so there’s no risk of being branded an apostate/traitor/heretic who’s defected to the other side.

Still, there were moments of unease or incomprehension as to why, say, I wasn’t eating with the teachers. They were short-lived, but they are telling of a crucial problem with ecumenism. When done indiscriminately, it can end up as a one-person initiative which ends up sowing discord within the individual groups themselves. This is how I had to walk the rather fine line between spending time with teachers and with non-teachers, gradually bringing the two together. Needless to say, this could not be done without the willingness of both the teachers and the non-teachers!

And so it is with ecumenism. It must not be done at the expense of the groups’ individual life, and must be grounded in both. If we are to be a bridge between two denominations, we cannot simply hover in thin air: we need foundations. On both sides. And for these foundations to be strong, it is vital that the ecumenical drive be not perceived as a departure, but as a bringing together.

Let us take the example of the recent vote, in the Church of England to have women bishops. Some voiced concerns that it would make unity with the Roman Catholic church more difficult. This unity is a laudable aim, but my contention is that, in this matter, it is secondary. Secondary because a large majority of the Church of England (as expressed in the synod votes) is in favour of women bishops and that it is an important issue to many within the CofE. Inner harmony comes before bridge building, or the bridge will lead to nothing.

Lessons from teaching: fairness

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So I’ve now been teaching for a few months. I know, scary thought, right? And it is a steep learning curve, for sure – both in terms of actual teaching strategies and in terms of learning about human nature: children are much more direct and speak from the heart more easily than grown-ups. Here are a few things I gleaned while teaching.

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Photo: Wikimedia user Dmvward, under CC license

1. The potter/clay argument will only be grudgingly accepted. As a teacher, I am given full authority to give detention or extra work, etc.; and that authority is (mostly) accepted, but there are still claims that I’m being unfair.

2. Complete fairness requires complete knowledge. If I don’t know who was talking, or who threw a paper ball at me (oh, but I will find out), I am in no position to hand out detention for it. But what this also means is that I cannot be the judge of someone else’s fairness without having the same information that they have.

3. Rules are a good support for behavioural improvement. If students aren’t aware that they’re not meant to throw pens to each other, they will most likely do it at some point.

4. Equally, the absence of explicit rules is no excuse for all forms of misbehaviour: there is an intimate knowledge that some forms of behaviour (e.g., fighting, talking out loud, etc.) are not acceptable. Not being told about the specifics of these rules does not mean there should be no consequence to physical violence in the classroom.

5. As a figure of authority, I am expected to intervene and be the judge in all situations – even those I have nothing to do with (a previously allegedly stolen pen, for instance). There is a natural yearning for judgement

6. Forgiveness is an alien concept to the human mind. Especially when it concerns others. Students often think others should be punished (though they don’t always go to the lengths of telling on them) – after all, why should they put in the effort if others can cruise by? Yet even when it’s about themselves, rather than thinking they are forgiven, students think that they are being let off or that they just got lucky. While it is sometimes the case that I didn’t catch them misbehaving, there are clear cases of deliberate forgiveness.

7. People had rather everyone were punished than everyone be left off the hook. Some of my students have told me I was being too nice, including to them! Does that mean we are all deeply aware of our fallen nature?