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01 September 2008

The most influential vocation

The most influential vocation

How do teachers view their work and how can the Church support those working in schools and universities? Education is one of the five core areas of the Alliance-facilitated Forum for Change, encouraging Christians to make an impact in society.
Hazel Southam reports...

"In five years, I've been threatened on a number of occasions. I've seen fights break out between students. I've seen children getting drunk on the way home from school. I get six week's summer holiday, but I'll be in school for five of them. And I have to make sure that the school is open between 8am and 6pm. I'm in charge of 27 after school clubs."

This is the experience of Nigel Roberts, a teacher at Redmoor High School in Hinckley, Leicester.

Nigel is relatively lucky. He works in a small school with just 400 pupils. "I know all of them by name," he says. And despite the pressures, he considers his job to be the best in the world.

But teachers like Nigel are under increasing pressure to put in the hours to deliver students gaining top marks, as well as dealing with what is euphemistically called "challenging behaviour".

The blackboard jungle

The news emerging from our schools is not good. In just one day towards the end of the summer term, several startling facts emerged. The BBC reported that one in five primary schools had still not received the results of their SAT tests. Among secondary schools the situation was worse, with almost a quarter of English results for 14-year-olds having gone missing.

Meanwhile, an estimated one in five teenagers reportedly carries a knife, though only 20 per cent of these take their weapons to school with them, according to a study by Portsmouth University. This report came a week after Government announced plans for teachers to frisk children for knives and drugs on the way into school.

Then there was the story about 4,000 schools closed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as teaching assistants and support staff went on strike. They were protesting at a below-inflation pay offer of 2.45 per cent.

"Our society is toxic, and schools have to deal with that"

All this in one day. This comes in the less-than-cheering wake of a February 2007 UN report that called the UK the worst place in the developed world for a child to grow up. The study looked at children's health, education and wellbeing, and the UK came out bottom of a league table of 21 industrialised nations. Unicef said that Britain was letting its children down. (And in case you were thinking of going private, school fees have gone up by 43 per cent.)

The problems of society are mirrored in schools, says Dr Trevor Cooling, director of the Transforming Lives Project and chairman of the Alliance's Forum for Change working group on education.

"Our society is toxic," he says, "and schools have to deal with that. We have a culture of anxiety. People are worried about global warming and the economy, and children pick up on that. Today children are worried about climate change. When I was young it was the nuclear bomb going off."

Materialism and the celebrity culture also affect children, according to Trevor. "Lots of girls say that they want to be like WAGs," he says. "They think that the way to be happy is to be like the Beckhams. And this kind of shallow culture affects their health and their behaviour."

There is, he says, a "huge opportunity for the Church" to provide a model for a different way of living that doesn't revolve around how much money you have and how you look.

Nigel Roberts backs this view. "Being a Christian in a school is really important," he says. "There's never a better opportunity for a Christian to be on display. We are watched carefully: what we do and how we do it, what we say. No other vocation has so much influence as this."

Every child matters

Into this mix, we can add the government's Every Child Matters policy, which essentially does what it says on the tin. It promotes the child's total wellbeing, not just their test results.

However exacting this is for teachers to deliver, Nigel believes that the policy marks a step forward in educational thinking. "It's important that children are happy," he says. "This policy is an expression of God's heart, spoken by a government official. So I'm glad that I'm here teaching and that churches are involved in schools. But it's a very big ask and a big responsibility for this profession."

That "big ask" may be part of the reason why 40 per cent of teachers have left the profession within two years of qualifying, according to the General Teaching Council. Compare this with 3 per cent leaving medicine after 10 years.

So what's going wrong? Christian teachers say they feel unsupported by the Church.

Knowing a Christian teacher may be the only spiritual input that many children and young people receive

Nigel works part-time for Youth For Christ, where he is involved in encouraging churches to support teachers. But the results are mixed, he says. "Some people are very positive. But a lot of people say they haven't got the resources or it's not their mission. I am very angry about that on one level, but I understand it."

Churches, he says, should be fully involved in schools - not just providing RE lessons, but helping with after-school clubs and meeting local needs. He also believes that individual Christians must pray for teachers.

Trevor Cooling agrees. "We need to recognise the ministry of teachers," he says. "It's often seen as just a job, rather than as contributing to the mission and ministry of the Church. But teachers are in a key, influential role, and I hope that we would want to keep them there."

Derek Holbird, director of education for the Guildford Diocese, says that being a teacher is the equivalent of being a missionary. It just isn't treated with the same respect by local churches.

"You can go to the four corners of the earth and be a missionary, or you can teach in inner London, where the world comes to you," he says. "There are many, many Christians working in this area. And at all levels we need a lot of wisdom, skill, passion and energy."

He adds, "I am thankful for the involvement of the Church of England and the Catholic Church in education in this country. Few jobs can be more fulfilling than meeting our children and young people; there is no other profession where you are meeting a whole generation. But I also know that it's particularly tough these days. Teachers do need support."

A high priority

So what do teachers need from the Church? First, they need their profession to be seen as a vital vocation, say school workers. Second, they need to be prayed for regularly by people who want to understand the day-to-day struggles of their work. And finally, they need education to be high on the local church's priority list, so they feel supported in their work by other Christians.

"It's hard to convince Christians of how hard it is," says head teacher Graham Coyle, head of River School in Worcester, an independent Christian school with 150 pupils aged between 3 and 16 years old.

"The Church doesn't understand how important education is, and teachers don't get support from the Church," he says. "We are here six hours a day, five days a week. The Church really doesn't understand the impact that that has. For example, are we supporting teachers who are working with children carrying guns?"

If every child matters,
then so does every teacher

Christian-based schools are trying to make up for the number of children who are leaving Sunday schools, he says. But they lack the support of local churches in achieving this. "I feel desperate about it. It makes me want to weep," he says. And he believes that Christian parents should pray about whether to send their children to a Christian school in order to "fulfil the Great Commission".

Why does this all matter so much to teachers? Because they believe that knowing a Christian teacher may be the only spiritual input that many children and young people receive.

"A school is an image of the kingdom of God," says Derek Holbird. "God spreads a table of good things; His name is honoured."

Graham Coyle agrees. "We want our children to feel encouraged, supported and safe to make mistakes and grow through those experiences," he says. "We always want to respond with a Christian ethos. When children misbehave I ask myself, 'How can I develop this person as a Christian?' Fallouts between kids are dealt with in a way that leads them through forgiveness and reconciliation whether they are Christian or not."

The demands on Christians working in education obviously vary from school to school. But care and tact are needed when living out - and potentially speaking about - their faith.

For Graham, working in a Christian school, this is much easier. Prayer meetings are held in the staff room, and all subjects relate to Christianity, whether it's PE or chemistry.

But the River School is not exclusively Christian: according to Graham, 40 per cent of the families "have nothing to do with church".

And Church of England schools accept children from all religious backgrounds and none. Is this something we should be concerned about? Should Christians just be in Christian schools? Well, the answer to that depends on who you talk to.

But Derek Holbird is clear that C of E schools need to be welcoming, not indoctrinating, places. "When we get suspicious [of people of other faiths] and close the doors, that's the time to get worried," he says. "I have only ever found that we are enriched by having many, many backgrounds in our schools, whether that's in terms of behaviour or respect, or academically. It's a challenge, but it's a wonderful challenge."

Trevor Cooling believes that the Church isn't taking up this challenge to support teachers and get involved in schools' work because it finds cultures that aren't exclusively Christian to be threatening.

"The Church has still got a long way to go," he says. "It's to do with a culture that views the world outside the church building as threatening rather than as an opportunity. There are huge opportunities for what I call Christian hospitality in schools."

With more teachers leaving the profession early than ever before, now is clearly the time to support those working in education. Prayer and practical support will all make a difference to teachers who care for a child's wellbeing and are also asked to frisk children who are potentially carrying knives.

The Forum for Change education working group is hoping to explore ways in which this can be done. But according to the experts, if every child matters, then so does every teacher. And the Church can help those teachers today.

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