Religious teachers find it tough to leave faith at the school gates

29th May 2009 at 01:00

It is almost impossible to separate teachers' personal religious beliefs from their classroom practice, new research from America reveals.

Kimberly White, of Ball State University in Indiana, believes religion can subtly influence all aspects of teachers' classroom practice, from behaviour management to curriculum content.

Research has shown that teachers tend to be more religious than non- teachers. Professor White therefore interviewed several primary teachers about their beliefs.

She found that, in many cases, religion played a role in their decision to pursue a career in teaching. One Christian respondent said teaching allowed him a daily opportunity to witness God's love. He described himself as a "mirror to reflect God's light".

A Jewish interviewee, meanwhile, referred to her responsibility to make the world a better place. She said: "For me, my social action committee is my classroom and my school."

Religion also affected teachers' classroom methods. For example, an evangelical Christian referred to the way in which he read the Bible, thought about its meaning and then applied it to daily life. He used the same observation-interpretation-application method when examining topics in the classroom.

Other teachers hoped to create classroom relationships that mirrored the sense of community they found in their place of worship.

Notably, none of the interviewees encouraged a sense of competition in their classrooms. This was true even of those teachers who participated in competitive sports.

One said: "I guess what I'd hope for my students is to get a kind of connection with each other. That feeling is the kind of holiness I really want to happen in the classroom."

The teachers' perspectives on sin, forgiveness and the afterlife also unwittingly affected their classroom behaviour. Specifically, they influenced the discipline structures they chose to use.

Christian teachers who believed in heaven and hell tended to adopt authoritarian behaviour management methods, with clear, predetermined punishments for misbehaviour.

By contrast, a Quaker interviewee did not believe in heaven and hell. As a result, she avoided absolutes: there were, she said, "shades of grey" to misbehaviour. She did not have a formal discipline structure in her classroom and instead highlighted the importance of responsibility to others.

Similarly, Jewish respondents emphasised behaviour modification, rather than reward and punishment, believing that pupils should want to behave well because they could see the benefits for others.

"The Jewish teachers . emphasised life on this earth because they did not believe in heaven and hell," Professor White said. "They were more likely to use a discipline structure that emphasised internal motivation and . respect."

Religion also affected the content of the curriculum. Professor White gave an example of a Christian teacher who chose to teach C.S. Lewis's alleged Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

By contrast, the Quaker interviewee selected books that reflected her belief in international activism. Her class read Beatrice's Goat, a story about an impoverished Ugandan family who were given a goat by an aid agency.

As a results of her research, Professor White recommends that all trainees should be given guidance on the ways in which personal belief can affect classroom practice.

krwhite@bsu.edu.

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