There are some stories in the local and national press today where some questions are being raised about the place of Religious Instruction in secular schools. I’ve recently discovered that I really enjoy teaching RI in schools. The controversy surrounds this ‘offending’ paragraph in some of the material that Prostestant RI teachers in Queensland (I’m one of these) are given to help us prepare and teach lessons in schools.
I thought this letter might encourage other teachers, and parents, to get in touch with Kate Jones, the Minister for Education (I emailed firstname.lastname@example.org, and, if email conventions haven’t changed from my time in the secular workforce, what might be her direct email address). I reckon it’d be terrific if the department heard from a lot of teachers that RI experiences in our schools are diverse, but come from people who are genuinely thoughtful, and genuinely seeking the good of the children we’re lucky to teach. Also, I hate putting the ‘ordained’ and ‘rev’ bit in because I don’t think it should make any difference, and perhaps I over think this a little, but on balance I thought it might be more helpful not less, but I think if lots of non ‘ordained’ people from the priesthood of all believers were also to write, then that would be fantastic.
Dear The Hon Kate Jones MP,
I read a couple of stories in the media today about how RI classes in our schools – classes where parents have opted in because they identify with a particular religious view (in this case Protestant Christianity) – have involved volunteers teaching kids about sin (or will involve, in lesson 12 of the material from Connect). I started teaching RI at <REDACTED> State School about six weeks ago. I’m an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church, we have a new church that started in South Bank and connecting with the local school is important to us as we seek to love and serve our community by building a relationship of trust with them. Part of this means being committed to sharing what we believe is ‘good news’ – the best news – for people. That God is real, and that he loves us even when we stuff up. Part of this also means facing hard questions from kids who are thinking through spiritual realities while they’re at school (which is perhaps a legitimate educational activity?). We definitely don’t take access to our schools for granted, and are incredibly thankful for the invitation to participate in the life of our community; nor do we want to be coercing or manipulating children into sharing our beliefs because we hold some sort of ‘authority’… RI could be a dangerous vehicle for indoctrination, and I am glad members of our community, and our schools, are being vigilant on that front!
Thanks for all the work you do as one of our elected representatives. I love the passion you bring to the education portfolio and believe education is probably the most important cabinet ministry. My wife and I are trying to navigate finding the right school for our 4 year old daughter (and eventually for our almost 3 year old son, and 1 year old daughter). It’s tough. There are so many different theories about education out there, and so many different priorities. I don’t envy you your position, but I am committed to praying that you’ll act with wisdom and help our system form the sorts of critical and creative thinkers our society needs in order to flourish. One day I might even write you a letter about how much I think our schools should foster imagination and the sense that we’re all part of something bigger than just the need to learn things in order to answer questions in a test.
In fact, this letter might even be part of that because it speaks, in some way, to the importance of Religious Instruction (or its equivalent) in schools. One thing religion does is it fires up the imagination, pointing us not just to what could be if we live selfless lives that seek to transform the world, but perhaps what is, beyond the material world. Obviously as a Christian pastor (I’m a Presbyterian Minister), I have a personal belief that God is real and so our imaginings are actually hard wired into us as part of our reaching out for the nature of the divine. But even if this isn’t true, the sort of reaching for a better life that follows being taught the story of a transcendent being who loves us and cares about how we live, and provides an example for how we should live in Jesus, and especially in his death, is, on balance, a good sort of reaching that should lead our society in good places if it continues to ‘enchant’ us; if it continues to point us beyond ourselves, and perhaps if it serves to give us perspective beyond how important the next NAPLAN test is, or whatever else is crowding our kids brains in a crowded, pressure filled, curriculum.
The problem is, if we teach kids what life could be like, and their experience doesn’t line up to that, we’re only teaching part of the picture. We’re missing the point that Christianity includes a sense that things in this world, and in our lives, don’t always match up to how they should be. If we don’t teach about sin, and its universality, we miss the point that we’re to be driven by a longing for something better, while realising that it won’t always line up with what we achieve. We also miss the point that the great news of Christianity is that Jesus deals with sin, he doesn’t just give us a pattern for life. We can’t inspire kids without teaching them exactly what it is that Christianity teaches about the problems in our world, and how those problems shape, and are shaped by, the problems with the way we live. I can totally see how if Lesson 12 of Connect was taught clumsily, or from bad intentions, it could end up being used for guilt based manipulation, and no doubt different teachers approach teaching RI differently. I don’t know every RI teacher in the state, but the many I do know are both:
a) Aware of the privilege it is to teach kids what we believe, and perhaps inspire them towards living lives of love, where their confidence is placed not in their ability to be good, but in God’s love;
b) Aware that this privilege will be lost should we abuse it and veer into coercive or manipulative behaviour.
I thought it might be instructive for you to hear about how RI works, and how this material shapes the experience, in reality from an RI teacher. I’m not sure I’m normal, but anecdotes form data, and I’m happy to ask other teachers to share their experience too, especially if it helps us establish trust in the communities we are trying to love and serve. I get 30 minutes with a class of kids a week. By the time the roll is taken and the kids are settled, its 20. By the time we establish some sort of rapport with the kids, as guests who they see once a week its 15 minutes, and because we’re ultimately keen to answer the questions that kids are wanting to explore about different topics, and about the particular religion they’ve opted in to learning about, we try to spend as much time as possible answering these questions. This leaves us about 5 minutes a week of ‘teaching’ time, at least in our class, and in that time the Connect material serves as a guide but not a master. Most of the time we tell a story about Jesus that introduces a concept from the week, and then we ask kids to interact with the story and ask their own questions. When we give answers we don’t give ‘imperatives’ but say “as a Christian, I personally believe X,” because Protestant RI covers a multitude of denominations, with different beliefs about finer points of doctrine we can’t even be dogmatic about our own beliefs, we have to honour the many other traditions that might be present in the room. It’s complex to navigate this well, and I’m sure I make mistakes, and others might too, but I believe the benefits to our society, and our children, make these occasional clumsy moments worth it. I’m certainly hoping that my own children will be encouraged to think beyond math and science, and consider how they might best contribute to the peace and flourishing of our community, and how they might live in a secular, post-modern, world alongside people they disagree with, without wanting to exclude those voices and perspectives from the table.
Thanks again for all you do. If there’s any capacity for me to be helpful as the department considers its response to the RI material, I am willing to be of assistance.
Rev. Nathan Campbell,
Pastor, Creek Road Presbyterian Church, South Bank