Along with many other teachers across the UK, as the first week in September fast approaches, I’m beginning to think about what I’ll be teaching the boys who walk through my classroom door this academic year. As I think about my students and the knowledge that they will accrue, I also reflect on myself as their teacher, and wonder what I will learn from and with them during the upcoming year. I have come to think of teaching very much as a vocation – a sort of ‘calling’ – which has affirmed and deepened my identity as a laywoman in the church.
What makes teaching so energising (or the thought of it – at the tail end of the summer holidays!)? In my experience two things combined: my students and my subject area. I read recently that teenagers’ brains are at a point of development where they are more interested in ethical issues (as a means of self-definition) than at any other point in their lives. What better time to be exploring the world of religion, ethics and philosophy with young people keen to discover who they are in relation to the world and others around them?
Add to this the religious and ethnic diversity of the city of Birmingham, in the heart of which our school community exists, and world religions come alive in a classroom where you have at least 4 of the 6 major world faiths represented. I remarked to a class of Year 7s last year that the world would be a better place if only it were a macrocosm of our classroom. A place where people from all faiths and none listen to one another, learn from one another, and negotiate disagreement wisely.
Finally, throw into the mix the responsibility of educating boys. My own self-definition as a feminist has deepened teaching Religious Studies in the male-dominated environment of an all boy’s school. To begin with I found myself gazing longingly at the girls’ school across the road.... ‘if only...there I really could advance the feminist cause!’ But now I wouldn’t be anywhere else.
There are many small, perhaps seemingly insignificant ways to open the eyes of young men to gender issues but these eye-opening moments of conscientization can, I have found, have a very significant impact on their thinking. For example, with younger boys raising their awareness of the patriarchal society in which the biblical text was composed. From whose perspective are the Ten Commandments written, from a man’s or from a woman’s? I emphasise the significance of the Matriarchs – not just the Patriarchs – as essential characters in the family tree of Judaism. Yes, the baby girls escaped the murderous plot of Pharaoh during the time of Moses – but what does this really show about their perceived significance and value in society at the time? Do they know that of all the words in the bible, only one percent of those words are words spoken by women?
With older boys this foundation can continue and deepen: have they ever thought about how often they refer to God as ‘He’, despite the fact that God has no gender? What actually is ‘feminism’? Is it just for the girls, or do gender issues that affect women have a knock-on effect on them as men and their growing understanding of what it means to be male? (Emma Watson’s ‘He for She’ speech at the United Nations is useful viewing here)
How far can the feminist cause really advance if young men are unaware of the importance of women’s issues and gender equality? I hope that by opening my students’ eyes to gender issues – be it through exploring religious texts, ethical theories or philosophers – they will leave school with an awareness and attitude that will last a lifetime.
Could it be the role of organisations such as WATCH to further this conversation? To connect lay women teachers – particularly of Religious Education – who wish to dialogue with like-minded educators about the important task of raising awareness of gender issues in secondary schools across the UK?