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‘I’m not going to waste my time on prayers’: how secular teachers navigate working in religious schools

The recent case of a Christian school in Queensland asking parents to sign a contract, stating, among other things, homosexuality is immoral and their children will only identify as their birth gender, sparked a furore across the country. 

It also highlighted an ethical issue many staff face: what action to take if their school’s values conflict with their own.

One teacher who resigned from the school told Channel 10’s The Project of the difficulty of her decision. While she wanted to be there for the students affected by the attitudes shown in the contract, she also needed them to know there were “Christians out there that love them and aren’t hiding.”

She said:

I couldn’t agree to be a teacher in a school that had that vocabulary and language around some of the most vulnerable kids […] as an educator, my priority is to make sure that each child […] feels safe […] but when a child tells us with tears in their eyes that they don’t feel safe, what are we doing?! […] I can’t work for an organisation that does that to kids.

The dilemma of working in an institution whose morals conflict with your own happens in most professions. Research shows people find different ways of dealing with this. Some choose to exit the workplace or the profession, adhering to their personal and professional integrity. Others may choose to voice their moral dissatisfaction, either loudly or clandestinely opposing unacceptable things from the inside. Finally, there are professionals who stay loyal to the institution and turn a blind eye to practices that make them feel uncomfortable.

As for teachers, a 2020 study I conducted in the US suggests they may choose a variant of the last option. This is despite them having endured moral trauma, which means experiencing dire feelings of immorality caused by doing something against their genuine desire to choose an alternative course of action.

The study showed teachers’ ethical struggles with student discipline in Catholic and Jewish schools. It revealed most teachers decided to remain loyal to the system. Others turned a blind eye to things such as severe incidents of misconduct. Some quietly determined their own disciplinary procedures, while others left the schools – either moving to the public school system or leaving the teaching profession altogether.

Another recent study I conducted with two colleagues identified secular teachers’ struggles working in Jewish religious schools in Australia, the US and Israel. Based on interviews with 25 secular teachers, we found they employed similar strategies as the studies above as a way of coping with personal and institutional dilemmas.

Some opposed from the inside

Nine of the teachers we spoke to employed the opposition strategy: they stayed but did things differently inside the school, as they saw fit.

Teaching evolution, although it was not part of the curriculum, one Israeli science teacher described how they navigated the Big Bang vs the creationism debate:

We talk about the creation of the universe, the Big Bang […] These themes evoke many emotional responses […] It’s mainly enrichment, broadening their horizons […] and if a student comes and says, ‘I don’t want this,’ I respect it, and I let him leave the class or do something else.

Taking a similar stand, another American teacher passed on some morning prayers:

I have a hard time with the morning prayers that should take about 45 minutes […] so, in my class, in my own small world, I pray with my students like 25 minutes […] If we have a test or I need to finish a unit […] I’m not going to waste my time on prayers.

Others adapted

Eleven teachers took more of an adaptation strategy, aligning their practices with their school’s vision. They accepted or celebrated their school’s religious and organisational culture, with some even attempting to conceal their secularity.

People praying.
Teachers all have different ways of dealing with a workplace whose values conflict with their own. Shutterstock

These teachers said they were very cautious when expressing their opinions – feeling obligated to represent their school’s perspective. Wanting to avoid conflicts, they sought to separate their personal and professional identities.

One Australian teacher said:

The students ask me sometimes: ‘Did you fast?’ […] I manage to escape these questions […] because I don’t think I need to expose myself […] it might provoke some questions and problems.

Likewise, an American teacher noted:

I try […] walking between the raindrops […] not to contradict something that they can hear in other places […] at home.

And some sat on the fence

Other teachers mainly employed the fence-sitting strategy. They learned to live with their inner conflicts and maintain a low profile in school.

As one of the teachers said, “I come to school, do my things, and leave”. Another teacher said she would not let her students know she is not religious as she “doesn’t step on landmines.”

Unlike the adaptors, the fence-sitters did not appear to have a sense of belonging to the school. Lamenting the ethically impossible situation, one of the teachers defined herself as a “second-class teacher”, contending that “it’s like [her] university degree doesn’t really count.”

Such complications can contribute to teacher shortages

Teachers’ moral-professional dissatisfaction can prompt them to leave not just the school but the profession. This reflects a demoralisation, where they feel they are unable to enact the values that motivate and sustain their work. Demoralisation peaks when educators believe they are violating the basic moral expectations of their profession.

This should be given policy weight in Australia, as demoralisation can lead to teacher attrition and the increasingly high teacher turnover.

There are also educational and social benefits to having diverse teachers employed in religious schools. Our previous research shows, for example, teacher diversity can motivate children to interact with people of different cultural affiliations which can enhance their ability to understand different perspectives.

Neither disengagement, concealment or exit are beneficial for teachers and students. Educational leaders should openly discuss their school’s policies and potential points of conflict to coordinate mutual moral-professional expectations. Similarly, teachers may seek to explore strategies for (re)moralisation that can help them navigate such challenges.

The study interviewing 25 secular teachers in Jewish schools was conducted with Dr Lotem Perry-Hazan and Elizabeth Muzikovskaya from the University of Haifa, Israel.The Conversation

Ilana Finefter-Rosenbluh, Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Monash University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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