Theological reflection on the role and profession of teachers

Church of Scotland Committee on Education

Education in general, and the role of schools and teachers in particular, has traditionally held a strong place within Christian activity, as a key strategy of overseas mission as well as in domestic social reform. Inspiration is drawn from the ministry of Christ, whose example as a teacher is strongly emphasised in the Gospels of Matthew and John.

In the Pauline tradition, the call to teach is a God-given gift aimed at “building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13; cf. 1 Cor. 12:28-19), though how such teaching is to be carried out is not made clear. Jesus’ own method, which often eschews didacticism in favour of parable and metaphor, consistently combines speech with example, as in the washing of the disciples feet (John13:13).

In part because of its formidable biblical pedigree, teaching has often been freighted with the accompanying notion of “vocation”, for example on the Scottish Executive’s website, where a vocation to teach is defined in terms of “a keen interest” in one’s subject “and a desire to help children achieve their best.”

However, the idealism implicit in the assumption of a vocation, together with its suggestion of a religious-like and even submissive lifestyle, can sit uneasily with the reality of the classroom and the working conditions of teachers. For that reason, from a Christian perspective, it is important to set the idea of vocation within the overall response of the faithful to the will of God.

Believing that God has called all aspects of life into being and that all life is to be lived in relationship with God, vocation, as Rowan Williams expresses it, is to be seen first as the process of acknowledging God’s invitation into a Christ-like life balanced by the process of inviting others to become what they can be.1

Work in all its forms becomes vocational in so far as it is a response to God’s call, expressing those values and encouraging relationships that reflect God’s own relationship with us. In this context, education is to be seen as the task not of teachers only but of all who nurture people “into the practice of discernment”, a non-dogmatic approach exemplified in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.2

Moreover, education is an occupation that is intrinsically valuable: not because it delivers a skilled workforce, nor as a vehicle for indoctrination but because it offers an opportunity to nurture whole persons.

In Paulo Friere’s work with marginalized and oppressed people, education thus becomes “the practice of freedom”: a movement towards personal and social awareness in which individuals and whole communities find their own voice.3

This is as true for the teacher as for the student. “It has long been recognized,” writes Williams, “that the best teachers tend to be those who don’t separate person and function, who find that encouraging others to respond to their fullest potential is what makes them themselves.”4

This movement towards humanness as God envisaged it, which might also be expressed as taking on “the mind of Christ”, is achievable within any teaching environment or discipline. In a uniquely sustained way, though often a demanding one, classroom teachers are granted the opportunity to convey in word and example the Christian value of human striving – inspiring (on a good day, at least) wonder, respect and fruitful relationships.

In this context, the strong Presbyterian emphasis on personal and social transformation finds a focussed setting in which to emulate Jesus’ example of recognising the gifts of individuals and nurturing their potential for change and growth.5

Notes
  1. Williams, R.: 2001, “Vocation”, The Way Ahead: Church of England schools in the new Millennium (London: Church House Publishing, 2001) p.91
  2. Brueggemann, W. The Creative Word: canon as a model for biblical education (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982) p.74
  3. Friere, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), passim
  4. Williams, R. op. cit. p.91
  5. cf. Stevenson, J, & Brookes, A. (eds.) A Christian Vision for Scottish Education (Action of Churches Together in Scotland Education Group, 2000), pp.2 & 10
Bibliography
  • Brueggemann, W. The Creative Word: canon as a model for biblical education (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982)
  • Cowan, P. & Ebertz, R. “The Vocation of Teaching: themes and models from the Presbyterian tradition” (conference paper,www.apcu.net/thirtywho/cowan/1.htm ff.)
  • Doble, P. “Education”, in Hastings, A., Mason, A. & Pyper H. (eds.) The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought pp.191-3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • Friere, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970)
  • Hansen, David T. “Revitalizing the idea of vocation in teaching”,www.ed.uiuc.edu/EPS/PES-yearbook/94_docs/HANSEN.htmNational Society for Promoting Religious Education website (www.natsoc.org.uk)
  • Stevenson, J, & Brookes, A. (eds.) A Christian Vision for Scottish Education (Dunblane: Action of Churches Together in Scotland Education Group, 2000)
  • Williams, R. “Vocation”, Church Schools Review Group The Way Ahead: Church of England schools in the new millennium, Appendix 5, pp.91-2 (London: Church House Publishing, 2001)