Like any Christian, I often reflect on how I can best live out my faith in my workplace. As a primary school teacher, I thankfully have many Christian friends with whom I can reflect on this topic. Unlike me, however, the vast majority teach in independent Christian schools. At times, I listen with envy as they discuss staff prayer times, or great gospel conversations that arose during lessons. These experiences are foreign to most teachers in public schools, where some Christian views can be at odds with the prevailing climate and we are warned against imposing our personal religious or political beliefs on students.
Despite these limitations, since turning to teaching a little over a decade ago, I have strongly felt the call to be a Christian presence in public schools. Before then, I worked in various roles in the financial industry for 20 years: global accounting firms, actuaries and investment banks, along with various smaller companies. I experienced a growing sense of dissatisfaction with my contribution to society in the latter part of that career, and a Christian friend encouraged me to reconsider teaching. I had contemplated this change many times, but was concerned about the reduction in pay and the time needed to retrain, and was uncertain whether I would enjoy the role. Colleagues in both finance and teaching (including some Christian ones) were mystified as to why I would choose to move into teaching from finance, when many would move the other way.
Some of these fears were realistic; the early years of teaching required twice the effort for less than half the pay, and I have never had a more emotionally exhausting role. However, I praise God for leading me into this vital occupation. It is such a joy to see children learning and to be able to contribute to their development.
There is a great need, particularly for Christian men in public primary schools, and I chose primary teaching rather than high school partly due to this need. Male primary teachers generally are in short supply (none of our three children had a male teacher throughout any of their primary school years) and some children are desperately short of positive male role models. Upon graduation, it would have been relatively easy to obtain a position in a Christian school, having received invitations to apply from various Christian contacts. Securing a permanent position in the public system was a much more difficult and lengthy process, but it was where I felt called to be, and I am thankful God provided me with sufficient temporary work to be able to wait for the right opportunity.
I have no regrets about my decision to move into teaching at all. To date it has been challenging, yet fulfilling, and I’ve had the opportunity to take on a variety of different roles within my school. Life as a teacher can be extremely busy, but I am also thankful for the additional flexibility this career has given me. I’ve had significantly less commuting time (before many of us stopped commuting!) and, outside school hours, where and when I complete my work is very flexible. I have been able to attend after school events, be involved in children’s sport and spend school holidays with my family, both while my children were young and during their important teenage years. This time has been invaluable for our family.
As to the gospel opportunities of teachers in the public system— I don’t claim to have any unique insight, and often doubt how effective I am. But I trust that God is faithful and able to use us in ways we may never know. I also take encouragement in listening to the experience of other Christian teachers, and it is in this context I share my own experience.
First and foremost, as with any workplace, I seek to live as salt and light in the school community (Matthew 5:13-16), to be distinctive as a Christian, and to let my actions bring glory to our Father. This may take many, many forms—from trying to display the fruit of the Spirit in the way I relate to students, teachers and parents, to gospel conversations or invitations to church with staff members; from speaking up and presenting a Christian world-view on the topics of the day, to the diligence with which I undertake (and limits I place on) my work.
Secondly, I ensure that my community knows I am a Christian. Every year when I get a new class, my students find out about my faith on day one. The early days in a primary classroom are spent getting to know each other, and we play a game where my students learn several facts about me as their teacher, including that I’m a Christian. Sometimes, this leads to students revealing their faith to me also and opportunities to encourage them throughout the year. Where appropriate, I will refer to my faith throughout the year and also include this in conversations with parents.
Over the school year, even in a primary classroom, many important topics arise regularly through the curriculum, particularly in the upper years: equality, respect, discrimination in many forms, treatment of refugees, poverty, creation, sexuality, abuse. Occasionally, topics like euthanasia or the death penalty have been raised by students. In all these situations, I can listen to students and present my worldview as part of the discussion, remaining careful not to impose it. At times I have even needed to defend the rights of a student to speak when I do not agree with what they are saying.
As a staff member, there may also be opportunities to support Special Religious Education (SRE), or voluntary Christian groups. I volunteered to be the SRE/Ethics co-ordinator at my school, and while decisions are still made by the school executive, the role allows me to give this vital ministry a voice and support the volunteers. As a parent, I’ve always been immensely grateful for our SRE volunteers, and particularly the teachers who have given up their time to coordinate or support the voluntary Christian groups that meet. These ministries have been of great encouragement to my own children and usually cannot proceed without a teacher’s support.
Most of all, as teachers we have the opportunity to love our students. There are so many children and young people who need someone to listen to them and show that they care— whether in our classrooms, on the playground, or being involved in student welfare, or as Year advisors in high schools. In these roles Christian teachers may not look substantially different to any quality teacher who cares for their students. However, again I trust that God will use us to achieve his good purposes.
There are many great things about the freedoms teachers in Christian schools have, and the impact they can have on their students, both Christian and non-Christian. In public schools, a Christian teacher may be the only one supporting ministry opportunities in the school; the only role model in the school community for Christian students; the only Christian contact in a child’s life. We need people in these roles. We need Christian teachers in our public schools.
Shane Harcombe is a primary school teacher. The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the views of his workplace or the Department of Education.
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