8 April 2024

Podcast: Challenges and opportunities for Christian teachers

This article is part of the Affinity Talks Gospel Podcast series.

In this episode of Affinity Talks Gospel, we delve into the work of the Association of Christian Teachers (ACT) and the challenges faced by Christian educators with guest Lizzie Harewood, the Executive Officer of ACT.

We discuss ACT’s mission to support Christian teachers through resources like articles, podcasts, and conferences, particularly highlighting the ‘Teaching Christianly’ podcast series. The conversation explores issues Christian teachers encounter in secularised education environments, emphasising the importance of support, prayer, and engagement from church leaders. A teacher’s success in navigating challenging situations was shared as an example of positive influence, stressing the need to respect teachers’ freedoms to express their beliefs.

For support and engagement, ⁠visit ACT’s website⁠ and learn more about the ministry.

Subscribe: Spotify | Apple Podcasts | YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts.

Topics addressed in this Podcast:

  • Introduction to the Association of Christian Teachers
  • Challenges Facing Christian Teachers
  • Supporting Teachers in Your Church


[0:00] Music.

[0:11] Hello and welcome to Affinity Talks Gospel. My name is Graham Nicholls and this is a podcast where we meet the members of Affinity and we talk about how the gospel is working out in their lives personally and in the ministries and the various activities that they’re involved in, how the gospel is making a difference.
So I’m delighted today to welcome Lizzie Harewood who is the something of the Association of Christian Teachers.
Do you call it president, director? Chief?
Executive Officer.
Executive Officer, not Chief Executive Officer.
No, I believe that they had the Chief in the title a number of years ago, but removed that at some point before I joined, I hasten to add. Executive Officer, that’s fine.
Yeah. So before we talk about ACT, tell us a little bit about yourself.

[1:03] Okay. Well, obviously you introduced me. I’m Lizzie. I’m a mum of two.
I’m a wife as well. I worked in education for around 12 years, though I came to teaching through a slightly more unusual route.
I studied law, didn’t feel it was quite right to practice, spent a number of years in slightly random jobs, and then came to pursue a career in education.
So I’m married to a church minister.
He works for an FIEC church, and we live up in the north of England in Yorkshire in South Yorkshire right um yeah so that’s where we we have our lives is south yorkshire different to East Yorkshire and West Yorkshire because north Yorkshire doesn’t exist does it it’s very obvious that you live somewhere in the south because absolutely, yes absolutely so south yorkshire has quite a different sort of character and sense of being to the other Yorkshires.

[2:06] Is West Yorkshire the posh one?
I’d say North Yorkshire is probably the pot one. That’s like York and Harrogate. Ah, okay.
But I mean, they all have their own unique kind of beauty spots and their own defining characteristics.
North Yorkshire is hills and dales.
And West Yorkshire is also, there’s a lot of hills there. That’s beautiful.
South Yorkshire is very kind of industrial and former coal mining villages and pit villages.
And that’s where we live. We live on the edge of Doncaster.

[2:40] Okay. Is it like Sussex? Because we have East Sussex and West Sussex, which are actually different counties.
But with Yorkshire, it’s only one county, isn’t it? These are just kind of regions?
Or are they actual counties? No, they are actual counties. counties. Okay.
Yeah. I mean, hard to believe this, but I actually used to run a company that had an office in Leeds, Sturton, actually, which is south of Leeds on a container base area there.
And I had an office in Manchester and in Coventry. I have been to the north quite a lot.
I used to travel there all the time, but I never really got into the whole Yorkshire thing.
So I always just think of it as one big county. But anyway, that is that.
Why didn’t you continue with law? I was I was speaking to one of our elders last night who didn’t carry on with law.
There seems to be a lot of people who don’t carry on with law for various reasons.
That’s a good question because there are a lot of people who studied law and then didn’t carry on with it.
There’s also a lot of people who didn’t study law, but then did some kind of conversion course.
And now they practice law.

[3:39] I think it’s one of those things that when I was sort of 17, 18, I had quite an interest in.
I don’t know, social justice. And I felt that perhaps I was going to be some kind of, I don’t know, quality or human rights lawyer and idealistically kind of chose law, went off to university and encountered Christianity, which sounds a bit bizarre that I wouldn’t then seek to further my ambitions to work in social justice.
But I think I got so caught up with other things and my outlook on life became so radically different that I didn’t think at that stage.

[4:23] Practicing law was the right avenue for me and I kind of it’s one of those cliches I kind of fell into teaching because my husband and I went to work in a Christian boarding school right I didn’t realize that I would be able to to become a teacher um but I I was and I did and I enjoyed teaching secondary English for many years um but then I think eventually my kind of intrigue into a broader range of um yeah a broader range of interests I think I’m much more of a holistic person all right yeah master of none i am i ended up teaching even though i have no teaching qualification because in further education colleges you don’t have to have any qualifications at all it’s quite funny so i ended up teaching maths to car mechanics for a while just to supplement my income because i do have a degree in engineering as well as some other things and so i do know a little bit of maths enough to be able to teach it but that was that was my only experience of of teaching.
I think it was for an academic year I did it with car mechanics who had absolutely no interest in what I was teaching at all, but I tried to enthuse.
It was a very interesting exercise.
Did you become a Christian at university or were you one when you went?

[5:42] So it’s a slightly more complicated story. My background isn’t Christian, like that of my husband’s family.
And it’s one of those stories that is quite sort of bittersweet.
A tough time for my family when I was a child meant that a family down the road whose children I went to school with, they supported us and took us under the wing.
And I would often go and stay there during particularly challenging periods.
And they shared the gospel with me when I was a child. And as I grew up, my parents started coming on to the church sometimes.
And I’d say my parents kind of dabbled on and off with Christianity.
I’m not really sure where they are now, but that family and their witness and love had a real profound impact on me.
And as a sort of an older child, younger teenager, I made a choice to follow Jesus.
Right. But I was quite a rebellious teenager.
Yeah. So when I went to university, I realised that I had a choice to make to really live wholeheartedly for Jesus or to reject him in the gospel.
There’s no sitting on a fence.
And I think my conscience proved to be a really helpful tool in bringing me to my knees and submitting to Jesus.
And that really was at university where I really got stuck into church and the Christian union. And I grew so much in my faith.

[7:03] Thanks for sharing that. And I’m glad God pulled you through all of that.
And yeah, you’re serving him now.
You’re going to help us with some future podcasts.
But for today, for now, we’re going to talk about Association of Christian Teachers, ACT.
So tell us what it is and what you’re trying to do. Great.
So ACT, the Association of Christian Teachers, kind of does what it says on the tin.
Although we don’t just have teachers as members. We have anyone who has a role in or an interest in education who is a Christian.
We seek to be an association that supports those that are generally working or volunteering in education.
We support them to live out their lives honouring Christ in schools.
We seek to connect them with other Christians working in education so they can be that mutual support and encouragement to one another.
We seek to resource them so we can help to train them to grow, to navigate the complexities of their faith and how that can operate within sometimes quite a secularized or quite a difficult environment.
And we seek to influence the context as well for the sake of Christian teachers, but the glory of God.

[8:21] So we want to encourage those. We want to equip teachers and other Christians to be salt and light in their places of work.
We just want to help people to be faithful servants of Christ, really.

[8:35] That’s what we do. And we do that through resources, through podcasts, through conferences, through network meetings.
Lots of different things but it’s those three arms of our mission to connect resource and to influence that is really kind of summarizes our ministry right oh i got four because i got support but maybe support is the overarching one i think yeah support probably underpins all three of those yeah connect resource and influence yeah yeah great so how do you do the resourcing what what’s do you have a website and you can tell us your website because i’ll probably forget to ask you yeah we certainly do we have a website it’s uh www.christian-teachers.org.uk and we do you know we sort of provide articles commentary on on current issues we also have a podcast we are current series is teaching christianly a slightly awkward title i think but But we are trying to help teachers think through how they can navigate the complexities of their particular subject or their stage in education or the age of children they teach from a uniquely Christian perspective.

[9:54] And what’s the podcast called?

[9:57] It’s called The ACT Podcast. And this series is teaching Christianly.
Right. So we think through, so far we’ve tackled subjects such as teaching English Christianly, teaching science Christianly, history.
Right. Yeah. Is it from a Christian point of view or with a Christian attitude or a bit of both?

[10:19] So it’s really discussing the, I mean, obviously it’s, yeah, it’s from a Christian point of view.
I’m talking with teachers who are Christians, who are reflecting on some of their own practice, some of their own thoughts on what it means to be a Christian English teacher or to be a Christian PE teacher and reflect on, perhaps give wisdom or just trash around some of the ideas about what it means to teach that subject.
Christianly because there are so many challenges I think to teaching certain subjects but particularly subjects that might arise so for example I recently recorded a podcast with two history teachers and they articulated really clearly some of the complexities some of the challenges some of the kind of underpinning philosophies and approaches to to the education system that really perhaps can either conflict or support a Christian worldview.
And we talk about the room there is then for a Christian worldview within that subject.

[11:27] That is absolutely fascinating. I could really get into that.
My little bit of teaching maths, I every now and then just threw in kind of things about order and music and maths and it all kind of lining up. And isn’t this amazing?
Because things in maths, which the Carver Cates eventually kind of got a little bit interested in but but it was they were just getting through it really but you know i was relearning stuff about sine waves and how you know things spinning around line up with triangles and how it all kind of works and how exponential curves work and everything else and it’s both points to a creator because there’s so much order in it both in its beauty but also in the fact that it works there’s both those things there’s a sort of beauty to mathematics But there’s also an order to it.
So I could imagine teaching maths Christianly might be that, but it also might be just in the gracious way that you teach.
So that’s why I was asking, you know, is it more of the, what does this show us about God?
And how could I apologetically, sort of winsomely kind of mention that, I suppose, is what you’re talking about. Yeah.
I suppose so, yes, yes. I mean, I think, Graham, maybe we should get you on for a teaching maths podcast.
I think you sound like you’d have some great wisdom to offer.

[12:40] But yeah, no, it’s thinking, it’s not necessarily, we certainly wouldn’t be wanting to encourage ACT members or Christian teachers to manipulate curriculum, to insert kind of, you know, opportunities or to proselytise, but we certainly want them to think in a christ-centered way about how they honor god through how they teach through the curriculum what room and what space there is within the curriculum.

[13:07] Um to to share perspectives um that might be different to to what children are normally exposed to i think you know we’ve got to remember that no curriculum is is neutral it’s not that that we’re just imposing, you know, the gospel on a completely neutral curriculum.

[13:25] But where it is relevant and perhaps where that conversation would arise naturally and where perhaps there are other ideologies that are transmitted as well, it’s perfectly reasonable to pose a kind of a different perspective to ensure that there’s a plurality of ideas that are going into the curriculum.
Him i’m really i’m really pleased you’re doing that it sounds really interesting and yeah i mean it’s the obvious ones like biology where you may kind of think well how do i teach that christianly as a christian but the fact that you’re talking about lots of other topics yeah sounds really good i could get really enthusiastic about that we’re going to have a listen to the podcast we did one yeah we really we did one on um on on teaching science christianity um and that was really fantastic we had two subject specialists who were there chatting about the whole gamut of kind of scientific knowledge and and they were from an institute there’s this name i’ve completely now forgotten yeah that’s all right i understood put it in the show notes yeah i’ll remember it i will remember i’m sure i will um yeah but it was uh yeah no a really interesting insight into kind kind of how some of those conversations and debates around.

[14:47] You know, current thinking about even ideas that Christians might have slightly polarised views on.

[14:56] The Faraday Institute, there you go.
Yeah, brilliant. I studied electrical and electronic engineering, so I got quite into Faraday and all of his stuff and his laws and all kinds of things. Very good.
So, what are the issues facing Christian teachers?

[15:16] There probably can’t be one, and some of them could be common to Christian and non-Christian teachers.
But what are the, as in, you know, pressure of work and stuff, which all teachers are perhaps facing. But the particular issues facing Christian teachers that it’s good to be aware of and to pray for and so on. Sure.
So, I mean, as you say, Graham, there are lots of work-based issues that Christians have in common with teachers that aren’t Christians.
And although it’d be very easy to say, well, that’s something that everyone experiences.

[15:47] We want to help Christians tackle workload and stress from a distinctly Christian perspective.
You know there’s no denying that schools are under an enormous amount of pressure in terms of things like managing budgets or recruitment struggles and rates of absence after covid and problematic behavior of students um or stared examinations it’s.

[16:09] A pressurized working environment and christians are not immune and so we want to help christians um.

[16:16] To face those and respond to those with integrity.

[16:20] And restraint because i’m sure many of your listeners will be aware that often the teaching profession isn’t restrained in the way that it complains yeah sometimes legitimately um but in terms of some of the other issues that perhaps more directly related to matters of conscience or freedom of belief there are some big challenges at christian’s day um the biggest issue that i probably see the most traffic on is related to generally matters of identity and students knowing how best to respond to them um to children who are questioning their gender identity or teachers knowing how to navigate resources that they’re given questionable resources when teaching things like relationships and sex education or dealing with policies and protocols that perhaps are directly or indirectly potentially discriminatory yeah and there are other issues that aren’t necessarily a direct threat to christian teachers per se but a part of the the overarching narrative or the increasingly secularized context that christians find themselves operating within um under a link to the dwindling impact of christianity things like the potential reframing of religious education the lack of compliance with a daily act of collective worship.

[17:47] These things aren’t necessarily a direct threat to individual liberties, but they certainly represent a context that I think is changing.
And as Christian teachers, we need to be acutely aware of so that we can make the most of the freedoms we have now.
But we can also, when necessary, put pressure on authorities to do something about that.
How does it feel at the moment feel for all teachers everywhere who are christians i mean is the feeling this is so hard i want to leave the profession it’s hard to be a teacher and it’s hard to be a christian teacher or are there good news stories of people who are kind of thriving and and doing well i think that’s the whole gamut of stories you know um yeah i hear from many Any Christian teachers who are struggling, who are struggling with workload and pressure.
I mean, I struggled with it myself. I came out of teaching three and a half years ago.
Not necessarily because of that. There are other reasons as well, including family reasons.

[18:56] But the pressure and the workload is, I think, something that if you’re not in the world of teaching, you can’t really understand fully.
Um but i think that yeah christian teachers do have that that additional um that additional pressure that they want to be doing a good job they want to know how to do a good job um they also want to have integrity and be faithful to christ and it’s easier in some.

[19:30] School environments than it is in others you know i’ve got friends who work in a school um very close to us it has christian foundation they have uh and it’s a you know it’s just a normal state maintained school yeah they have almost um total freedom to share the gospel they have bibles out in lessons you know they uh they have bible readings every day they have christian groups go in um you know they’re allowed to teach really in-depth like christian theology in religious education yeah um and yet you’ll get other schools where they are not only allowing other ideologies but promoting really damaging ideologies and forsaking other perspectives on life on sexuality sexuality um and i do hear from from christians often who are trying to operate within those contexts and who are feeling increasingly weary um in fact so we did a survey and a bit of research in the past year about uh.

[20:46] The christian perspectives on relationships and sex education and how much room there is, within a curriculum and we asked members and other christian teachers to respond and the results we found were quite worrying that where there are other ideologies and perspectives promoted often.

[21:06] Christians were um treated quite worryingly so that even if a christian expressed some concern certain they would be taken off teaching a whole unit yeah or they would be told that they were going to be facing a disciplinary procedure or they were um yeah basically told that they weren’t allowed to to transmit any kind of alternative perspective not the case everywhere but i do see it happening more and more and and we see we do see cases in the media some of those um are you know quite concerning and and at first glance they might be quite shocking they’re often other details that might come out later on yeah but thankfully there are also many christians who raise these concerns they get good advice from organizations such as the christian institute and they manage to go back and quietly um but confidently explain look this is actually something that i’m allowed to do and that i i uh i have freedoms under the equality act um i’m not doing anything to to sort of persecute or make children feel uncomfortable i’m just simply in a very gracious way in an educational environment where a plurality of opinions.

[22:32] And perspectives is allowed i’m just you know giving another perspective and usually when those arguments are presented like that and they are approached in a winsome way christian teachers can thrive and they can yeah do a great job and i’ve just got a story about uh one teacher who i meet up with and i do mentoring with she’s a wonderful christian lady and she she teaches religious education but she also recently went for a new role, head of PSHE.
Now, there are many Christians who wouldn’t want to touch PSHE with a barge pole because they’d be so worried about the kind of ramifications, whether they’re going to be.

[23:17] Setting an agenda, you know, other teachers be concerned about if it, you know, it wasn’t liberal enough or if it didn’t include lessons on things like gender ideology or gender identity, I should say.
But she has been so wise and cautious about going through material and about making every effort to ensure that she’s combing through things, getting out good quality resources, going through things and questioning why they would have certain resources there that actually don’t seem to tally with what medical evidence says or what kind of the latest NHS advises or what the government is now advising and actually because she’s done that in a gracious and winsome way she’s gained a lot of respect and she’s not been overly combative at all but she’s been gracious and winsome and she has influenced that educational context with the glory of God and I just give thanks for people like her who are willing to step out and perhaps put themselves in a slightly more precarious position and I’m not going to say it’s going to always be easy.
Sometimes you might get blacklisted. Sometimes you might get a bit of reputation in the staff room because we all know that generally staff rooms can be quite, vitriolic, moany places. I certainly remember that.

[24:40] Yeah, that’s a really good story and really encouraging. My observation on one or two people that I’ve helped is that, Sometimes there is militant sort of anti-Christian ideology.
Mostly there’s just ignorance and fear. So there’s a kind of general media message that on all matters of equality, they’re all kind of settled and that you shouldn’t speak out against anyone on any topic, really, whether it’s race or identity or anything else.
Whereas the the law is is different to that so sometimes just pointing out what the law actually is is helpful and and is liberating because sometimes people are operating under fear you know heads or heads of departments they haven’t really got time to kind of look into it so thinking well let’s just we can’t possibly say that or do that and then if you just point out now we are allowed to say that you may not be allowed to say this but you’re allowed to say this yeah you’re allowed to do this it’s quite it can be quite liberating and yeah sometimes.

[25:38] Sometimes pupils at schools that I’ve sort of dealt with and they’ve been told by teachers, you can’t say that.
And then then you’ll say, but you can say that you’re completely at liberty to say that, you know, they can’t put you in detention or put you on report or something for saying that because it’s your freedom. Anyway.

[25:56] So, yeah, sounds sounds really good. Well, we’re getting near the end.
So it’ll be really good to say if you have teachers in your church and we certainly have two of our elders are teachers i’m not sure we’re supporting them that well so after this i’m going to go and do whatever you tell tell us to do but if you have teachers in your school how can you best support them and these may be obvious things but yeah.

[26:21] Yeah i mean to be honest i’m really quite surprised that you’ve got elders who are teachers because i didn’t realize teachers have had that much free time to to commit to kind of oversight site and and shepherding no that that’s really great that that was a bit of a joke but on a serious note i would say that as church leaders be aware that teachers will be um will often be quite stressed and limited for time and actually encouraging them to take part in the ministry of showing up it’s probably sometimes a really good place to start right my husband calls it the the ministry is showing up yeah turning up so just encouraging them reminding them you know it’s home group tonight it’d be great to see you there i know you’re probably really stressed but how can we pray for you you know we’d love to we’d love to see you and sometimes for a season that can be something that you know is really what they can commit to um it’s very easy to think to not it’s sunday i might come in the morning um but i can’t come to an evening service because because I’ve just got so much marking to do, but sometimes just gently encouraging them saying, it’s been such an encouragement to see you regularly at this church service.
You know, we know that you’re stressed. We know that you’ve got a lot on.
So just thank you. I think that can be a real encouragement. Um, and.

[27:43] Just praying for them, you know, asking, are there any particular issues at school that are particularly challenging at the moment?
You’ve got any students, I mean, obviously not sharing names necessarily, but there will often be.
And I know of some teachers in our congregation who have students that have some really big issues going on, particularly primary teachers who are coming home, dealing with these things, internalising them.
And I think if you have a little insight into what it’s like to work in education.

[28:13] Just asking regularly about some of those individuals that you can be praying for, again, not necessarily showing names, that can be a real encouragement.
Encouragement if you’re a church leader as well don’t forget that well even if you’re not a church leader if you just have an interest in schools and education you can have a great impact and a great opportunity to bless your local school um and obviously if you’ve got a teacher in in your congregation that’s a great route here a great avenue in i often think that teachers are the gatekeepers they can’t necessarily perform all the tasks they would like to in encouraging a christian ethos or a christian union in school they often are the gatekeepers so why don’t you ask a christian teacher i think i could come in and perhaps you know something up or do an assembly or help to run a christian union um because i can guarantee that if a school is you know thinking do you know what we’re really not fulfilling our statutory obligation to to do a daily act of collective worship by assembly, then they would probably bite your arm off if you came at it in the right way.

[29:27] So speak to the teachers, ask them how you can pray for them and encourage them to show up when and how often, however often they can and let them know that it’s encouragement to see them.
Yeah, that’s really helpful. Sometimes as church leaders, we feel like we’re nagging people people who all have their different set of reasons why, I almost said excuses then, but reasons why they shouldn’t sort of show up.
And it’s finding the right kind of way of encouraging people that it’s good for them and that they’re really missed when they’re not there.
Well, as a teacher, you know, you’ve always got to notice good behaviour. Yeah. Reward control.

[30:04] Yeah that sounds so legalistic doesn’t it but yeah just saying it’s been such an encouragement to see you so much recently yeah yeah and just to encourage people locally here we have two very secular secondary schools but we do christian unions in both of them joining with a couple of other churches and we have a church school just because of what’s imposed on them struggles a bit to be very churchy and we do some clubs in there and and in some other places as well so So, yeah, if you keep sort of bashing away, assemblies have been really hard.
I don’t know if it is generally true, but since COVID, assemblies are broken down rather.
So schools where we did assemblies quite regularly don’t have us anymore because I’m not sure they even do them.
I think they kind of found COVID as a sort of reason for everything kind of broke down to do with assemblies.
That’s a hard one because they, you know, they should be doing.
And i’d be interested to know what they’re doing in the stead because really they should be delivering some form of collective worship which should be in the main christian every day.

[31:05] Yeah yeah yeah kind of different for different schools but yeah but they may be and it just may be that our contacts were sort of lost but yeah just to encourage people they they can get i thought you might be about to say about being a school governor which is is kind of it’s a bit of a cliche but it’s what people often talk about no absolutely you know i i coerced my husband into being a school governor just over a year right it’s school and i think i probably i think he mentioned something very um very casually a while ago and i kind of mentioned it to a.

[31:40] The chair of governors and the head teacher and then the next day you’d had an email saying thank you so much for your interest in being a school governor um yeah so that’s that’s another way and you don’t even have to have a link to the school as in yeah it’d probably good if you lived in the community yeah um but you don’t have to be a teacher at the school you don’t have to be a parent obviously it’d be great if you know you have some link with yeah the local church or a church just to say you know I’ve got concern about the school in our community I’d love to know how we can support you in the governance of that you know how what is the process of becoming a governor what kind of steps might I need to take to to go about starting that process so that’s a great way and I tell you what governors really do that really important job of of holding not just holding leaders to account but supporting leaders um and we’ve seen over the last year or so we’ve got.

[32:38] A christian tribe governors and my husband who’s a governor and just the way that they’ve sort of i mean it takes time it’s not something that is necessarily a kind of walk in the park but we have seen how we’ve built up relationships they know that we are supportive they know that we want the best for school and they know that when they do things well and we will celebrate that to the nth degree because we’re so thankful for the hard work they put in but then it also means that that kind of that gentle criticism or the kind of the questioning they know that that’s coming from a place of care and love and and they they receive that pretty well so we’re really really thankful.

[33:19] That we’ve got a great relationship with our our school leadership i’m sure my husband husband is grateful that I coerced him into becoming a governor. I think he is anyway.
Yeah. Well, it’ll probably give you an opinion. Yeah. So that’s really helpful.

[33:35] I think we’ve probably run out of time. So thank you so much for speaking about the Association of Christian Teachers and about teachers in general and all the pressures they’re under.
Thanks for being on. Remind us of the website so people can go and look you up.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, it’s www.christian-teachers.org.uk.
And yeah, we’d love to have members or those that like to support us or just find out more about the association.
Please do go and have a look. we’re also on social media as well brilliant thank you very much thank you.

[34:08] Music.

[34:15] Thank you so much for listening to affinity talks gospel podcast affinities a network of evangelical churches and christian organizations working together sharing stories in order to to encourage and equip God’s people to preach and live the gospel in this generation.
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[34:50] Music.


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