“The birth of my child was a special moment for me,” I hushed my voice for dramatic effect on returning to my Grade 10 religious education classroom. “The midwife said, ‘Reach for your baby!’ and placed her hands over mine so that I caught my daughter safely as she entered the world.”
A silent moment followed to emphasize how important the experience was for me, the teacher.
“Can you imagine if you squeezed too hard and the baby squirted across the room?!!?”
A class clown (that is, one of many) demonstrated with large motor skills the flailing, slippery hilarity he imagined into my emotionally and spiritually charged story.
I don’t know if anyone laughed; the steam whistling from my ears drowned out other noise.
I admit it — I was angry. I had placed a vulnerable part of myself in my students’ hands, seeking to share something of the miracle of human existence with them. And one of them, at least, made wet squelching noises with it.
Only later did I realize the problem was not this student’s disrespect, nor even that I shared a personal story, but rather my angry response came from my frustrated desire to be validated, to have my students react as I wanted them to — to feel as I felt and believe as I believed. When teenagers heard what might have been the first birth story they had ever heard, and responded in what they incorrectly thought to be an inappropriate way, I felt wounded. And angry.
Pushing our angry buttons is something every teacher has experienced in interactions with students. No matter how professional and detached we are, it is true that at some point, often innocently enough, students will strike too close to home.
For the religious educator, commissioned not just to teach about the faith but to model a faithful life, this dynamic carries important meaning.
In my last column I wrote about the importance of affording religious freedom to students who are learning about the church’s teaching. That is, the freedom to know what the church teaches, and then make their own decisions of faith in response to it.
What does this ask, then, of the religious educator? As a religious educator I need to be able to place my baby in my students’ hands — that is, my faith.
In my spiritual reading I encountered the kenotic Christ, the one who pours himself out for the sake of others, with no thought for himself. Becoming more like the kenotic Christ means I teach without seeking my own validation. In accepting the commission to teach in the name of the church, I agree to set down my own personal interpretation of God’s self-revelation. The religious educator must be willing and able to pour out the church’s teaching for students, clearly and correctly, whether they accept it or not. This is not easy to do. Church teaching is expansive, sometimes complicated, and always challenging.
But the role of any teacher is not to make the students’ critical judgements for them. That is, if the religious educator leaves out the essential aspects of church teaching they are uncomfortable with, or do not perceive as important the students’ chance to make their own judgments, to accept church teaching or not to accept it has been hijacked.
Similarly, if the teacher presents and instructs in his own perspective of faith more clearly than he does the authoritative teaching of the church, he obscures that which he has been entrusted to make known. Again, what is sabotaged is the ability of the student to consider and decide freely upon the Gospel message entrusted to the church.
A commission to teach children in a Catholic school — that is, in the name of the church — is not a license to teach one’s own spiritual expression to impressionable children. To use the position of authority to self-justify one’s worldview to a captive audience is more than irresponsible — it is an abuse. As with all professional obligations, the commitment to self-examination and further learning, so as to avoid abusing one’s authority, does not end.
Perhaps, by now, the key distinction between the positions of student and teacher in a religious education classroom becomes more visible. A student must be able to “play with” church teaching as part of getting to know it better and more clearly. A teacher, I would argue, cannot, at least not in the sense of confusing or challenging church teaching.
While the student must experience religious freedom from external coercion and pressure if they are to experience an authentic teaching of the Gospel, the teacher must practice religious fidelity if they are to provide such an experience, fidelity to the Catholic tradition which they have received.
LeBlanc is the author of Clarifying the Confusion of Purposes: Religious Educational Objectives and the New Taxonomy of Learning. He can be found at BigPictureSmallSteps.com