The Theatre of Learning (and the theatre of being a role model)

We had a five hour training session at uni today. Sue Phillips came in to talk to the PGCE Religious Studies people about experiential RE, or the idea of focusing on what it feels like to follow a particular faith as opposed to studying it from behind a metaphorical pane of glass. There’s a lot of music, dressing up, and use of artefacts. It’s an exciting and potentially controversial approach to the subject, as you run the risk of turning deeply significant rituals into fun pieces of theatre. However, if you create a serious environment around the ritual and the reflection, you can enhance your role from someone teaching content and skills to that of someone responsible for your students’ spiritual development. We might say you become a spiritual leader. Scary. Maybe we should scratch that and stick with “moral leader” (which is only slightly less scary).

Sue left us with a tale of poverty and asked us to respond to a series of statements, like “It’s Pedro’s fault that he is homeless”. We held up a green piece of card to say “agree” , yellow to say “not sure”, or a red piece to say “disagree”. A few more statements were read out, and we talked a bit about what people were saying. Finally, Sue read out the final statement: “We can make poverty history”.

Perhaps influenced by my year 10 class from placement (to whom I recently asked a similar question), I thought for a few seconds and then held up the red card. To be honest, it was probably a knee-jerk response to the thought of Bono staring earnestly into a camera while wearing a white suit, but I had other reasons. Humans tend to make themselves unequal to each other. It’s been like this for some time. The systems that create the rich require that there be poverty in the world.

There was a mix of colours going up around the room.  Sue seemed to be troubled by the reds. Now, she agreed that poverty probably won’t be eliminated, but the question was asking if it can be eliminated. As I say, several of us were taking this defeatist point of view. The crucial point she then made was that you shouldn’t pass this opinion on to your students. Your duty as a teacher to inspire hope trumps your duty to be honest.

I could see where she was coming from. I’m not proud of being a defeatist. But I am proud of being honest. Three or four weeks ago, I’d taught a class on poverty to the year 10 class I mentioned earlier and decided beforehand that I was going to tell them the honest truth: that I don’t always care about other people’s problems. I get wrapped up in the world I see around me, and while that’s photos of people in Haiti I worry about that, and while it’s snow in my back garden I worry about that. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not much different from a lot of other people in this respect. It’s not that I’m a bad person – I just have limits to the number of other people I can care about. I thought it might be interesting to look at why we frequently don’t care about people less well off than ourselves. How is it that we justify not helping out other people? Can we place the blame on airy concepts like “selfishness”? Are there earthly factors which create and promote this selfishness?

Side note to anyone else teaching wealth and poverty: in the same year 10 lesson, we talked about this article from BoingBoing: “Was it cruel to let poor kids in India play with my iPod?”, which brought up some interesting issues about aspiration and Western paternalism.

Anyway. Here’s what I think about the role model question: we can be a moral role model while admitting our failings, and to a certain extent our cynicism and pessimism. Maybe we’ll even gain a kind of respect through this. I agreed with a lot of what Sue Philips had to say today, but I’m reluctant to say it’s a teacher’s job to sell hope they don’t honestly believe in.


One thought on “The Theatre of Learning (and the theatre of being a role model)

  1. I met Sue through the Youth Cabinet and thought she rocked, but I agree with you on the honesty thing. It’s obvious enough to a lot of students that their teachers aren’t being honest about all sorts of things, without said teachers deliberately trying to mislead students into a false hope. Besides, have you seen those sincerely hopeful people who don’t really have a clue what they’re saying? They’ll make your teeth rot and fall out quicker than a bag of sugar.

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