Teachers and the belief barrier: ‘I don’t want to tell children they are sinners’

Many educators are obliged to teach faith because 90% of primary schools are Catholic

With 90 per cent of primary schools under Catholic control, many teachers are obliged to teach faith. Photograph: iStock

With 90 per cent of primary schools under Catholic control, many teachers are obliged to teach faith. Photograph: iStock

 

Teaching an eight year old they were a sinner was not something I thought I’d signed up for when becoming a teacher. But, as it turns out, it’s necessary.

The Certificate in Religious Studies (CRS) is a part-time course which aims to equip teachers with the “necessary knowledge and skills to teach religious education in Catholic primary schools.”

While it’s optional for training teachers, schools boards of management require the certificate as a condition of employment in schools.

And as 90 per cent of primary schools are under the Catholic ethos, that’s not really a choice many graduates can afford to refuse.

Without the CRS, you could be discriminated against - perfectly legally - on the basis of your religion or lack thereof.

So while studying for my bachelor in education at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, when the CRS was offered I accepted. Like most of my year. We wanted jobs. We wanted to be teachers.

We just had to be a certain type of teacher.

Tension

It was one of those moments no one really knew where to look.

A room of 100 or so final year student teachers were awkwardly waiting in silence in a lecture hall.

Someone had just shouted: “I don’t want to teach children lies, things I don’t believe in” during a CRS lecture.

There was tension in the air.

“Then why are you here?” the lecturer asked.

“Because we have to be,” she replied.

It was only when I had graduated, sitting across from priests at interviews in job after job, and having taught for a number of years, that I understood where that student was coming from.

What really mattered was not what I believed in, but what beliefs I would teach. Despite my own beliefs, it was part of the process to becoming a teacher in Ireland.

For each interview, I explained how I would give reverence to the Catholic ethos and how to instil the CRS in my teachings.

Little did they know that this all conflicted entirely with my own belief – as a teacher, as a gay man, as a person whose faith was built on my own terms.

And yet, the priest sits on the board of management. You’re answerable to him. It’s stifling being at odds with your “boss”’ and knowing that you have no legal crutch for support.

Holy Communion

One of my first teaching jobs was second class in a Catholic school, and as such the year of First Holy Communion.

Introducing the idea of “sin” and that in some grand stretch of the imagination these children were “bad” was disturbing and was something I cannot to this day justify.

It conflicted with everything I thought made childhood what it was; of what school was; and the year-long process was certainly not worth a day’s “celebration” in May.

But there was no escape, because of the amount of time dedicated in preparation.

Religious education is given an incredible amount of time each week, in every class. In the suggested framework from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, it gets two hours and 30 minutes for both infant days and full school days.

That means more time is spent teaching than say science, history, geography, physical education, art, drama or music as many of these subjects have to be heavily integrated into other subjects for time management.

And up until 2011, more time was spent teaching religion than mathematics in the infant rooms.

I quickly learned to adjust that year. Learning prayers by rote with the class, assigning religion homework, linking subjects such as art, music, drama to religion or else there’d be no time to teach them.

Because religion was the cornerstone of the school ethos, and school ethos’ trumped a teacher’s own beliefs of what should be taught.

New Ireland

As teachers we try our best to work with and for every child. But Religious instruction complicates this, regardless of a teacher’s own beliefs.

Segregating children, groups of friends, on the basis of their religion goes against everything holistic we try and encourage.

As a substitute teacher, I’ve worked in many classrooms in different settings. And in each there were instances where as soon as the Alive-O book was seen, the classroom rearranged itself in an instant.

“We don’t do that,” students would tell me, moving to the back of the room without question.

Some would bury themselves in “busy work” or reading. Others would go to different classrooms to do odd jobs. Most would eavesdrop on the content anyway, being naturally curious what they were missing out on.

But all were essentially forgotten about until the lessons were over.

It happened so often across my career that I tended not to realise the isolation they must have felt. And then of course, the realisation it was not unlike my own.

Conflicting content

Children in Irish schools come from a variety of backgrounds. Teachers come from a variety of backgrounds too. “Traditional” families, single parents, divorced families, LGBT families.

Religious, non-religious and in-between. But under the current circumstances in schools, this “Ireland”’ is not being addressed. It’s not being taught about.

While we debate school patronage and enrolment, let’s not forget the “belief barrier’ teachers face in the Irish education system.

Barry O’Rourke is a former primary school teacher