A secondary school teacher contacted me about her new role in a school where the majority of students are Muslim. Here, she describes her struggle to balance the schools rules with the varying cultural differences. What role does religion play in a non-religious school?
For privacy reasons she remains anonymous.
“Last summer I had an interview for a teaching job at an all girls’ school and was thrilled to be offered the place. The school is very different to other schools I have taught in with the main difference being that about 90% of the students are Muslim.
On being offered the job the thought that this might be quite challenging didn’t cross my mind. The fact I didn’t possess this religion as my own faith didn’t faze me at all. Probably, the reasons being, that I have experience teaching a multitude of students with varying faiths, I have Muslim friends and I’d therefore like to think I know quite a bit about the religion. So off I went into the job with a very open mind.
That’s not to say I didn’t worry at all. A few days before starting my new post I started to think about how this may be a challenge after all.
What if I can’t relate to these girls? What if I offend them? Am I supposed to plan my lessons differently to ensure their culture is not ignored? Will I be able to express my own opinions and beliefs?
Within my first few weeks I spoke to many teachers who had taught there for years, all willing to tell me stories of how they have dealt with such a different group of students. Stories that all seemed to revolve around the girls falling into what I perceived as cultural and religious stereotypes.
The stories were shocking but I tried my best to keep an open mind, get to know the girls and their parents so I could form my own opinion. I did however notice changes in myself. I found that I was not expressing my opinions as much, I was careful about what I incorporated into lessons and when the students became inquisitive about me personally I was much more reluctant to reveal details about myself that I may have shared with students in the past.
It began to play on my mind so much I became frustrated. All of this because of a fear of offending? I was not just cautious of offending the students but terrified of offending their parents. I am even writing this post anonymously for fear of offending people.
At school, I am still very cautious about giving out detentions as I worry the parents will get angry as maybe I should know that the students should be at the mosque or have family responsibilities. The same goes for asking students to stay after school or come in on Saturdays for catch up sessions.
I am pleased to say that for the majority of the time this is a rarity for me the parents are generally very supportive but yet, due to some of my more challenging experiences and the experiences of other teachers in the school, I am still cautious.
Analysing my own worries, that are sometimes unfounded it seems, I am worried about my own lack of knowledge of their culture and rather than teaching in a way I believe best I am altering my own behaviour because I don’t want to upset anyone.
If I am honest it is the cultural differences that I see, which I believe, are I forced on the girls that upset me. The school doesn’t allow religious attire and is not a religious school yet day after day more pupils show up in religious garments which they know they shouldn’t be wearing. Here, what am I supposed to do?
Ignore it? Accept it? Or teach them that rules are rules?
In my short time here I have not come up against some of the challenges that other teachers have. When it comes down to it I would like to think I would stand up for what I believe in and support the rules set out by the school because at the end of the day I care about the students and if I believe that something is wrong and a student is being treat unfairly because of religious, cultural or even family reasons I’m not sure I could hold back.”