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Teaching with Faith and Professionalism

A Book Review

Religious Faith and Teacher Knowledge in English Language Teaching, Bradley Baurain. UK Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1-4438-8262-0. Hardback only. Available on Amazon and from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Bradley Baurain, with 20 years TESOL experience, bridges the spheres of practical teaching and academia. This book, a re-working of his PhD dissertation, falls firmly in the latter world, yet has much of interest to practitioners of English teaching in China.

The book addresses a lack of research into the relationship between religious belief and professionalism in the context of TESOL. There has been significant academic criticism of the motives and approaches of Christian TESOL teachers, stereotyped as “dishonesty, unprofessionalism, manipulative proselytizing, and being (unwitting or not) tools of American neoimperialism” (p. 41). Such criticisms have led some researchers to question any realistic dialogue between modern critical scholarship and Christian TESOL engagement.

As an evangelical Christian, Baurain challenges this perspective with a detailed study of the integration of faith and professionalism among a group of 11 qualified English teachers in three SE Asian countries. His conclusions show the complex and diverse ways in which these young teachers explain the relationship between their beliefs and their professional attitudes and practice. From an academic perspective this not only challenges previous criticisms, but also models a scholarly approach where the researcher’s personal perspective is properly recognised and accounted for. Both his approach and his data offer a way forward for future research in this area.

The first two chapters, just over half of the book, follow normal academic form with an extended literature review and a discussion of methodology. Chapter 6 provides academic conclusions, pointing out ways forward for future research. For TESOL practitioners, however, the greatest interest lies in chapters 3-5, which summarise and discuss Baurain’s interviews with his subjects. These chapters, the focus of the rest of this review, could be read as a self-contained unit.

In chapter 3, Baurain summarises three major themes emerging from the interviews. The first is how professionalism is conceived, as “faith-motivated excellence in teaching” (p. 80), as a “spiritual calling” (p. 81), and as engendering “specific moral and spiritual challenges” (p. 82). The latter is illustrated by the use of pirated textbooks, in which one respondent reported how he had moderated his initially strict stance in the light of local realities, a scenario that many teachers in China may have encountered. Baurain does not adjudicate on this or other differences of opinion, as his aim is to describe rather than evaluate. The theme of tension or moral challenge is, however, frequently repeated.

The second theme is the centrality of relationships in the way the subjects connected their faith and their work, underpinning almost everything they talked about. Specifically, there was an emphasis on care and respect as core values, on authentic meaningful learning, and on hospitality outside the classroom. Theologically, these were rooted in seeing students as made “in God’s image,” by the love of God, and by the incarnation. Again, significant challenges were seen in a relational context. One teacher reported adjusting his personal cultural expectations to allow his student guests to clear up after a meal as a sign of their respect.

The final theme is witness, with three main conclusions. First, witness could mean looking for opportunities to raise moral and spiritual issues in class. It was here that the greatest diversity of opinions was found. Some respondents were open and even eager to explore such possibilities, whereas a few felt this was too opportunistic. Second, witness was seen as holistic, related to all of the teacher’s attitudes and practices: “doing the job the best way I can with the most integrity and the most professionalism” (p. 100). A distinction was made between “witness”, in which teachers hoped their faith would be revealed in all they did, and “proselytizing” (p. 102). Finally, moral challenges were again identified, in discerning the boundary between professional responsibilities and spiritual dimensions.

Chapter 4 uses case studies of four individual teachers to clarify and confirm these earlier themes. Then chapter 5 has a deeper discussion of the key area of witness, in relation to three other concepts. The first, distinctiveness from other teachers, highlighted commitments to give particular attention to weaker or disadvantaged students, as well as a general perception that witness was mostly about motivation and other inward factors rather than specific teaching techniques. The second, applied theology, noted key biblical themes in the teachers’ thinking: learning as a creation mandate, man made in God’s image, the incarnation, and the example of Jesus as a teacher. The third, professionalism, examined how teachers expressed their faith in professionally acceptable ways. Selected issues here were the (controversial) use of faith-related material in lessons related to festivals, and the importance of critical thinking for the re-assessment of personal beliefs. Throughout the analysis, the holistic nature of witness, and its distinction from mere proselytizing, is a vital implicit and occasionally explicit theme.

Baurain’s study gives a rich collection of material about attitudes and approaches of young TESOL teachers. While the data were not collected in China, this resource nevertheless is very valuable for those concerned for the professional development of English teachers there.

China has been the host to many Christian English teachers over the last 35 years, from unqualified short-term teachers who have (sometimes) used teaching merely as a platform for witness, to long-term highly-qualified professionals. In recent years, however, professionalism has become increasingly important, because of rising academic standards, growing restrictions on freedom of speech in the classroom, and increasing anti-western rhetoric. For foreign Christian English teachers to function effectively, a growing attention to professionalism in work and witness is needed.

The views Baurain presents are diverse and highly relevant to the Chinese context. The fact that he is describing varied opinions rather than adjudicating between them actually makes the materials more valuable, as a resource both for individuals formulating their own approaches and for organisations supporting teachers. Indeed, the changing Chinese environment makes a focus on professionalism even more important for such organisations.

Finally, the book may help teachers relate more effectively to their home supporters. While teachers generally appreciate the complexities of their situation and the holistic nature of their witness, their supporters may sometimes be more narrowly focused on conversions. There is a wealth of material here to inspire teachers (or their organisations) in communicating the real issues and challenges.

Editor's note: We are grateful to Cambridge Scholars Publishing for providing a complimentary copy of  Religious Faith and Teacher Knowledge in English Language Teaching for our reviewer

John Davy

John Davy, PhD, spent 10 years teaching in Chinese universities.View Full Bio

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