From the struggles of secular teachers in Australian, American, and Israeli religious schools: Complexities of moral dilemmas and promising coping strategies

Year: 2018

Author: Finefter-Rosenbluh, Ilana, Perry-Hazan, Lotem, Muzikovskaya, Elizabeth

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

While immigration marks a rise in Western’s countries cultural diversity, socio-religious segregation has increased in schools. Several studies have examined strategies that enhance diversity and pluralism in religious schools, such as inclusive admission policies and activities shared with other schools. While another possible strategy is hiring teachers whose religious affiliation differs from their students, there is insufficient research on the implications of disparities between religiously homogenous classes and teachers who do not share their students’ religious values.                                                  This qualitative study examined the experiences of Jewish secular teachers who work in Jewish religious schools in Australia, the US, and Israel. The research is based on semi-structured interviews with 26 teachers (7 American, 7 Australian, and 12 Israeli teachers; 22 women and 4 men).                                                                            Findings indicated that the teachers experienced three key moral challenges. Firstly, they struggled with the limits of their professional duties, as these sometimes conflicted with their own sense of freedom of religion and conscience. These dilemmas concerned, inter alia, gender-based physical separation procedures at school events, and the dress code required of them. Secondly, they contended with their schools’ religious disciplinary codes. On the one hand, most interviewees held high behavioural and moral expectations from their students, but on the other hand, several interviewees grappled with disciplining students for infractions of religious practices to which they do not adhere themselves. Thirdly, some teachers experienced dilemmas regarding their school’s approach to Israeli politics. In addition, we identified three patterns of organisational attachment, which were generally unrelated to the teachers’ national background: (a) The non-conformers, who sidestepped practices which they saw as challenging their own freedom of religion and conscience (e.g., intentionally skipping scheduled prayers); (b) The adaptors, who seek to accommodate the school’s religious and organisational culture and strictly enforce the religious aspects of the school’s code of conduct; and (c) The fence-sitters, who are in an intermediate position. They have learned to live with their moral and educational conflicts and maintain a low profile in school. All interviewees, regardless of their organisational attachment, exhibited caution when expressing (if at all) non-religious and political opinions. The study concludes with the benefits of teacher diversity in religious schools, and offers illuminating guidelines that can assist in effectively integrating teachers in schools whose ethos differs from the teachers’ religious background.