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Humanists UK's new community for teachers

Alexander Williams on plans to raise awareness of a group seeking to 'promote a more tolerant world in which rational thinking and kindness prevail'

Posted by Julian Owen | June 19, 2019 | Teaching

Last November, for the first time ever, humanists were officially represented alongside religious officials at the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph. It marked a huge step forward in visibility for humanists on the national stage and was the culmination of years of campaigning from Defence Humanists, the armed forces section of Humanists UK. For many humanists, myself included, it was a special moment. A moment in which we felt recognised and acknowledged by an establishment that all too frequently fails to pay attention to the country’s non-religious majority.

As a teacher, the decision to be open about being a humanist at school is not always an easy one. Visible inclusion in moments of national importance really helps. Such moments allow you to feel like you belong to a living, thriving community that’s making a positive impact on the world. It bolsters your sense of identity, your pride in that identity, and your enthusiasm to get involved. And perhaps most importantly it raises public awareness. When my family members saw the chief executive of Humanists UK, Andrew Copson, join the faith leaders in laying a poppy wreath, it prompted them to ask me more about humanism. As a result, we all have a deeper understanding of one another’s beliefs.

Schools already have a responsibility to include humanism in religious studies lessons, and Humanists UK has an excellent school speaker program in place

There's often a pressure on teachers and those who work in schools to keep details that might be considered personal or controversial carefully hidden. That’s especially true in relation to matters of faith and belief. Such revelations can be an invitation to a quiver of challenging questions from students, which may not have comfortable answers, or may not have answers at all. Add to that the fear that you might inadvertently offend somebody with an opposing view and you would be forgiven for asking yourself: Is it really worth the risk?

I'm fortunate to be working in a school with open-minded, inquisitive students, supportive parents, and an enthusiastic staff, for whom I’ve become the school’s ‘humanist rep’. I regularly join the religious studies department for events, including a workshop day for Year 7s, a Question Time-style discussion panel for the sixth form and an annual World Humanism Day lecture. As an English teacher it’s a real pleasure to work in such cross-curricular fashion. It’s great to see the students realise that staff can have passions outside their immediate subject areas!

Humanists UK’s Darwin Day lecture

Being vocally and visibly humanist at school has really made me conscious of the responsibility we have as adults, and specifically as teachers, to open up the conversation about belief, faith, and rational thinking with students and colleagues.

There have been struggles, though, often due to a lack of resources, information, advice, and support. Being a member of Humanists UK has really helped with that, as have the resources on the Understanding Humanism website. I think the biggest difficulty has been the lack of a like-minded community. Hopefully, the Humanist Teachers Network, launched in November, will help solve that.

The aim of Humanist Teachers is to create a vibrant, supportive community that can work together to raise people’s awareness and understanding of humanism, and promote a more tolerant world in which rational thinking and kindness prevail.

Being visibly humanist at school has really made me conscious of the responsibility to open up the conversation about belief, faith, and rational thinking with students and colleagues

Schools already have a responsibility to include humanism in religious studies lessons, and Humanists UK has an excellent school speaker program in place, offering schools the opportunity to request a humanist speaker to come and talk to their students. Humanist Teachers is something different. Our ambition is to provide the framework for creating a community of like-minded adults working in the field of education who, through coming together, can develop their own understanding and confidence around humanist issues and become visible representatives of humanism in their schools and colleges.

If you consider yourself a humanist in education and would like to join our membership, please visit the Humanists UK website and sign up!

As a teacher, the decision to be open about being a humanist at school is not always an easy one    

If you have questions, if you’re facing difficulties, or if you’ve got a good story to tell for our newsletter, then get in touch. You can email me on teachers@humanism.org.uk. We’re also looking for people who can help run the network, so if you’d like to help, please let me know.

This community is ours to make: a space to share successes and failures, resources and ideas, questions and answers. It can grow in whatever direction we encourage it to, so I urge you to get involved!

An Understanding Humanism Teachers conference will take place in London on July 9. For further information, email Luke Donnellan via education@humanism.org.uk.

Alexander Williams is the President of Humanist Teachers

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