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Centre Blog

Matthew Vince – ‘Being There’: A brief reflection on shadowing Muslim RE teachers

24 October 2017

When I began my doctoral thesis – exploring the experiences of Muslim Religious Education (RE) teachers working in British secondary school contexts – I wanted an ethnographic aspect to the study. Despite the growth of research surrounding Muslims in education, rarely has this research ventured past the school gates. Therefore, during my data collection I “shadowed” a small number Muslim RE teachers across England.

Now that I have completed the shadowing, the chance to write a research report for NATRE’s REToday magazine (September 2017) allowed me to stop, breathe, and take stock of my previous year of data collection. It was quite overwhelming thinking about this process; the 12,000 miles I’d driven; the many favours I now owed to friends and colleagues who had given me a bed for the night; the 60,000 words of ‘paraethnographic’ fieldnotes now sitting on my desk. My sojourn into the worlds of Muslim RE teachers had been transformative because I was there, with them, during so many powerful moments.

I witnessed first-hand how these teachers had to deal with the aftermath of national incidents like the Manchester Arena attack or Grenfell Tower; fielding questions by pupils that many academics have been hesitant to answer; how someone copes with a 12-hour summer day of talking, teaching, and telling off, without drinking water; how these teachers often share their own life experiences to challenge the misconceptions of pupils and wider media stereotypes that typically emerge within the RE classroom.

These are experiences that are elusive in academic discourses, experiences that my study would have missed had I not been there in person to witness and record them. Gilliat-Ray (2011, 482) notes how shadowing involves the ‘total immersion of our senses and sensibilities’ by joining someone in every aspect of their daily working routine. These experiences were so powerful because I was bound up “in the moment” of the physical, mental, and emotional responses that they evoked.

It is striking how little guidance or support is available to those facing these kinds of professional challenges. Yet these were the challenges that were the most consistent, the most draining, and the most “accepted” part of the job for Muslims in the RE classroom. So more striking still are the strategies developed, ad hoc, by these teachers over time that allow them to respond with resilience and, I would say, great deal of success!

The challenges and successes of Muslims working as RE teachers in state schools compose one distinct perspective within the multitude of educational settings in Britain. My research leaves me with no doubt that there are a plethora of powerful moments happening in Religious Education and other subjects across this range of settings, from masjids to seminaries, primary schools to Higher Education institutions.

These are the kinds of everyday experiences that I and a fellow doctoral researcher at the Islam-UK Centre are hoping to capture at an upcoming one-day symposium titled Islam, Muslims, and education in Britain). The aim is to draw together narratives at the micro level to offer a counterpoint to the often macro-level, ideological discussions surrounding Muslims and education. Alongside academic and student voices, we welcome contributions from practitioners; those “on the ground”, to foster dialogue that explores these every day, lived experiences.

Matthew Vince is a doctoral candidate and Jameel Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK.