Scripture teachers honoured in celebration

When Coral Burge received an award celebrating her 44 years of teaching Christian SRE at an event in NSW Parliament House last week, she and her friend, Dorothea Leneman, who has taught Catholic SRE for 40 years at the same school, were mobbed by other SRE teachers.

“People came up to me and said, ‘how do you do it?’ Even the Hindu and Muslim ladies were coming up and asking for photos with us. They said, ‘You really inspired us that you’ve been going so long.’”

The event honoured the service of a wide array of faith-based SRE teachers – not only Christian but Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish – with Certificates of Outstanding Service presented by Sarah Mitchell, NSW Minister for Education and Early Learning. The Shadow Minister, Prue Car, also spoke on the night.

Special Religious Education in NSW public schools receives strong support from both the Labor and Liberal sides of politics as a way of encouraging and allowing parent choice in educating their children in their family’s beliefs.

Coral, aged 88, has a simple answer when asked how she’s still energised and enthusiastic about SRE teaching at Perthville Public School, 12km south of Bathurst in country NSW.

“I just enjoy it,” she tells Eternity. “I like telling stories, and I like the singing. It’s rewarding when you meet some boy down the street, or the shop checkout person says, ‘You used to be my Scripture teacher.'”

Coral receives her reward from Sarah Mitchell

Coral started teaching SRE at Perthville when the youngest of her four children went to high school. She had already been an infants’ teacher at the same school. She found the work particularly fulfilling when her husband developed dementia and she needed something positive in her life.

“I thought I might retire at 60, but I still enjoyed it and saw it as a mission field because people don’t take their children to church anymore and they don’t know who God is. Sunday sport has started taking kids away and they’re influenced by things they hear in the media and people aren’t interested. Children need to know that God loves them and he’s still in control of the world and they can trust him.”

A Christian since being converted at an open-air mission in Broken Hill when she was 15, Coral wanted to train as a teacher before going to Bible College and on to the mission field, but God had different plans for her.

“My husband said, ‘I feel God’s given me this farm,’ and I had to sort that out. Over the next three months, I thought, ‘I will play the piano at night church and teach Sunday school and play in the morning.’ Then I saw a gospel film about a boy whose parents wanted him to be a minister and he felt God wanted him to fix cars, so he was a missionary to cars. So I told my husband, ‘I think I’ve got an answer for you but come and see me.’ So he popped over and we got engaged. My parents loved him. My dad came into my bedroom early the next morning and said, ‘he’s a man in a million – marry him.’”

“Children need to know that God loves them and he’s still in control of the world and they can trust him.” – Coral Burge

For Coral, the highlight of teaching SRE is the warm responses of the little kids.

“When I was teaching kinder one day, there were twin boys who said, ‘I love you, you’re beautiful,’ and all the other little boys were saying, ‘I love you too!’”

When Coral was diagnosed with macular degeneration two years ago and could not drive for eight months, her friend Dorothea took her class while she was away. On her return, she was keen to tell the children how they could help.

“Before I went away, I was telling the story of the blind beggar who Jesus healed and I had just been diagnosed macular degeneration and I couldn’t see properly,” she says.

“Anyway, I told the children, ‘Remember that story I told about blind Bartimaeus? I need you to pray for me.’ So they prayed for me and straight away it became a lot better. And one of the little boys said, ‘Jesus can still heal today.’”

With the injections to treat her eye condition going well, Coral says that she will keep teaching SRE for as long as she can still drive and see to read.

“That’s my mission field – not Africa but here.”

David Hayward with Sarah Mitchell

For David Hayward, who was recognised for his ten years of teaching Christian SRE at Parkes High School, the highlight is also the questions his students ask.

“The best thing is talking with students and having them ask real questions, and being able to share, not just what the Bible says about something, but also what it means to me, what my personal answer is for that,” says David.

David teaches two days a week at Parkes, where he also leads lunchtime Bible study and leadership groups, and two days a week at Forbes High School and Forbes North Public.

“At Forbes North, I teach a special ed class, and kids really enjoy it. They identify with the puppet that I bring. One day, the puppet was worried and they were saying, ‘Oh, it’s okay, Fuzzy, it’s okay.’ And one boy said, ‘Fuzzy, I believe in God, and I know he cares for me, so I don’t have to worry.’ It was such a beautiful thing to hear him say.”

David also enjoys feedback from older siblings at Forbes High.

“I was talking to a student and he said, ‘Oh, you teach my younger brother in special ed in the primary school. And he’s always singing those songs that you teach him.’ One of the girls in special ed can’t really talk, there are very few words she can say, but she was able to sing a song that we did in class, which has a video with sign language with it. That was special. It’s probably my favourite class now.”

When David, a trained primary teacher, started his SRE role in 2012, he found it very hard to manage students’ behaviour.

A couple of years later, he was wondering if he could keep going when he attended a conference and responded to a challenge from the speaker.

“He said, ‘How will you know if you’re any good at your job if you quit before you’ve had a chance to really give it a go?’ So he challenged people to see one generation of students all the way through to year 12. So I challenged myself to try and stick at it that long, and it got a bit easier.”

“The fruit from this has been seeing whole families come through, the younger siblings of students I had taught.” – David Hayward

Having committed to staying in his role, David saw his first “generation” of students finish in 2017.

“The fruit from this has been seeing whole families come through, the younger siblings of students I had taught. Families in the country tend to be larger. This would lead to conversations: ‘You taught my older brother’ and ‘what are they up to now?’

“Also, a big benefit has come through knowing the school and staff better. I am more accepted by the school and my presence is welcomed and appreciated by the staff.”

“As Christians, we want to make the most of the opportunity but also do a really good job.” – David Hayward

Ironically, one change that has made life easier for David is the new opt-in system for SRE, which replaced an opt-out system.

“That means the kids who are there, for the most part, want to be there. Fewer kids do Scripture because of that, but it means that the kids who are there want to be there and enjoy what they’re learning about,” he says.

“We’re educating kids in who God is and the Christian beliefs from the Bible. We’re trying to teach that well and do a good job of educating them so that they’re making their own choice based on truth and not something that they’ve made up or misheard or misunderstood.

“It’s a real privilege. As Christians, we want to make the most of the opportunity but also do a really good job. There’s no shortage of opportunities, no shortage of classes to teach. What we have a shortage of are teachers who can teach.”