By Barry Newman
Barry is a retired NHS intensive care consultant. He volunteers for Dorset Humanists, both on the committee and as a school speaker. In this article, he describes how he became a school speaker, what motivated him and how he finds the experience of working with children. Barry was awarded the prestigious ‘Humanist of the Year’ award this year (2023) by Dorset Humanists chair David Warden.
A few years ago, the penny dropped that I had been a Humanist all my adult life without realising it, so I duly joined Dorset Humanists. As a new member of the community, I started casting around for a role through which to contribute to the movement. It became apparent to me that Humanists are not generally enthusiastic about raising their profile and spreading the word, even though we all believe that Humanism has much to offer our troubled world. My first thoughts were to become involved in the interfaith dialogue movement, but discussing and understanding similarities and differences with adults who were as firm in their view as I was in mine did not seem to present an opportunity to raise awareness of and enhance the visibility and influence of Humanism. Then David Warden invited me to accompany him to a school lesson to observe, and another penny dropped – with a loud clang!
My professional career was some distance from teaching children, and at first the prospect of entering a classroom and facing the pupil horde seemed terrifying. But David is a great role model here, and, combining his guidance and example with the very useful training course run by Humanists UK, I found the courage to thrust myself into the lions' den.
I must admit that for the uninitiated, entering a secondary school classroom of often bored, distracted and occasionally fractious adolescents can be daunting, and requires some store of self-confidence and the ability to think on one’s feet. It seems that the key is to be as interactive as the pupils will allow, although “getting blood from a stone” sometimes comes to mind with adolescents, who seem more concerned with their appearance and status among peers than engaging in the abstract with an elderly stranger! It seems that showing interest and asking questions can appear very uncool. However, in every class there are pupils with light in their eyes: young people who are obviously thinkers and are thinking about what you are saying. They ask questions, sometimes during the lessons, sometimes afterwards – when their peers are safely out of the door. These are the kids who fire one’s enthusiasm, and every class has at least one. As for the others – undoubtedly something has sunk in during the course of the lesson, even if they would like to appear to be immune to new ideas. It soon became apparent to me that although thirty adolescents in a small room can appear intimidating, they are really just large children, and being more than half a century senior to them confers an unassailable advantage. In short, I found that there there was and is no need to worry. Also, familiarity with the physical environment, the teachers and the school atmosphere through repeat visits (for different classes) makes the experience even more comfortable and therefore enjoyable. The upper end of Key Stage 2 (primary school) is an altogether different and sometimes exhilarating experience, as 9-11 year olds have not yet discovered self-consciousness, and their enthusiasm and often penetrating questioning sweep one along. The atmosphere in most primary schools is usually calm and joyful, and they are therefore far less stressful than some secondary schools can be. These are almost always wonderful experiences. I must confess to not having the necessary skills to communicate Humanist ideas to even younger children, and I leave this to the true experts such as Cathy Silman, who has also written for this edition of Humanistically Speaking. Teachers can be a great help when they are appreciative of one’s efforts, involved in the lesson and genuinely interested, and occasionally a hindrance when they are manifestly as bored and uninterested as the pupils. It is, sadly, not too uncommon for the lesson to be an opportunity for them to catch up on marking in a corner of the room. This detachment seems infectious.
Generally, the recommended and undoubtedly safest approach is to explain Humanism as clearly and as objectively as possible while avoiding mentioning religions. Questions seeking my views on religions are often asked, and the answer is always much the same – I’m not an expert on any religion and I’m only here to tell you about the Humanist worldview. As someone with a rather strong antipathy to religion, this has required some self-discipline! Why is being a school speaker such a wonderful and uplifting experience? Perhaps not everyone will have the same response but, to me, planting seeds in minds and witnessing them grow is always a wonder. It's like gardening, but the results are almost instantly discernible. And then there is addressing the motivation to disseminate the Humanist worldview in the belief that it is beneficial to humanity. The recent and successful legal challenge to the exclusion of Humanists from SACREs (Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education - statutory committees in every local education area in England) will no doubt raise the profile and influence of Humanists on these advisory bodies, and several recently-revised agreed RE syllabuses prominently feature Humanism as a “must teach” or “should teach” subject. Publications by the Religious Education Council and Ofsted also now strongly encourage the teaching of Humanism, so hopefully we can expect an upsurge in interest. However, many RE and other teachers are poorly informed about Humanism, so the need for Humanist school speakers is almost certainly growing. Perhaps there has never been a better time to become a Humanist school speaker.
Editorial note on the use of the capital letter for Humanism
Humanistically Speaking generally follows the lead of Humanists UK in using a lower case 'h' for humanism and humanists. But this seems incongruous in an RE setting where the subject is usually given a capital H for both Humanism and Humanists, in order to give parity of status to religions which always have a capital letter.