Introducing Mrs Helen Lay, teacher of Ethics, Philosophy and Religious Education
Not all teachers are the same. But guess what? Not all subjects are the same either. In this blog, we want to highlight some of the lesser-known or lesser-understood subjects on our curriculum. Starting this series, Helen Lay is teacher of ethics, philosophy, religious education and Theory of Knowledge. Known to staff and students as ToK, theory of knowledge is one of the core requirements of the IB Diploma.
Although Mrs Lay came from a long generation of teachers in her family, it was never her intention to become a teacher herself. Far from it, she remembers her religious education lessons are incredibly dull and uninspiring and Mrs Lay was determined not to be the third generation of teachers.
Back at secondary school, a cover teacher changed Mrs Lay’s attitude towards religious education. All of a sudden, she recalls, the lessons sprung to life when pupils were asked to explore their beliefs. When the cover teacher started inspiring pupils to discuss topics that ranged from totem poles to reincarnation, Mrs Lay remembers thinking, ‘Does she realise which lesson she’s meant to be teaching?’
Fast forward twenty years and Helen Lay made a career change into education, so that she could be more creative and start making a difference to young people’s lives. Remembering the inspiration of her religious education lessons, it was clear that she wanted to teach philosophy and religion. ‘It was clear,’ Mrs Lay added. ‘That I wanted to share my love for these subjects and challenge students to think about life in a meaningful way.’ Ever since this career change, she has been committed to creating and developing lessons that make learning relevant and enjoyable. So much so that Mrs Lay will challenge anyone calling her lessons boring!
Mixing up religion, business studies and art
It is easy and tempting to separate curriculum subjects by the different teachers, classrooms and textbooks; a school bell does the trick. Students pack of their bags and their Chromebooks, clear their minds of whatever that has been done in this period and either look forward to – or dread – the next one. Where Helen Lay is concerned, crossing over subjects is really where the fun starts.
Mrs Lay’s philosophy is as straightforward as it is convincing: If you want to help students succeed, you have to provide a variety of different lesson styles. She talks about a lesson she taught recently in a Year 8 classroom. Students were challenged to promote a piece of religious art to prospective buyers. The buyers had a generous amount of fake money and could take part in either a silent auction or an actual roleplay auction. ‘Of course it was fun,’ Lay admits. ‘But it gave the students an opportunity to show their skills in delivering a powerful sales pitch.’ The following lesson saw the students writing a letter to the church. ‘This is where they had to explain why they had bought this particular piece of religious art, identify truth and interpretation.’
Mindfulness and Yorkshire Grit
In many ways, the Yorkshire Grit programme has transformed co-curricular life at Scarborough College. Nationally recognised for its innovative character, Yorkshire Grit does what it says on the tin. Children are taken out of their comfort zones and introduced to new challenges, new obstacles and new triumphs; providing Yorkshire Grit. However, it is important to point out that Yorkshire Grit is more than surfing in the freezing North Sea or learning bushcraft skills that would make Bear Grylls’s mouth water. Again, Mrs Lay’s ideas come from outside the box.
To Helen Lay, Yorkshire Grit provided an opportunity to confront students with a challenge of a different kind. This was mindfulness. Mrs Lay dedicated the past few years developing a mindfulness programme that could fit inside the Yorkshire Grit programme, aimed at students in Years 7 to 9. ‘Mindfulness is looking after the mind and the body,’ Lay explains. ‘Tailored to these age groups, mindfulness is there to provide students with the tools to manage their own mental health.’
Sessions typically include relaxation techniques and positive thinking activities that encourage student reflection and self esteem. Mrs Lay is convinced that in today’s extremely busy world – including that of secondary school students – it is absolutely crucial to teach the value of non-religious meditation. Taught in small groups, students have an opportunity to explore different approaches to possible issues such as sleeping problems, stress of worries. The aim is that these sessions develop resilience, confidence and – it goes without saying – Yorkshire Grit. The programme has been so successful that it is not uncommon for enthusiastic parents to ask Mrs Lay if they, too, can sign up.
Theory of Knowledge
The ToK is unique to the International Baccaulareate. Full name Theory of Knowledge, this subject teaches students essential critical thinking skills that are so important in higher education. ToK is a core requirement of the IB Diploma but it also provides an opportunity for students to develop an open-minded approach to life. And if that’s not enough, it may provide an addition three core points.
‘I remember being 18 and being convinced I knew everything,’ Lay says. ‘It’s only later that you realise how much you didn’t know.’ to counter that conviction, ToK is a fantastic way to broaden students’ knowledge and understanding of the world. ‘We explore questions about science, religion, the arts, history and indigenous knowledge.’ In some sense, one could argue that ToK challenges the very nature of fake news. It allows students to question the reliability of what they know, to encourage to question what they know and to check the knowledge that they gain and have gained. ‘Students are challenged to question their own trust in their sense perception and intuition, and to consider the value of different perspectives,’ Mrs Lay continues. ‘I enjoy making these lessons enjoyable while at the same time helping students to start seeing the world as it is, as opposed to how they may see it right now.’
If you would like to know more about the IB Diploma Programme, click here to explore the IB Diploma Programme description or here to discover the Scarborough College Sixth Form. For more information about Mindfulness, please check the Websites below. To find out more about the Yorkshire Grit programme, visit the dedicated Yorkshire Grit page.