How I… became a Professor of Religious Education – James Holt

In the summer of 2019 I was made Associate Professor of Religious Education at the University of Chester, and gained the right to use the title Professor. This fact blows my mind- how did I get from there to here? From someone who hated RE until the age of 14 and only took it at GCSE because I hated Geography more. Mr Banks was the man who instilled a love of RE within me and focussed my desire of being a teacher onto RE.

After leaving University with a BA in Theology and History, and then a Secondary PGCE I got a job in my PGCE placement school because they had just been told that RE needed improving by Ofsted- they knew me, and I was cheap. That year was incredibly hectic- my wife and I had our first baby, I was made Head of Department (in a department of one and fifteen non-specialists), and I began my first Masters degree. Ruth and I rationalised this because since we’d been married I’d always studied, worked and completed teaching placements so that it just seemed natural to carry on studying alongside teaching. My school funded the study even though the focus was Military Studies (don’t ask!).

RE is my passion and I loved working in my first school- I got so many opportunities to develop courses from scratch and work with supportive staff and amazing pupils. After finishing my first Masters I had an itch to do a PhD, but was a minister in my local Church in my spare (?) time so put it off, and began a second Masters, this time in Religious Education and again school agreed to fund my studies.

By the time I left my first school, after seven years, I’d gained three children and two Masters degrees. At my second school, we added another child, but I also got the opportunity to begin RE work outside of my school. Having been used to advisory support, I phoned the Local Authority to ask who the contact was- there was nobody. They asked me if I would like to take on the role of Advanced Skills Teacher. That was so much fun, I got involved in SACRE, I visited lots of Primary and Secondary schools to help develop RE, and got asked to deliver training courses. I also began teaching A-Level for the first time- and had to learn Philosophy of Religion all over again.

I also got the opportunity to start a part time PhD for which I received funding from the University. This enabled me to keep learning- it focussed around religion and so the study helped with my teaching.

Life was good and I loved every aspect of my job- it seemed the best of every world. An opportunity came up to apply for the job leading the RE PGCE at Chester. Although it may seem an easy decision- it was the hardest decision of my life. I feel teaching is my vocation, and it’s something that I absolutely love, especially teaching teenagers. But I also felt I had something to say about the way RE is taught. I joke that I have only cried twice in my adult life- once when my eldest child was born (don’t know what that says about the other three!) and once when I wrote my resignation letter to my school. I was leaving the job I loved.

Teaching at Chester has been great- but I am a person who is always looking for a new challenge. After finishing my PhD, I wrote a book about teaching RE gleaned from my twenty years of teaching in a school, wrote book chapters and have just published another book. To become a Professor I had to apply to the University again and explain how I met the criteria for the bestowal of the title. I am fortunate to work in a University that recognises my time as a teacher as valuable and a consideration for the Professorial role, alongside all of the other things that I have managed to cram in.

How I became a Professor of Religious Education is an interesting question- I think it is by taking every opportunity that was offered to me throughout my 22 years of teaching, the support of amazing family and colleagues, and most of all, by not listening to the voice inside my head that tells me I’m a fraud. I suffer from imposter syndrome but recognise its irrationality. The most important qualities I have that led me to this point are that I love teaching, I love learning, I love RE, I love the impact it can have on children and on the wider community, and I have a desire to share that with everybody.

James Holt is Associate Professor of Religious Education at the University of Chester

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