Ethos vs Discipleship: Who is more important, Principals or Teachers?

One of the functions of Anglican Schools is to encourage young hearts and minds to embrace the Gospel.

In most schools this looks nothing like heavy handed indoctrination. Students are given freedom to think critically, ask questions and to unashamedly disagree with what is presented.

The four most common strategies used across Anglican Schools for fulfilling this function are chaplain, chapel, religious or Christian education and Christian service. These have varying degrees of effectiveness depending on a whole range of factors.

There are two other broader strategies that are widely discussed among not just Anglican Schools but Christian Schools in general. One is the function of Christian ethos. The other is the role individual teachers play in evangelising or discipling students through the classroom.

In Anglican Schools the somewhat nebulous concept of ethos, which if not synonymous with culture has significant overlap, seems to be key*. In fact if you read through the literature written about Anglican Schools you could come to the conclusion that if there is an overarching strategy to the Christian mission of these schools it is in developing a Christian ethos. The level of success Anglican Schools have in achieving this ethos may be questioned but it is a dominant idea within the system.

The belief and intention behind this strategy is that students will experience Christian community through the ethos or culture of the school and will be influenced positively by it. The key person in shaping the ethos is the Principal.

Compared with ethos, I suspect the concept of discipleship, the individual Christian nurturing of students through daily interactions has a lot less cachet. This in part may be linked with the history of Anglican Schools but it may also have to do with their openness. The result being many teachers who are not active in the Christian faith. Certainly chaplains and some Christian teachers may engage in discipling activities through Christian groups in the school but the focus in this article is discipleship or Christian mentoring by the classroom teacher.

So which of these two strategies, ethos or discipling, is more likely to succeed?

Which potentially has the most influence on students in terms of their regard for the Christian faith.

These questions are worth considering. In my evaluation, one of these strategies isn’t as significant or influential as we think. And the other if implemented well has the potential to be life changing.

School culture or ethos is without a doubt very important. You may have worked in a school where despite best attempts the ethos was awful. Where this is so, school life can be hugely demotivating and demoralising for staff and students. On the other hand a great school ethos can lift ordinary activities to a new level and infuse them with significance and meaning, spurring the community on to higher heights of community and achievement.

The Principal has a key role in shaping ethos.

From the people he or she employs and places in leadership, to the words spoken publically, through to those things that are given attention, (finances, praise and recognition), the Principal’s role is singularly powerful.

But how much does ethos influence students in terms of their spiritual worldview?

Although social influences on faith can be difficult to unravel, the overwhelming majority of research would seem to indicate that school ethos has a limited impact. It certainly does not show a strong influence after taking into consideration the influence of family and peers. There may be many reasons for this.

In most Anglican Schools the majority of students do not come from families that are actively engaged with Christian faith through an external church community. This also means that the majority of their peers within the school are probably not overly engaged with Christian faith. So regardless of how enthusiastically Christian the school is at the leadership level, there are most likely to be opposing currents of apathy or disinterest at the home and peer level. The reality is that school leadership is not the only factor shaping ethos; students also help create it.

So while ethos or culture is important for providing students with a positive school experience and a wrongly executed Christian culture could undermine student’s feelings about faith, I suspect we shouldn’t rely on school ethos as the driver of faith development as much we possibly do. I am not saying we shouldn’t work to make our school ethos deeply and overtly Christian, but that much more than this is needed.

And, of course, much more is done. As mentioned above most Anglican Schools use chaplain, chapel, religious or Christian education and service as their prime movers. While these may have a significant impact there is a mechanism within our schools which has the potential to eclipse the significance of all of these. It is the relationship between the teacher and the student.

We should not underestimate the influence that classroom teachers have on students.

Many people have fond memories of one particular teacher who shaped their life. They may not remember what it is they taught but they remember the character of the person and their influence.

When Albert Camus one of France’s most distinguished writers was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, he paid a special tribute to one of his early teachers, Monsieur Germain. He said this to his teacher.

I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited. But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child I was, without your teaching, and your example, none of this would have happened. I don’t make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me an opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.  (Camus, 1965)

Because of its significance and mutuality, the teacher-student relationship can be a key driver of development in many areas of a young person’s life. When teachers intentionally mentor students as potential disciples of Christ they are harnessing the power of their relationship for a very positive purpose. Classroom teachers potentially have a depth of relationship with students that a chaplain simply cannot have. If a chaplain has 800 or 1800 students in their care, the depth of relationship with the majority of them will always be superficial. The classroom teacher has a significant influence because of the volume of time spent with a small group possibly over an extended period. Research within Anglican Schools in Australia suggests that teachers are more influential for students thinking about life than chapel or religious education and for the reasons already mentioned this should not be surprising.

I perceive however that this discipling strategy is underutilised in Anglican Schools for a number of reasons. There are many teachers in Anglican Schools who themselves are not active in the Christian faith. People cannot be a role model for something that they don’t profess themselves. Clearly more work is necessary in thinking about how this approach might work best in the Anglican School context. Finally I suspect that within Anglican Schools few chaplains have thought of equipping Christian teachers to fulfil this task. If they have, it doesn’t receive prioritised time to make such a method effective.

Where to with discipling?

In considering the missional strategies of Anglican Schools I think we need to re-evaluate what we are doing and where we put our time. While the ethos or culture of a school is very important, I think it is worth putting time and energy into equipping teachers to be the primary evangelists or disciplers of students within the school setting. This would require chaplains or others involved in the ministry of the school to make a shift from seeing themselves as the key driver of faith development. It would also mean doing the work of training and equipping willing teachers for this role.

I also think it is possible for teachers who are not committed to the Christian faith to role model and mentor students in having an open and curious attitude towards Christianity. This could make a difference to the other things the school does to encourage students to consider Christianity in an open way. Both Principals and Teachers are important for the Christian mission of Anglican Schools but in terms of influencing students I believe  the role of the teacher should be seen as  central and given more time and emphasis than it currently is.

* Certainly a strong case could be made for ethos and culture being different but in terms of practical implementation and the effect they have on each other it may be meaningless to separate them.

Stephen Harrison Written by:

Stephen has a passion for exploring mission and ministry. He has worked for the Anglican Church for the last twenty years mostly in the area of youth and children’s ministry. In this time he has worked for two churches, two Anglican schools, as a university chaplain and for the Brisbane Diocese as the Youth, Children’s and Families Officer. Currently he is the Director of Mission for the Anglican Schools Commission. He has degrees in Science, Theology, Community Welfare, Education and has completed a Doctorate in Ministry, focused on the church’s mission in Anglican schools.


  1. Kim Vellnagel
    April 10, 2017

    We have been blessed this year with the placement of Darren Pitt at our Anglican College in Springfield. He attends our church services at the college and is very supportive of St Andrews within the college. The existing program for the Year Nines called The Rite Journey” is a pivotal time of faith formation and the teachers who facilitate this are amazing. Our Chaplain Josie Yarham and our Reverend Charlie Lacey are discipling our students and staff there. Wonderful Godly things are happening at TSAC! It is a journey of amazing possibilities considering the nature of our growing newly established community!

    • vivienne lacey
      March 4, 2018

      This is fantastic news – praise God for his blessing on this church.

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