I teach, therefore I am.
First posted on the Labour Teachers Blog.
During my childhood, I was once given the responsibility of supervising my much younger cousin as we walked down to the flat sand to build sandcastles. I took this on with due gravity – so when she stumbled and began to cry, I was distraught both about her heartache and my own guilt as the one responsible. I attempted to calm and console her, to no avail. At this moment my friend swooped in and gently laughed at her and the situation. Suddenly this tear stained child became giddy and giggly once again. Whilst I was pleased to see her happiness restored, I also felt a sense of injustice that I cared so much about my cousin and was desperately trying to heal her with love and tenderness, only for someone much less invested and seemingly cavalier to resolve the situation. It taught me about how easily children will mirror the emotional responses of others (particularly those in power) and also that caring about someone does not mean they will react in the way you want.
As a teacher, you often find yourself in a situation where you feel that you care hugely about the outcomes of the children in front of you but that this isn’t enough. Exam season is full of teachers tearing out their hair to fit in last minute revision sessions: it is clear that the burden of care rests firmly in the laps of individual teachers. Similarly this care can lead to emotional analysis of pupil behaviour: ‘Why don’t they understand that I’m asking them to work because I care?’ ‘Why don’t they behave when I’ve worked so hard to prepare this lesson for them?’ This sense of care can mean we allow our own emotions to overshadow our rational decisions, such as changing curriculum/pedagogy to fit an assumed emotional response.
This continues beyond the walls of the classroom, emotional responses and reactions have come to define educational debates. Arguments often become overly personal and defensive and routinely examples of individual pupils are used as evidence for how policy should be formed.
This is problematic because we avoid arguments with those who don’t share the same emotional platform and can mean we inflict our own emotional responses onto our pupils. Yet emotion and care are huge strengths in teaching, both in terms of the positive, nurturing relationships in the classroom and the motivation for teachers to excel at their work. It is this care which has led passionate teachers and leaders to take charge of their professional development, to make challenges to education policy and to create supportive networks within the profession.
So how do we confront this paradox?
The answer lies in both individual and collective responses. As individuals we have to learn to own our emotional responses and to know that a criticism of our practice does not equate to a criticism of our care. Equally we have to try to be aware that our emotional response is not always the same as others, including our pupils. However leadership teams and the DfE have to take collective responsibility to protect teachers from emotional impact.
If we take the Year 6 SATs as an example – I found it difficult to determine logical opposition to these because so much of the argument was framed by emotional hyperbole: children’s lives were being destroyed, Nicky Morgan hates children, grammar is monstrous. Delving through this response, I began to see that the botched implementation of these tests had had a severe emotional impact: on teachers. Rather than Headteachers writing letters telling ten year olds that the makers of tests judge them and are not brightened by their laughter, perhaps time should have been invested in making teachers feel supported and appreciated. Meanwhile the DfE need to work on implementing policy at a realistic pace and with appropriate resources, such as subject specific CPD. In particular, the emotional impact on teachers to implement curriculum which they are not secure on themselves seems both unfair and unnecessary. There is a responsibility to protect the profession.
Caring is wonderful, but when it means emotions overshadow all we do, it becomes a burden for teachers and pupils alike.