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Just a teacher?

June 28, 2011

Life moves on apace and often the time for reflection is hard to find. However, just occasionally, the coincidences of living fall in such a way as to make reflection impossible to avoid.

Earlier this month, by one of those accidents of fate, I found myself, within 12 hours, moving from the threshold of celebration that is the Sixth Year Senior Prom to the funeral of a former pupil who had been taken from us in tragic and sudden circumstances. Aged only 23, she left behind two wee girls.

Possibly the most popular buzz phrase in teaching interviews over the past five years or so has been ‘reflective practitioner’. And quite rightly so. Teachers have a duty to reflect on their practice, listen to feedback, and adjust their approach accordingly. He who stops learning stops living.

However, there is a world of difference between the need to examine professional practice and the raising of emotions caused by the close proximity of Prom and Funeral. By its very nature, teaching exists at the beginning, not the end. Just as parents don’t expect to bury their children, few teachers ever believe they will have to attend the funerals of youngsters they have taught. When it happens, it is profoundly affecting. Similarly, the rite of passage that is the Prom provokes an emotional response as young adults are launched out into the world.

And it’s that juxtaposition of emotion and teaching which gives us most cause for thought.

The Prom has its detractors, and it’s easy to decry its American import status and the money spent on clothes and limos and so on. However, I’m of the opinion that a major social event to denote the rite of passage from pupil to whatever comes next is a worthwhile undertaking. I always have the melancholic thought at Prom time that, for some of the young people there, Prom night may well be as good as it gets: dolled up to the nines, surrounded by friends, shining in the pride of their teachers and families – it’s a chance all pupils deserve – in whichever way their individual school decides to arrange it. Certainly it’s unlikely that they will ever again get the chance to spend the evening in the company of so many peers with shared experiences and history.

We hold our Prom in an hotel overlooking the Forth and its bridges. Most years a spectacular sunset is laid on and, in the midst of the jigging and dancing, I’ve never failed to be impressed by the numbers of pupils who take time to savour the moment and have a quiet word with staff or friends away from the music and disco lights. They won’t all shine academically or in sport or extra curricular activities, but at the Senior Prom each of them can be at their best in their own way. Each year between 30 and 40 staff attend, in itself a testament to their regard for the young people they have watched grow, and their wish to send them on their way positively and in good cheer.

It’s a night when the future beckons and hard work seems rewarded.

So when that future involves only 5 or 6 years, and ends tragically, there is not only sadness but bewilderment. Walking, 7 short hours later, to that funeral, accompanied by my son, himself a classmate of the dead girl, the emotions whirled and nothing seemed quite right.

It was a dignified funeral, with a sensitive sermon from the priest on ‘Love conquers all’ which offered about as much comfort as was possible in such dreadful circumstances. The crowd was predominantly young and almost universally stunned by what they were going through, her family understandably devastated. I noted, as I have at similar funerals, that young people in Scotland seem to possess funeral clothes these days, and have a certain familiarity with the rites of burial. It’s not a happy comment on the state of our society.

If I’m honest, though I tried to offer what comfort I could, I also sought to avoid catching the eye of former pupils. Even in adulthood, pupils expect answers from their teachers, and on this occasion, I had none.

As teachers, we hope we are preparing our students for life, and a long and positive one at that. However, we do well to remember, as John Dewey said: ‘Education is not a preparation for life, education IS life itself’. We can never know the future of our pupils, we can only guide and hope and equip for the voyage. You can be sure I reflected long and hard in the aftermath of that weekend’s experience.

So I find interesting the response to COSLA’s recent statement that teachers must do more than ‘just teach’.The reaction has been split between those who deplore the idea: ‘Teachers are not social workers’ and those who perhaps agree with the sentiment, if not perhaps with the motivation. It is certainly not teachers’ role to replace social workers, health care professionals and others who may have fallen victim to the ‘Big Society’ cuts, but that is not the same as declaring that teachers should only teach, full stop. It depends, of course, how you define ‘teach’.

The Greeks, naturally, had a lot to say on the matter. Aristotle reckoned: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”; and Socrates piled in with: “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”. Certainly, teaching is the passing on of information – but, at its best and most effective, it is so much more.

The Australian School of the Air in Alice Springs is probably better known as the educational equivalent of the Flying Doctor service. Children living in far flung areas of the Outback are educated from a distance – originally on radio and now through the Internet. It’s a marvellous service – but they still feel the need to bring the pupils physically together three or four times a year in the same place, because they recognise the necessary dynamic of relationships in the learning situation.

You would never want to sentimentalise teaching – it is a hard, professional, and demanding calling, and, for some, for a range of reasons, it can be draining and demoralising. However, at its best, when the teaching is good, the learning effective, and the relationships positive – it is the most human of occupations. It is not well served by those – in the profession or outwith it – who complain, find needless fault, or diminish its importance. Those who teach bear a heavy and obvious responsibility to their pupils, their families, and the communities they serve, and, self evidently, it’s not a duty that ends with the school bell or is limited by the contents of a curriculum.

Teachers can’t be experts at everything, nor would they want to be. Indeed, one of their skills is knowing when to cooperate with others in the best interests of their pupils. Neither is it a teacher’s role to become too close or emotionally involved with their charges; professional detachment brings rigour to their teaching approach, and helps the learning process.

However, they have the privilege of working with young people as they grow; they see them day by day, observe their moods, comment on their social and academic development. In some cases, they are the most consistent adult contact for individual pupils.

Though they should never be more than teachers, they should strive to do more than simply teach facts and information. They are role models, mentors, inspirers, supporters and safeguarders to their pupils. Their duty of care is important and influential, and like each of the children they teach, their influence is unique, the support they can offer to the children, and their families, invaluable.

Learning is not merely a classroom based activity, it is a major part of a child’s life. Teachers cannot and should not play God, but they should certainly buy into His ideas on compassion, understanding and concern.

The whole point of teaching is that you do more than teach.

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