Teachers are the professionals in schools
But sometimes it is hard to remember that, with so much external pressure on them.
Schools have been back for a week now, with pupils’ re-entry being staggered. Word is that pupils are REALLY happy to be back, in the main, and so are teachers. There are issues of course – pupils have to acclimatise to a structured school environment, and teachers have to remember not to wear lounge bottoms. But the pressure is on for children to ‘catch up’ the learning they have lost out on, as fast as possible. And teachers will be bearing the brunt of that pressure, which can be considerably undermining of professional confidence. Not only that, at GCSE and A Level, teachers will bear the responsibility (and pressure) of grading. It is easy to sow those seeds of doubt – are you doing your job? – so how can teachers hold on to that professional resilience, that sense of trusting what they are about? It seems to me there are two elements here – recovering from the slip and holding the baby. Let me explain.
This may already be familiar to some people, but it bears repeating. Our emotional trajectory from babyhood to adulthood can be understood in terms of a ladder up which we progress, through five major stages – babyhood, toddlerhood, latency (7-10 years), teenagehood and adult. If something traumatic happens to us in one of those stages, it is likely that, should something remind us of the feelings induced by that trauma in later life, our emotional state will unconsciously slip back down to the level of development at which the trauma happened. The speed at which we recover from the slip is dependent upon our resilience, or lack of it. And it is the recovery which is important. An illustration of this is the professionally competent business executive on their way to deliver a conference speech. They trip and fall on an uneven paving stone. As they fall, they will experience different feelings (according to the individual) – humiliation, irritation, shame, anger, etc. The depth of these feelings will take them back unconsciously to a time when those feelings were first experienced. It might have been in toddlerhood, or teenagehood – it doesn’t matter. But in the instant the executive hits the floor, they become that toddler or teenager emotionally, and react accordingly. They might threaten to sue the owner of the floor (toddler), or they might hurry away in shame (teenager). Or they might sit for a second, regroup, get up and carry on (adult). The recovery is about how quickly you are able to climb back up that emotional ladder to adulthood, where you can feel in control again.
If, as a teacher, you are criticized, pressurized or condemned for your professional judgement in relation to your students by external actors, that can have an immense emotional impact. You may come to question your own judgement. Consulting with peers, reviewing your own decisions, learning from them and moving on is a healthy impulse. Dwelling on them, replaying them with no possibility of changing things or moving on can become an emotional dead end, and we can get stuck. Trust the professional instincts of you and your tribe when faced with a classroom full of children gone feral under lockdown. They might have to relearn more important social lessons before they can absorb any academic input. And that is the teacher’s call.
But the teacher is not alone in ‘holding that baby’. Imagine concentric circles of tribal kinship, with the baby and its mother at the centre. The next circle out will be the partner, who works to care for and protect the mother and child. The next circle out from there will be the grandparents, aunts, uncles, extended family who ‘guard the perimeter’, looking out for the nucleus inside the circle. It is the same in a school environment, with teachers, houseparents and parents holding the child and senior management holding the perimeter.
And this is where the notion of good boundaries comes in. Teachers alone do not hold the child – the responsibility is shared with houseparents and parents, and rightly so. Each has a part to play, and needs to be encouraged and supported in the adult role so that no single element becomes overburdened or inadvertently oversteps the bounds of purview. Under duress, it is easy for an adult to slip emotionally to the level of vulnerable child under attack, and all of us slip every day, depending on our circumstances. But what matters is remembering that we are adult professionals, well-trained and widely experienced and – most importantly – not alone in the job.
So when you as a teacher feel that you are doing the right thing for the children in your charge, hold on to that, consult with peers, trust your instinct and have confidence in your professional ability. And most of all, have confidence in the tribe that supports you in doing the job you are good at, and share the burden.