'At the centre of teaching should be love'

David James's mother died recently. Her death reminded him of the selflessness and connectedness that infuses good teaching

Holding hands

I buried my mother last month. She had a good life, well lived: four sons, 10 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, but also so many more intangibles that reach beyond such simple, prosaic additions. 

She was the sweetest, most forgiving person I have ever known. What a wonderful twist of fate it was that I had her from birth, beside me, teaching me so much. Above all, she exemplified the importance of love in all its manifestations. 

At its best, this emotion is undemonstrative, expressed with no desire other than to enhance the other, rather than the self. My decision to become a teacher was an unintended consequence of her willingness to help others. I must have absorbed and sought to emulate it. It is not false modesty to say I cannot match her qualities: it is a simple statement of fact. The best I can do is learn from her.

Selflessness

Increasingly, I think that there are two jobs in the world: those that serve others, selflessly, and those that serve themselves. So much of the attention goes to the latter, but a civilised society couldn’t function without the former. But how few they are in number. And, although they are strong in their hold over the collective consciousness of any civilised society, how brittle and fragile their place in the modern world is, how seemingly impossible they are to sustain, to fund, and how unreasonable the demands made of them. 

As I sat in the acute stroke ward of a hospital in Swansea, surrounded by distress, both in the young and the old, watching the nurses and doctors working to help others they will only know for a few days or weeks, I saw humanity at its best. Each action, every word, had an inflection of love, an accent of care, a movement of grace that is dignified by unconscious altruism. That hand left on the shoulder, a sudden smile, those eyes making contact beyond the transient. 

As my family began to understand the terrible new territory of imminent death, the medical staff seemed to intuitively understand what to say and when. One lasting memory I have of my mother is that one nurse had listened to us talking about how much my mother valued looking good whenever she was in company. Quietly, surreptitiously, that nurse had brushed my mother’s silver hair in preparation for the final day. She had understood what was needed, and why. That light, deep touch. To misquote Philip Larkin: nothing more beautiful, nothing more true. 

Instinctive

Teaching is like that too. Very often, at its best and most effective, it is done without conscious thinking. It is instinctive. Lesson plans, schemes of work, assessment objectives: such things seem like the furniture of the job, the cumbersome stuff you need to work around. They can obscure what is, essentially, something so simple and direct as making contact, creating a moment of hope, of curiosity. 

It goes without saying that at the centre of teaching should be love. We care intensely for people who will soon pass beyond our care, leaving us changed, enhanced, and sometimes hurt, too. But never the same. And how we change the young people we work with remains, very often, unknown. Much like a doctor or a nurse, we have to satisfy ourselves that the good we do goes out into the world and somehow, through a strange alchemy, benefits others.

The schools and hospitals we have today create the societies of tomorrow. Doctors, nurses headteachers, teachers – we work at the subcutaneous level of those evolving societies, making changes at a cellular level. And, in altering the small, we structure the great. 

Communities that care

Irrespective of whether we are working in the independent or state sectors, good teachers are proud of belonging to communities that care. An outstanding form teacher will notice the same shirt being worn for the second week, or the sudden loss of weight, the lack of care, the apparent loss of love. The lost mother. Those great teachers will know when to say something, and when to withdraw, when to (metaphorically) brush someone’s hair, and when to move beyond the cosmetic. 

In my own admittedly rarified world, the best schools create a fraternity of mutual care and support, and this, when a crisis happens, can be a profoundly important place of learning and growing, for teachers and pupils alike. It is a place of love. At a time of grief and loss, I feel it is the only place that matters. 

David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School

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