Do we expect too much of teachers?

Esther Read

I had a sobering experience the other day. After 11 years, we'd finally got round to clearing out the loft above the garage. You know the sort of thing: why did we ever keep a broken radio, and might that forgotten home-brewing kit still pack a punch? Then, among the debris of our lives, there they were: my old English exercise books. As a former winner of my school's English prize, I enjoyed a frisson of anticipation: all those past glories in which to bask.

Well, they're right about the relationship between pride and a fall. My work was breathtaking - but only in its complete lack of any depth of understanding. Compared to the sort of thing my 15-year-old daughter currently produces, my efforts were positively embarrassing. So much more seems to be demanded of her: the nature of the material presented to her is so much more complex.

There may not have been much wrong with "chalk and talk" as a presentational method. It was the anticipated outcome that was the problem - the chalk and talk was followed by communal regurgitation. Judging by results, the teaching outcomes required of today's teachers demand a much more sophisticated methodology, a far higher level of interaction with pupils and a far greater understanding of their subjects.

I laid the jotters aside to nurse my bruised ego, and listened to the radio over a cup of tea. As luck would have it, I tuned in just in time to hear that suicide rates were up, particularly in the 15-19 age group. A spokesman was wheeled on from some mental health organisation. More needed to be done in schools; more counselling was required.

I listened in bemusement. What could he mean? Pedagogy is one thing; counselling, surely, is quite another. Pastoral care is necessarily part and parcel of every teacher's role - but someone on the verge of suicide isn't just suffering a bout of the blues. Anyone contemplating suicide is likely to be clinically depressed. Can schools really be expected to treat the mentally ill?

The chalk-and-talk brigade would certainly have had nothing to do with such an idea. So how is it that, in the course of a mere 25 years, education has been burdened with so many more responsibilities - from ensuring children are equipped to resist the drug dealer to taking care of their their mental health?

Perhaps it is simply an acknowledgement of the increased professionalism of the service offered by teachers. Or perhaps it is the result of the increasing number of women in the profession. Women have traditionally been slow to catch on to the notion that the more you do, the more you will be expected to do. Assertiveness courses for women wouldn't be in such demand if they already found it easy to say "no". Then again, it could be that the men who predominantly run the show have been too easily flattered by the perception of themselves as everyone's saviour. Influence is often mistaken for power.

Whatever the reason, the upshot is that we now have "guidance staff", increasingly seen as the moral guardians of our young in the same way as the Church or even parents used to be. But I can't help feeling that the whole idea smacks of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. Guidance staff are the first to tell you that much of their work is with children whose home background leaves much to be desired. So how about re-routing the money currently devoted to "guidance" and allocating it instead to a programme of parental education and support?

I'm thinking of post-natal rather than ante-natal classes, with the emphasis on meeting children's emotional needs rather than changing nappies and feeding routines. In other words, how about doing something imaginative, like tackling the problems at source, and leaving the teacher to do what he or she does best - namely, teach?

Esther Read

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