A listening line

21st December 2007 at 00:00
For many, Christmas can be a difficult time. Stephen Manning talks to a teacher who tries to help - as a Samaritan.

If teaching is about intervention, being a Samaritan is the exact opposite - listening, exploring issues but never advising or trying to change the situation.

Zoe, a 41-year-old teacher in Peterborough, became a volunteer at her local branch of the charity three years ago partly because she felt it would benefit her skills as a teacher, as well as a human being.

"The Samaritans cannot offer advice and, as a teacher, I found that quite hard," she says. "Your instinct is to weigh in and try and make a difference.

"But as a Samaritan your role is to listen, explore feelings and examine the issues and hopefully encourage the caller to look around for other solutions. Is there family that you can turn to? Something like that."

Even in extreme cases - callers have been known to commit suicide on the phone - the Samaritan cannot intervene. This has never happened to Zoe, but she knows others who have been in that position.

"You cannot call an ambulance or the police or anything. We have to respect their right to choose this course of action and be with them as they go through it. Some people want someone to be there at the very end."

The volunteers are instructed not to hang up on any caller, even if the call is inappropriate. "We would ask them to stop, but add that they can call back if they want to. Hanging up is an extreme last option that we try hard not to get to. Human beings are complex, especially in despair; and chronic masturbators have issues too."

In her branch, Zoe will spend 18 hours per month on the phone, six of these on night duty. She will be there on Christmas morning and may be called upon to fill other vacant slots. She also looks after publicity for the branch which can sometimes mean another 10 hours per month.

"It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to do something like this, to give something back and also to learn from it," she says. "I never used the service myself but plenty of teachers feel the strain, so I could well understand wanting to do so."

She thinks that the experience has taught her to be more tolerant and understanding of other people, but also has underlined how varied and complicated people are. "I thought I was unshockable but I am shocked every day," she says. "What people go through and what they are capable of doing to other people. I've had people who are in despair over quite small debt and it's occasionally tempting to just send them a fiver. But of course you cannot do that."

People who get in touch with the Samaritans can also email or send their problems by text, which are forwarded to someone such as Zoe via a central computer that removes addresses or numbers. In a lull between phone calls, she will reply via the same route. Responding via text message seems more of a challenge but the principle is the same: there is somebody there.

Zoe left her school in July to become a nursery day manager and now teaches phonics to children at foundation stage. She taught drama in primary and secondary schools and put on theatre workshops for adults.

She has also visited schools as a Samaritan, to impress upon youngsters that people don't have to be suicidal to call them: it's not just a last resort

Where to turn

The Samaritans was set up in 1953 and there are 202 branches in the UK. There are 17,000 volunteers, receiving more than 5.2 million communications. Most of these (93 per cent) were by phone but nearly 134,000 were via email and about 42,000 were face-to-face.

Visit www.samaritans.org or call 08457 90 90 90.

The Teacher Support Network operates a counselling service over the seasonal period.

08000 562 561 (England) 08000 855 088 (Wales). www.teachersupport.info.

Scottish teachers do not have a dedicated phoneline but can receive online coaching via

www.teachersupport.infoscotland.

Those in further or higher education can call the College University Support Network (CUSN) on 08000 32 99 52.

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