A little bit of you, a little bit of them

29th October 2004 at 01:00
If you are what you teach, I'm not sure if that makes me special, emotionally disturbed, challenging or very childish. As teachers, we give of ourselves to our jobs, trying with passion and personality to lead and inspire learning, so we become a reflection (of sorts) of the students we teach.

I am a teacher of children labelled as having "EBD" (educational and behavioural difficulties), "BESD" (behavioural, emotional and social difficulties) or, by some people, as "really naughty". I use the latter description to highlight how this sector of special education remains socially unacceptable in many circles.

I have something of a reputation for being the teacher of the "rowdy", "lively" or "mad" class. Understandable as that perception may be, it has not always been so. As a newly qualified teacher, I was struck by the way the personalities of teachers were reflected in their class. Children in purple class were quiet and serene, as was their teacher, yellow class were charismatic, turquoise class slightly neurotic, and green class - they were mine.

I could have taken comfort in the dramatic and effervescent way my class behaved, were it not for a comment from Maggi, a teacher of long experience who, while I unfolded my theories, offered this message of support: "Don't worry dear, I was crap too when I first started."

That was a long time ago and, fearful of the many generations of "me" I could have moulded, I have developed my theory to consider how teachers are more likely to become what they teach. How often have you met a stranger and just "known" the person was a teacher? Indeed, how often has it been said of you? And is it not possible to detect by intonation, dress or language the key stage, subject, or area of specialism?

Not a day goes by without one of my pupils expressing his or her feelings in what can be a very abstract way. Because of emotional and behavioural difficulties, or immature or underdeveloped language and communication skills, it can be a battle to understand what they mean. They might get angry because they are scared or lonely. They may be quiet because they are tired, hungry or depressed. Or, they may be angry and quiet. It's up to us to unravel these cryptic messages and identify the source of distress and the "real" communication. This can involve a significant amount of mental overtime. But taking all these feelings on board can take its toll and I often find myself feeling angry, upset or confused for no apparent reason before I realise that it is a reflection of their mood.

This emotional entanglement is reflective of the kind of people who consider teaching a vocation. The constant thinking and determination to understand and communicate makes us become something like the children we teach. Thinking as a child helps you understand the child, but trying to understand and receive the feelings of a child can, in turn, be overwhelming as those feelings often remain with you and become confused with your own. Just as an angry child can make us feel cross, so a stressed teacher can make a child feel uptight.

It is imperative, not only in the area of special education, that we are able to disentangle what is ours from what is theirs. But this is only possible by first taking time to look after yourself. In so doing, you can remain the person you are and not become the projection of the students you teach.

Coral Hitchings

Coral Hitchings is a special needs teacher in Oxfordshire

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