A weight off your shoulders

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Many schools now hire counsellors to free teachers from crippling pastoral burdens, writes Janet Murray

Social worker, parent, counsellor, careers adviser. How many of these roles do you undertake during the school day? It's no wonder you're feeling frazzled. Heavy workloads and constant change are often blamed for teacher stress. But little mention is made of the anxiety caused by dealing with pastoral responsibilities. "I've only been teaching a few years, but I've seen it all," says Anna Walters, who teaches music at a secondary school in Leeds.

"Depression, relationship difficulties, unwanted pregnancies, drugs, eating disorders - to name just a few. I've had to play at the funeral of a student who committed suicide, which was horrible. Girls have come to me on a Friday afternoon saying their friend is suicidal. You pass on the information to senior staff and cross your fingers that she's just being a drama queen. But you can't stop thinking about it for the whole weekend."

More experienced staff admit it doesn't get easier. "I've dealt with a couple of nasty child abuse cases," says Margaret Greenway, assistant headteacher at a secondary school in Kent. "No matter how hard you try, you can't help but feel for the child. You try to maintain a professional distance, but you find yourself thinking 'What if this was my child?' And no matter how long you've been doing it, you're never going to get it 100 per cent right. Children walk out of my office having poured out their hearts to me and I'm tied up in knots wondering if I've said the right things."

According to the NASUWT, the second biggest teaching union, this is a pressure teachers don't need. "For far too long, teachers have been encouraged or expected to act as unofficial counsellors and social workers," says Chris Keates, the acting general secretary. "Staffing structures have emerged that take teachers out of the classroom to focus on pastoral roles - often largely counselling or administrative - which don't require the skills of a qualified teacher."

This is not to suggest that teachers should not have a role in pastoral development. As Ms Keates says: "Teachers are adults who children will confide in about a whole range of personal issues, so they are clearly best placed to identify students who are experiencing difficulties or whose attitudes or behaviour has changed. But there is a clear distinction which must remain between teachers identifying concerns as part of their professional role and them assuming a counselling or social work role for which they have not and should not be trained."

The jury is out on whether teachers should receive more training or, as Ms Keates suggests, identify and refer students to trained professionals.

However, some schools are tackling the issues head-on by employing non-teaching staff to provide pastoral care.

At King Edward VI school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Tim Bond works with disaffected students, providing in-class support and "a listening ear independent of teaching staff". He also runs homework clubs and leads extra-curricular activities that focus on building confidence, team work and other essential life skills.

With a background in youth work and community education, Mr Bond offers a different perspective that he shares with teaching staff. Because he is a non-teacher, students tend to find him more approachable. "I don't wear a suit, I dress informally and there's no 'Sir' - the students know me as 'Tim'. That breaks down barriers immediately," he says.

Pastoral workers are bound by the same rules as teachers about the disclosure of confidential information, but Mr Bond believes his non-teacher status encourages students to open up.

"If they've got into trouble at lunchtime, they might come along and tell me and we'll talk it through. They don't get a 'telling off', but I challenge the behaviour in a different way, encouraging them to think about their actions. I know many teachers would like to do the same, but the bottom line is, they often haven't got the time."

Recognition of this prompted Phil McTague, headteacher at South Bromsgrove high school in Worcestershire, to employ Patrick Barker, a pastoral care worker . He says: "Unfortunately, children's problems don't come in nice packages - at break time or lunchtime. They need someone who's available most of the time."

Mr Barker shies away from the label of "counsellor", but the majority of his week is spent running sessions for individuals or small groups. The success of the service is reflected in the 80 per cent of students who refer themselves.

"Children need to have caring adults to take an interest and take the time to listen to them," he says. "So many teachers have what I call 'pastoral hearts'. They care deeply, but their hands are tied in terms of time.

Having a pastoral worker on site who is not a teacher, can help give children the time they need."

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