Don't ask me for help, I'm just a teacher

28th March 1997 at 00:00
A word to the wise - or at least to the trend-setters: it's time to ditch that outmoded "telephone number" and lay claim instead to the essential accessory of the Nineties, the "helpline". No self-respecting organisation is without one these days and it can only be a matter of time before the practice of holding a dedicated help-line spreads to the population at large. So spare a thought now for what particular problems yours will deal with.

I'm considering a helpline for parents who are also teachers. Admittedly, my time in the profession was limited to the four years before my first child was born but, believe me, the scars still show. Indeed, the curious thing is that they've become more marked the further my children have travelled through the school system. But why should this be?

One possible explanation is that I know too much - and knowledge can be an unexpected handicap. Friends in the medical profession report the same effect. You'd think they'd be in a strong position to ensure care for ailing family members. In fact, they are simply burdened by knowing the ramifications of the illness while being prevented - by professional etiquette and a worry that they may be insufficiently dispassionate - from intervening in the case.

In the same way, I suspect I may be more able to pick up on the signs of, let's say, a teacher being not quite up to the job. What do I do about it? I can't be sure I'm not reading too much into the situation. Or maybe I recognise the teacher is under stress for a particular reason and, Heavens, I can sympathise with that. So what do I do? On the whole I worry and say nothing. Parents whose antennae are less well attuned are spared not only the worry but the danger that their fears may be inadvertently transmitted to the child.

And then there's the importance of school being the place where most children first experience a sense of being separate from the world of home. Having my own parents (hitherto the fount of all knowledge) depend on me for an interpretation of that alien environment was a developmental milestone. How sad that my own offspring will never have the pleasure of informing me in quite the same way.

The strain of mixing the two roles can be particularly acute when it comes to the business of homework. Once a teacher, it seems, always a teacher. It was my 10-year-old son who helped me realise this. I'd got into the habit of looking over his maths and having him correct anything that was wrong. Eventually he exploded in exasperation. "You're not the teacher. You're not supposed to check it. Just sign it." I decided he was right and thereafter offered "help" only when it was asked for.

Of course, there is another way of looking at this. Maybe my discomfiture comes less from the fact that I know too much than my realisation that parents in general know too little. Now I come to think of it, the problem didn't seem so acute in the early years, when parents generally were much more involved in the process. Unfortunately, the very same observation wrests me from a less comfortable thought. If I'm honest, the whole "ex-teacher" bit may be no more than a smokescreen to cover the fact that it's not what differentiates me from other parents that's the problem, it's what we have in common.

Ultimately, it's not my inside knowledge that prevents me voicing my concerns. It's a gut fear of alienating the teacher and a worry about how that might affect my child. The most self-confident among us become vulnerable - or aggressive - when our job or profession looks like attracting criticism. Could that mutual paranoia be the real reason parentschool partnerships have never really got off the ground in the way many of us would have hoped?

If that depressing thought isn't enough to merit a helpline, I don't know what is.

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