Every adult matters, too

25th April 2014 at 01:00

My husband and I ran into a bit of marital trouble last weekend. Usually we rub along fine: I get on with my marking while he hovers in the background making supportive noises and occasional cups of tea, before slouching off to the sofa to watch Netflix.

The arrangement suits us both. He gets to watch pointless violence without me challenging his political correctness or soliciting for a divorce, and I stagger through my workload fortified by occasional guilt-tripped offerings of cheese on toast. It's an equable relationship; so much so that I can almost imagine us ending our days like the old couple from Under Milk Wood, "like two old kippers in a box". Except in our version, the male kipper would be shouting at the television.

But when our children arrived home last Friday, things took a turn for the worse. Within seconds my husband and I reverted to the old polarities. No longer a congenial married couple, we separated back into two semi-detached individuals connected by the party wall of parental obligation.

Whenever the kids are around, our relationship plays second fiddle to the brass band of their needs. We happily watch as they sequestrate the TV channels, dictate what's for dinner, trash the kitchen, commandeer the wifi and take our wine to parties. There is an obvious danger: when we're "all about the kids" it's usually at the expense of each other. And when marriages are held together only by a shared sense of parental responsibility, they easily collapse. Ours nearly sank several times over because in my effort to become World's Greatest Mum I inadvertently qualified for World's Least Romantic Wife. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, my maternal ambition abjured candlelit dinners, early nights and any undergarments not made of fleece.

In the classroom, such child-centricity can cause similar problems. The pursuit of pupil progress is often at the expense of teachers' health. As well as juggling full timetables, teachers are now expected to run booster lessons, one-to-ones, after-school support and lunchtime catch-up sessions for struggling students, which leaves no time to plan lessons, do the photocopying or even eat lunch. It is an unsustainable workload but it's difficult to object; refusing to run a revision class because you need a break feels like an intensive-care nurse unplugging a life support machine to charge her phone.

Such rigorous intervention is commendable but untenable - especially with current staffing levels. Like doting parents, most teachers prioritise children's needs over their own well-being, a fact that secures short-term "progress" but seriously compromises the job as a viable lifelong career. If we want our schools to flourish, there has to be a balance between the needs of the children and the demands on staff. If not, the flip side of Every Child Matters could well be Most Teachers Off Sick.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham

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