It's not just teaching, it's caring about them

20th October 2006 at 01:00
Some weeks start badly and get better. But, every now and then, there are weeks that start badly and get worse.

Such was the case in early October, when the dreadful news of the events in the Amish school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, dominated the start of the week; and the tragic death of a 10-year old, on his way home from primary school, killed by a hit and run driver, was the lead story at the end of the week.

Such news is always distressing, but my times spent in rural America close to Amish communities, and the fact that wee Jack Anderson was killed less than a mile from my house, gave an even keener edge to the sorrow.

As teachers, we are always going to be affected when this news breaks.

Inevitably, we form bonds with the children we teach and with their families. We may work with three or four siblings, or even two generations or more of the same family. We probably know more about our pupils than anyone outside their immediate family and, as schoolchildren, they spend more time with us than they do at home.

So when we hear of Dunblane, Columbine or Nickel Mines, our hearts sink and we cannot help but imagine the effect on parents, classmates, extended family and communities.

It is perhaps in these direst of circumstances that we can reflect most clearly on what it is we actually do as teachers, and the impact that we have on our pupils and vice-versa. The stark reality is that educating "the whole child", the work of the "hidden curriculum" and the pastoral support given by schools in all its many forms, is what will really count for many of our pupils in the long run.

This is not to downplay in any sense the crucial importance of the formal curriculum and qualifications, but tragic events such as those of that October week remind us of the role we play in our pupils' lives and they in ours, and the responsibilities we carry.

Somehow, the weekly round of emphasising deadlines, updating the UCAS process, praising individuals and passing on announcements, seemed less than adequate when I faced the sixth year assembly towards the end of that week. Inevitably, we reflected on recent events, and the seeming inevitability that it can and will happen again.

There is something ineffably emotional about looking at those rows of teenage faces in the setting of a school assembly, and I found myself leaving them with the heavy weight of: "Never, ever forget just how important you are to your family and to those around you who care about you." The week's most important lesson.

Sean McPartlin is depute head of St Margaret's Academy in Livingston

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