Parents need support
In her retirement speech, a colleague spoke about stopping work to become a mum before returning to the classroom. "And I'm still a mum," she added. "No matter how old they get, that's still my job - the most important job really."
She is right. We all know how hard it is to teach children who have been inadequately parented. It is not just that they don't share our educational aspirations and our middle-class mores and manners; they are often hungry, tired or anxious. Our pupils tend not to talk about their less than perfect home lives, and are fiercely protective of their parents.
Why boast about beds without bedding, floors without carpets, cupboards without food? Why admit that parents don't get them up, or give them dinner money, or remind them about homework or expect them home at night? Reality for some children is looking after themselves.
We just don't know, because even families that seem good have their darker secrets. That old chestnut that we "blame the parents" is just too simplistic. We need to look to a society that lets down our children, and that lets down the parents too.
Some families will have benefits down to a fine art, but far more are stony broke. Money will be spent on fancy clothes and mobile phones, because pride steps in - and who wants their child to go without? Besides, it is easy to buy these on high-interest credit, but you can't buy food on tick.
The Government seems convinced that any ills in our society are down to single parents. They casually assume their situation is a matter of choice, ignoring the fact that death, divorce or prison all create single parents who had no intention of bringing up children alone.
Many politicians think that, by creating a system that rewards work, they can change things. However, you can only find a job if the job is there to find, and in this day and age with huge redundancies and threats of the sack, how easy is that?
Some people want to work but, if we are really to value parenthood, we have to accept that, even with adequate, cheap childcare available (and that is not always the case), maybe it isn't always right for the child. It is hard to get kids to the minder before getting to work, or panicking about getting to the nursery before it closes at night.
And what happens when a child is ill, or during the holidays if a company isn't offering child-friendly support?
Ideally, I would like to see children brought up by two parents, because it is too hard for one person alone. I would like to see fathers happy to claim paternity leave (thanks for showing the way, Mr Miliband), and willing to support their children. I would like to see more help given to young parents - not just financial. Their need for education begins for many once they have children, making up for what they themselves missed at school.
My colleague was right - parenting is the most important job anyone will ever do. But giving children a decent educational experience is the second most important job, and we need society to support people with children and help them become good parents if we are to do our job as teachers properly.
Penny Ward is a secondary teacher.