Some problems are too big for teachers to solve

18th April 2014 at 01:00

Being a primary school teacher can be incredibly rewarding. But it means coming face to face with what young children are put through by their families and wider society.

In my class of 30 four- and five-year-olds, more than a third of students have issues at home. We have children living in a women's refuge, others on the radar of social services as a result of neglect and abuse, and a few with parents who we suspect have undiagnosed mental health issues. Others are simply exposed to things that they should never have to deal with at that age: drugs, sex, violence.

When these children begin education, what they have been through is often evident from their behaviour. But as we gradually take them out of that environment and into the structured, caring world of the school we see their true selves come to the surface.

But it is never enough. At every turn we are faced with reminders of what these young children have seen: a student regales the class with a tale about when the police took daddy away; two others chat about what happened when mummy came home from the pub with that strange man; a boy writes a story about chopping people's heads off and explains that he saw it in a film the night before.

As a teacher, you cannot erase experiences from children's minds, you can only attempt to lessen their impact. Politicians like to think that school can be transformative and "rescue" these children from their difficult backgrounds. Certainly we can try, and perhaps even be successful on occasion.

But these victories are rare. What is asked of teachers is, in reality, impossible. It is naive to think that seven hours at school each day can change the fortunes of a child who is ignored as an irritant at home, has a history of abuse and doesn't even have a bed to sleep in. It is a struggle to help these children even when they have been removed from dangerous environments, and yet teachers are increasingly under pressure to work miracles when students are still in these horrible situations. Even though we all want to help as much as we possibly can, it needs to be accepted, by us and society, that we simply can't provide a cure for broken families.

The writer is a teacher on the South Coast of England

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