The gulf between schools and society's expectations
Stepping back to evaluate media portrayals of increasing pupil disaffection in the United Kingdom, any conceptual vantage point is influenced by the commentators' own schooling and sense of well-being about their particular childhoods. It is therefore immensely difficult, for interesting reasons, to achieve an appropriate intellectual separation from such emotions and the way in which one is evaluating the same system as an adult. The "Freudian" pitfall is that politically motivated critics of schools may be afflicted by unresolved anxieties attaching to their personal experiences as pupils and such "projections" might underly their drive to blame today's teachers for inadequately socialising the young. The fact is that most schools have enormous success in facilitating disciplined learning environments, but celebration of such positive results is rare.
From a young age children must learn to mix with large numbers of other pupils from a range of infinitely varied family backgrounds. Slowly they understand the meaning of formalised learning environments controlled through the authority of adults who are professionally empowered to punish. Children rapidly cope with impulse control as they are socialised into adjusting to a small physical space packed with detailed codes of behaviour for long periods of time. Sitting behind desks they assimilate a knowledge of how they are expected to approach learning tasks. Education is an invention which they are expected to reinvent daily.
Teachers also deserve praise for their willingness to devote themselves in significant isolation from other adults to helping children learn to learn about learning the school way. As people teachers must acquire an in-depth knowledge of their pupils as individuals and continue to care for them irrespective of the quality and appropriateness of their behaviour. It is difficult to think of any other profession that imposes this inherently stressful duty on its members. Pupils are themselves "exemplars" of the values governing individualistic family lifestyles. Unlike teachers in the economically booming Asian Tiger societies those in the United Kingdom confront a bewildering array of community attitudes towards what they represent and how they seek to help others.
Parents merit equal praise; they trust others, about whom they personally know little, with the education and care of their children. They are compelled to accept long periods of separation from their children during the working week. They accommodate institutional involvement in bringing about the creation of the citizen that is their child. "Dual parenting" is imposed on children by society without an agreed clarity about who is responsible for disruptive outcomes. The lives of teachers are made more difficult by what is ultimately a political fudging of the moral scope of their professional duties.
It is normal and developmentally legitimate for pupils to "get out of hand" and this is especially intelligible in a society that promotes individualism. Learning acceptable limits means that in our acceptance of "social pluralism" (a proxy term for our profoundly post-modern fear of judging behaviours as wrong ) we must not be surprised by expressions of individuality that are confrontational in the classroom. There is a price to be paid by a society whose commerce depends upon the infinite generation of yet to be satisfied wants. As teachers struggle to educate children about the virtues of conventional standards attached to longer-term horizons those on the outside looking into schools should appreciate the personal investment that meeting this challenge imposes on all schools.
Even "failing schools" have extraordinary "value-added" success in improving the socially acceptable nature of their pupils' outlooks on life. Indeed they sometimes outperform "successful schools", but our choice of performance indicators is not officially calibrated to measure such politically sensitive contexts of progress. In the overextended professional lives of teachers the social and moral development of pupils is one of the things that, like arriving on time for school, they are simply expected to achieve anyway.
It is paradoxical that educationists continue to utilise the elusive language of child-centred education at the same time as a blanket definition of educational achievement is imposed on schools from the outside. Unresolved ideological theories of the aims of schooling do not help teachers to gain a sense of return for the efforts they make on behalf of pupils, parents and society at large. Why do we continue to collude in fostering an unrealistically wide professional remit? Are we actually colluding in perpetuating a situation which necessarily corrodes the self-esteem of teachers, particularly those who work with pupils who are not academically inclined even in the broadest sense?
An alternative analysis is to recognise that teachers as people have needs which they anticipate will be satisfied when they are employed to work with children. And when their satisfaction becomes itself problematic interventions must be made to alleviate the personal stress that accumulates. Devoting more thought to the overall well-being of the teaching profession means asking uncomfortable questions about how as a profession teaching construes itself through the philosophy and practice of conditions of service. How realistic is it to expect one individual human being to "soak up" the huge variety of demands made by pupils over a period of 30 to 40 years?
Remember many teachers remain classroom teachers throughout that period. The sustainability of high levels of professional effectiveness must surely require a rethink of how the lives of teachers are supported. Interestingly, at a time when education is laying great stress on supporting the socio-emotional life of children our concepts of teacher support have escaped detailed conceptual critique and empirical scrutiny. Articulated professional support for teachers is insufficiently embedded in an analysis of the emergence of the kind of pressures that can undermine well-being and effectiveness. The traditional "solution" is to ignore this wider construct of professional support, placing it instead in the private domain to be addressed after the school day is over; it is left to a teacher's own discretion.
Why not also create qualitatively different opportunities ("vouchers"?) for teachers? They are already part of the structures of conditions of service of employees in dynamic multinational companies. Interesting ways of improving the behaviour of pupils by easing their stress levels are taking place in parts of Glasgow. Nutty though it may sound the provision of foot massage is apparently helping children to behave better. It seems to alter how they feel about themselves and think about their surroundings. Surely any Cartesian split between mind and body is damaging; feeling physically healthy is a prerequisite for fruitful intellectual engagement. We can learn by looking at how other employers have invested in the provision of health care as well as the massive growth of a fitness industry.
We are letting our teachers down by continuing to pay insufficient attention to the way in which the outside world is grappling with the increasing demands of living at the end of the 20th century. Teachers would be strengthened through being cared for by support structures whose "perks" address directly their physical well-being and sense that they choose wisely by entering the teaching profession. A recipe for achieving a "burnt-out" profession is by continuing to think about these issues as marginal to total quality effectiveness in the classroom.
* Dr Christopher Holligan is in the faculty of education at Paisley University. The views expressed here are personal.