Can I hug you, Miss?”
It was the last day of school and Charlotte (not her real name) was standing, uncertain, by my desk. Teachers are not supposed to have favourites, but if we were allowed, then Charlotte would have been one of mine. I had known her since she was in Year 7. Two years later, I was about to leave the school and we were saying goodbye for the last time.
I would have liked to have given her a hug. But professionalism made me hesitate.
Teacher-student relationships are all about balance. It takes a certain level of emotional investment to provide students with the support and attention they need. But it is crucial that teachers also maintain the right amount of distance, because the relationship is only temporary. Teachers have to let go and get ready to do it all over again with a new group of students. Students who need them just as much.
Luckily, most teachers say they become experts at finding the right combination of attachment and detachment early in their careers, which means that when the time comes to say goodbye, they can manage the process with relative ease – even when they are waving off students on GCSE results day whom they have taught for five years straight.
Psychologists say this is a skill prevalent in other caring roles, too – in the health and social care professions and in foster care, for instance.
But what about those students who need you that little bit more than others; those you might find yourself worrying about on evenings or weekends; those who you care for because, unfortunately, no one else does?
When it comes to providing the emotional support these children require – and the extra time their situation demands – finding the balance can be incredibly difficult.
Sometimes it’s impossible to stay detached. Sometimes goodbyes are not as easy as teachers let on.
The vast majority of teachers will tell you that saying goodbye is just part of the job. As one group of students leave, they make room for another in a cycle that continues year after year. It’s a detachment that all who sign up to the profession recognise as a necessity.
That’s not to say they don’t care – far from it. Rather, they simply recognise their part in the process.
“I’ve definitely had groups that I have been sad to leave. Especially exam classes, when you spend so much time with them and see them progress so much,” says Ruth Sudlow, a secondary English teacher from Yorkshire. “But it is never to an excessive degree.”
Emma Torrance, a secondary school teacher until earlier this year, agrees. “I would honestly say that I’m not emotionally attached, not even to those really special kids,” she admits. “While I feel a real admiration for them and enjoy their company, I maintain a professional distance.”
Torrance recognises that some might perceive this as cynicism, but she says it is simply professionalism.
“We’re used to it, and it’s our job,” she says. “If you actually feel emotionally upset, I think you’ve probably stepped over a line somewhere.”
There is, of course, a danger of being too detached. Cold, distant teachers don’t tend to have much success in getting the best out of their students.
Countless studies have found that the student-teacher relationship is the “keystone” (as academics Robert J Marzano and Jana S Marzano put it) of teaching – and the likes of education heavyweight professors Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie (they of formative assessment and Visible Learning fame respectively) have spoken extensively of the importance of teachers knowing their students well.
Good teachers don’t need anyone else to tell them this, of course: they know it in their bones.
“If you can’t build up that rapport with a kid pretty quickly, then they’re not going to buy into whatever concept you’re trying to teach them,” says Dylan McCarthy, a primary school teacher from Manchester, who has also co-founded the enterprise organisation Stepping into Business.
But is it tough to find the right balance between building a relationship of necessary closeness to enable good teaching and having enough distance to be able to move on each year to the next set of students?
Most teachers will tell you that they know instinctively where the line is, and that walking along it becomes second nature. McCarthy admits, though, to fleeting moments of struggle.
‘Right, move on’
“For about two weeks it’s really emotional and you’ve got your leavers’ assemblies and end-of-year performances and talent shows and parents’ goodbye evenings and discos and all sorts – it’s just one thing after another – and it’s all emotional,” he says. “But then come September, a new cohort come along and it’s like, ‘Right, move on.’ ”
Psychologists think that maintaining this business-like approach to relationships with students is important for teacher wellbeing. But, they say, the balance is trickier to achieve than teachers may be letting on – particularly in the current high-stress environment of the profession.
“ ‘Depersonalisation’, or treating the recipients of their service like items on a conveyor belt, is a recognised sign of burnout,” explains consultant clinical psychologist Dr Miriam Silver.
She says this can begin a spiral that has a damaging impact on a person’s ability to do their job.
“When we feel emotionally exhausted, we step back and try to make things feel less personal, but in so doing we lose some of that sense of connection and with it the protective sense of personal accomplishment that keeps us satisfied with our jobs,” she explains.
Silver notes, however, that becoming too involved is also a danger. You can see how, in the current system, teachers could become too heavily invested in their students as the stakes are so high – for the student, the school and the teacher.
She points out that for foster carers, “mourning the loss of relationships can impair the ability to build new ones” and wonders whether teachers can suffer the same issue.
Fortunately, as McCarthy hinted at earlier, schools don’t leave teachers to manage the balance entirely alone.
Julia Faulconbridge, a consultant clinical psychologist and the chair of the faculty for children, young people and families at the British Psychological Society, Division of Clinical Psychology says that schools’ transition structures help teachers to manage the goodbye process.
“There is a structure that builds up so that the goodbye isn’t a sudden cut-off. There’s preparation, there’s working towards an event – even just an end-of-year assembly. Having some sort of event as a marker is really important.”
The leavers’ assemblies, talent shows and school discos are not just frivolous activities to fill up those last few weeks before summer, she says. Rather, they have a far more important function as shared “rituals” that legitimise the emotions that students and teachers might be feeling and allow these emotions to be released in a manageable way.
A painful sense of loss
So teachers have goodbyes sorted. Even in the run-up to GCSE results day, when teachers will wave off children they have nurtured into adults and let them loose on an often cruel world, there are no slip-ups, no awkward falls one way or another off that swaying, slippery wire.
If only that were the case.
“I would think that most of the time it isn’t a significant issue for the teachers,” says Faulconbridge. “But there will always be some kids who touch their heart strings a little bit more than others…”
She says that those who work in pastoral roles are particularly vulnerable.
“If you are a teacher who has a pastoral role or are someone who students come to talk to when they have difficulties, that is when you get more ‘intense’ relationships building up,” she explains. “Where you are working with children who have significant safeguarding issues, or who you are worried about because you’re unsure whether they are actually OK at home, those are the ones that I think don’t fit so easily into the usual process of saying goodbye.”
Gemma Cheney, a senior clinical psychologist and a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that these children are more difficult to say goodbye to because of the basic principles of attachment theory.
“Children who are securely attached, who have grown up with a sensitive caregiver and whose needs are being well met elsewhere, will turn up in the classroom ready to learn,” Cheney says. “This is easy for a teacher, because it leaves them free to just teach.
“However, children who are insecurely attached, whose needs are not being well met outside of the classroom, will turn up with those unmet needs written all over them.”
And for adults who are themselves securely attached, it can be very difficult not to instinctively respond to those unmet needs.
“It’s as strong as the pull when a baby is crying and you see the mum comforting it,” Cheney explains. “So if you have a child in your class and they are indicating to you that their care needs are not being met then you can’t help but be drawn into a relationship with them – in a way that isn’t necessarily related to academic learning.”
In these cases, she says, the experience of loss is likely to be much clearer and more painful. This is because you have something more to lose.
“The child may be giving you signals that the loss is meaningful for them as well,” Cheney says. “You are both anticipating an ending to the relationship and know that you will no longer be able to meet the need you have been meeting and this will leave a kind of gap, or deficit.”
This deficit is what we feel when we experience a sense of grief or loss.
McCarthy says he has experienced this first-hand. “The ones that always seem to come into my head are the ones that have either got special needs – so you have spent a lot of time working with them and working with their families and building up a relationship – or, and perhaps this because I am a man, they are boys who are from single-parent families and don’t typically have a male role model that they see on a regular basis,” he says.
Torrance, though, suggests much of the sadness teachers feel can be for the loss the student has experienced rather than any emotions they feel themselves.
This is evident, she says, in the way that students will sometimes continue to reach out to teachers by emailing or visiting, even after they have left school.
“On some level, it’s like a break-up or a death without the event. We become such a dependable part of their lives, but then once the exam is over, they have no valid excuse to find us or talk to us. It means what was a close dependency is just cut off rather cruelly,” she says.
Some may argue that if a child does feel like that, then that balance may not have been as the teacher would have intended. If one party finds the goodbye hard, then the blame, they might say, should be shared.
It is for exactly this reason – and taking into account the detrimental effects that getting the student relationship wrong can have on teaching – that both Cheney and Faulconbridge say teachers need to talk about the relationships that they form with students, particularly where they feel they may have become too attached or detached.
“It is difficult to talk about and I know that teachers feel very blamed if they are felt to have allowed pupils to get too close,” Faulconbridge says. “And so it’s hard to admit to and may even be hard to recognise in the total exhaustion that comes at the end of a school year.”
But, while she recognises that it might not be easy, she argues that schools must “develop a culture where this is out in the open. Where it’s a subject for supportive discussion, it’s not a subject for shame”.
In most caring professions, whether it’s social work, social care or therapy, the challenge of striking the right balance in professional relationships is an acknowledged part of the job. As such, people are encouraged, or even required, to talk openly about any issues so these can be resolved and colleagues can support one another. This same kind of support is not always available to teachers.
Cheney suggests that senior leaders can offer more support by inviting a clinical psychologist to come into school to run teacher forums. Some pupil referral units have introduced timetabled, compulsory discussion times for teachers to perform a similar function.
“It doesn’t matter what form it takes, but it matters that it does happen,” Cheney says. Even a drink with a colleague to talk through concerns or emotions is beneficial, she stresses.
Of course, for any of that to happen teachers would have to admit that saying goodbye is harder than they may be willing to recognise.
Yes, when it comes to saying goodbye, teachers have truly mastered the art. On the whole, they are skilled at building relationships with their students that strike just the right balance between attachment and emotional distance.
Yet there should be no embarrassment for teachers in confessing that, sometimes, goodbyes are not easy; that sometimes there is a sense of loss that needs to be addressed; that sometimes teachers need someone to talk to about this.
Admitting to this doesn’t mean you are a bad teacher. But failing to talk about it might mean that you struggle to be the best teacher you can be.
Helen Amass is editorial content manager for TES, and a former teacher @Helen_Amass
Do you spend more time with your students than your partner?
A primary school teacher will, on average, spend 19 hours per week teaching their students.
Secondary teachers will spend three hours per week teaching their GCSE students and four hours per week teaching each A-level class.
How does this compare with how much time a teacher will spend with their spouse?
The average adult spends 12.5 hours with their spouse (not including sleep) during the working week (Monday to Friday).
For adults with children, this drops to just 6.25 hours per week.
Watching television is the most common activity for spouses (about an hour per day), followed by eating together (about half an hour per day).
And yet if you take other school-related activities, including marking, responding to emails and planning, into consideration – as well as after-school groups, trips and any extra revision classes – these statistics are likely to be skewed even further in favour of students.
At primary, the total working hours for a teacher is, on average, 59.3 hours.
At secondary, the total working hours for a teacher is 55.7 hours.
Sources: UK 2000 Time Use Survey; Teachers’ Workload Diary Survey 2013