Sometimes, I make a child cry. I don’t mean to – I never aim for it – but it happens whether you want it to or not. Primary and early years teachers wear these stripes as a matter of course; even in secondary you can still be the midwife to lacrimae mundi. For my part, I teach religious education, a subject that walks solemnly through minefields of controversy and delicacy. On an average day, I can teach lessons about abortion, funeral customs, suffering and mercy killing – all before lunch.
This puts teachers in a position of awesome responsibility. In the difficult intersection of authority, access and trust that being a teacher entails, we can err easily. One thing we need to be sensitive to is dancing around the abuses that can ensue.
I’ll happily advocate for a teacher’s right to robust authority in class: it’s for pupils’ benefit, both pastorally and educationally. I’m cautious of any moves to tip the scales of power in the room too far away from that, because I believe that the adult in the room has priority of command, and I trust adults have the best interests of the kids at heart.
But what does that mean when you ask pupils to discuss matters so raw and real to them that the discussion is as painful as unpicking a stitched wound? Many children will never have watched anyone die; but someone will have. Someone will be living in sheltered accommodation, someone will come from a war zone, someone will be shuddering from abuse. It’s dreadful to contemplate, but far worse not to.
I once broke up a fight between some children; when I bundled the wriggling antagonist into the cooler, I discovered that he had arrived at the school a week before, his family having obtained sanctuary as refugees escaping conflict. The kids in the playground were taunting him with missile noises and explosions. Can you imagine? If you work with children, of course you can. Suddenly, it went from a dressing down to something closer to counselling.
So how do you handle it? The first reaction, and the easiest, is the worst: avoid talking about it. Doing that will shelter them from upset, but to quote the old saying: ships might be safe in the harbour but that’s not what ships are for. We don’t help a child to flourish by pretending the world isn’t sometimes harsh; we do it by helping them to understand the world and their place in it. We give them stabilisers and get ready to catch them. But we face up to our responsibilities so that they can learn to face up to theirs.
I tell all my students that whenever we discuss topics that require personal reflection or use their own experiences as a lens through which to understand concepts, they will never be asked to share more than they feel comfortable with. That their lives are sacred spaces and what they write is private until they choose for it not to be. And if they do, then the whole class has to solemnly observe explicit codes of conduct to display dignity and respect for everyone. Silence has its value, too; sometimes powerful communication comes not in the class, but in the book – the quiet contract between the teacher and the pupil.
I’ve been breathless at the honesty children can display when they know that they finally have one adult they can talk to, or write to. I always remember the girl who explained in a simple essay about Christmas how much her parent’s divorce had devastated her. “I have never told anyone this,” she wrote.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71