“I’m a teacher, not a social worker.” I’ve heard this phrase a lot recently. I’ve been known to say it myself on occasion – usually when I read yet another article claiming that schools aren’t doing enough to tackle poor parenting/obesity/immorality.
So often in teaching, you judge and are judged by the things that you can measure: the value added, the lines on the graph, the closing of the gap. But when our children don’t progress to order, have we all failed?
I found myself thinking about this yesterday at my Grandma’s funeral. Grandma died just one year shy of her 100th birthday. Unusually for the time, she went to school until she was 18 (though I suspect this was more because she enjoyed it than owing to academic brilliance).
Throughout her life she did various jobs, all of which she loved and none of which required formal qualifications. Her parenting style was decidedly non-helicopter. Educational support was limited to enrolling her offspring in the local school (in one case, two years late) and splashing them with holy water on exam days. It clearly worked because she produced a family of academic successes. Four of her children became teachers and every grandchild went to university (two to Oxbridge).
She was immensely proud of the teachers in the family and once received a round of applause for reprimanding some people on a bus whom she overheard complaining that teachers were idle, overpaid and only in it for the holidays.
'Good results don't guarantee happiness'
Yet for all of our collective qualifications, I doubt any of our family will end up with a eulogy quite so glowing or a funeral crowd as suffused with affection. Grandma’s formal qualifications may have been non-existent but her emotional intelligence was off the chart. An eternal optimist, it was impossible to spend time with her and not feel better about yourself and the world.
Society elevates academic successes and big achievements. In education, our success stories are garnered from those who start from humble beginnings and go on to “make something of themselves”.
Grandma’s life makes no contribution to this narrative. Raising a family and helping to bring up grandchildren is no cause for formal recognition. But, while schools should always have academic excellence for all as their core purpose, it is worth remembering that qualifications on their own are no guarantee of happiness or fulfilment, whatever your social starting point. And though what we measure might suggest that the non-academic stuff doesn’t matter, the finished product only documents part of the journey. League tables and spreadsheets can mask the other progress – the progress that you can shore up against your ruins when you’re 99 and all memory of that Sats reading test is gone.
Teachers measure their lives in coffee spoons and short-term goals, but if you believe the countless celebrities who, years later, thank a teacher for helping shape their life, it’s clear we’re playing the long game, even if we don’t always realise it. As the poet Philip Larkin once wrote (though he may not personally have been convinced), what will survive of us is love.
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym of a primary school teacher in the West Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse