Most teachers say they have become experts at striking the right balance of attachment and detachment in the relationships they build with students. This means that when the time comes to say goodbye, they are able to 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 also prevalent in other caring roles, such as foster care. But, they add, 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.
However, becoming too involved is also a danger, Silver notes.
She points out that for foster carers, “mourning the loss of relationships can impair the ability to build new ones”, and she wonders whether teachers can suffer the same issue.
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 teachers who take on pastoral responsibilities are particularly vulnerable to becoming too attached.
“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. “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 it can be very difficult for teachers not to instinctively respond to those unmet needs. In these cases, Cheney says, the experience of loss is likely to be much clearer and more painful.
Make time to talk
In most caring professions, whether it’s social work or therapy, the challenge of striking the right balance in professional relationships is an acknowledged part of the job, and people are encouraged, or even required, to talk openly and to support one another. This same kind of support is not always available to teachers, but Cheney believes it should be.
“It doesn’t matter what form it takes, but it matters that it does happen,” she says.
This is an edited version of a feature in the 12 August issue of TES. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. The magazine is also available in all good newsagents.