Disinterested?

One of John Tomsett’s most memorable statements to date has been, “Any[one] who claims she or he always puts students first [without equally thinking of the welfare of their staff] probably hasn’t thought through in detail exactly what that means.”

Yet that is what teaching is ‘supposed’ to be for: “it’s all for the pupils”. Well yes, in a sense, but that doesn’t necessarily imply the kind of ‘cuddly love’ mentality that seems to be prevalent these days. One can have a wider, if more detached view of one’s pupils’ interests.

As a teacher who has no children of his own, I’m quite used to a degree of incomprehension over my motives. You are expected to ‘love children’ and the sole acceptable raison d’etre for a teacher seems to be a willingness to lay down one’s life selflessly for the sake of the little darlings.

I wouldn’t wish to underestimate the challenges faced by those who deal with the consequences of under-privilege and social breakdown, where the basic personal well-being of the child necessarily takes a much higher priority, but the bleeding-heart ‘children only get one chance’ mentality really is not widely helpful. For a start, it implies a zero-sum view of life that is simply not accurate; it over-states the causality between education and life-outcomes, and it inflates the indispensability of the teaching profession. I suspect it is also not really what the majority of young people want, certainly by the time they are of secondary-education age. Most really are rather more robust and independent than we like to think, and while they want good, supportive relationships with their teachers, I rather doubt they really want us playing the role of busy-body life-coaches – helicopter teachers to add to their helicopter parents.

The emergence of the Cult of the Pupil, coupled with the increase in the political accountability of education has led to a decline in the professional disinterest that explains why a childless individual like me might still want to do the job. It has in fact narrowed the remit of the teacher.

I’m sure that readers will appreciate that ‘disinterested’ is not the same as uninterested. For a teacher to be uninterested in their pupils would indeed be a neglect of duty. Disinterested implies one (desirable) stage of remove. It is the quality that dictates when one should stand back and let a pupil struggle through, rather than rushing in with an academic sticking-plaster. It is that quality that views pupils’ exam success as largely their own responsibility – because by standing back, it sees that bigger picture that neither the pupils nor society as a whole are helped by artificially inflating pupil achievements. It is the view that gives young people space to make their own decisions. I recently told my sixth-form tutor group that despite the official instruction, I would not be hassling them to complete their university applications. I would be there to advise them as and when they were ready – but if they couldn’t be bothered to complete the form, then they clearly didn’t want to go enough. They got the message.

This is not neglect.

Professional disinterest has also been eroded at an institutional level. By making schools’ incomes dependent on pupil numbers, and by attaching such severe consequences to the exam-result and inspection regimes, government has forced schools to abandon impartiality in favour of self-interest – or perhaps that should be self-preservation. Consequently, schools have become less authentic, more ready to ‘spin’ themselves and less likely openly to acknowledge their failings.

The same self-interest/preservation effect can be seen at an individual level, from teachers who ‘game’ the inspection regime by having unrepresentative ‘showpiece’ lessons that they wheel out for inspectors, to sailing very close to the wind with exam regulations in the interest of boosting their pupils’ results. It also pushes people towards playing for popularity, because self-interest and The Cult of the Pupil are in reality superficially driven by teacher-popularity.

But education and educators actually have numerous other roles that dictate a rather less self-absorbed view of their pupils:

1) Education is the means by which a civilisation’s technical knowledge and cultural capital is transmitted from one generation to the next. That gives teachers a role that implies that what seems to be of immediate interest to their students should not always take precedence. It is why knowledge is still important for the cultural cohesion and self-perspective it fosters.  It is a role that also seems to have been largely forgotten. A recent report criticised British ICT teaching for being too preoccupied with the consumption of technology and not enough with the harder job of production.

2) Education is the mechanism by which young people are gradually weaned from their home environments and set free into the wider world of society at large. This implies exposing them to some of the harsher realities – and letting them understand that they are not, after all the centre of the universe, in the way which loving relationships at home might disguise. This is why parental preference should be treated with caution; the role of schools should not just be to reinforce home-prejudices and stereotypes.

3) Education has to balance the needs of all individuals, and pupils (and parents) need to understand that. Pretending that we can be all things to all people is doomed to failure, the result of which has been a narrowing of the qualities that education promotes – and of the types of people it employs. This is not in the wider interest of a diverse society, and may explain some of the disaffection we see.

4) Education is the mechanism by which we identify individuals’ aptitudes. This is both for their own benefit and so that they can be deployed within society according to their abilities. This need not be the straight-jacket that is often portrayed – but we really do need to know which individuals have the aptitude to be brain surgeons and which don’t. This means taking a detached view of individuals’ abilities, and identifying ‘failures’ as well as successes. Concealing such issues with a ‘prizes-for-all’ mentality could actually be dangerous.

5) It could also be argued that education provides useful employment openings for those in society who by talent or temperament are not suited for – or do not wish to work in – the aggressive commercial sector. It provides a more reflective, altruistic focus, and forcing educational institutions to operate on aggressive self-interest removes from those individuals the chance both to do their best work – and to be most useful to the society of which they too are a part. This is true of universities as well as schools. It is salutary that the needs of teachers are so far down the list that I almost hesitate to write this.

As a childless individual, I have as much interest as any parent in the society that education helps to shape. But while I have excellent relationships with the majority of my students, I am not unduly sentimental about them in the way their parents hopefully are. I am pleased when they do well, but also try to remember the larger perspectives on my work, which explain why I do it in the first place.

It also helps me to remember that I am equally a member of that society, with my own valid needs and interests (that may sometimes conflict with those of my pupils), at times when the system would play on ‘it’s all for the pupils’ to the unreasonable detriment of my own life balance.

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