I am a heartless ***. I must be, because I never cried or lost sleep over pupils’ exam results on their own account (although I did when some less-than-spectacular ones were weaponised professionally against me). I did not spend my entire summer holiday in fear of results day, or head to school early on that morning in order to High-Five with my pupils. Their public success did not need my validation; my job was done.
Neither did I ever feel the need to discuss my sexuality with my pupils.
Both of these issues warranted attention in The Guardian’s education pages this week. Maybe I am just too long in the tooth, but such things make me wonder whatever happened to the concept of Professional Detachment.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that teachers should be indifferent to their pupils’ successes (and failures) – but there should remain a difference between private thoughts, and what one transmits publicly. The extreme blurring of such boundaries, while simply reflecting wider modern attitudes, is really not at all helpful either to teachers as professionals, or to their pupils.
I’m in little doubt that it is me who is out of line on this: my own school had more than enough teachers who seemed to feel that their role was something between personal buddy and whole-life coach, that this did come to pervade official expectations. It was me who was the party-pooper for adopting a more reflective, proportionate stance, who saw his job as simply to sharpen his pupils’ minds. I never could see the similarities between exam results and winning the lottery.
The problems with the soppy approach are many. From a pupil’s perspective it implies that their teacher is complicit in some kind of battle that they are both conspiratorially fighting against the big, bad outside world, as represented by the Exam Paper. By taking so much on themselves, teachers actually risk creating a dependency culture – particularly, perhaps, with vulnerable pupils. Better to encourage self-reliance – and that requires both the scaffolding to exist only at a certain distance, and the ability to spot when to let someone fail. Removing failure as an option – sometimes a deserved one – does not really do people a service.
While we all know what pupils mean when they say they “couldn’t have done ‘it’ without their teacher”, to me that is actually the last thing they should be thinking. It is (or should be) about their achievement, not the teacher’s. Whatever ‘it’ is…. While in reality we are undoubtedly a significant factor in their outcomes, we should not be seeking such ownership of their successes – or their failures. We are just doing our job as kindly muses, and our responses should be calibrated accordingly.
Becoming too close to one’s pupils risks professional compromise. It is almost impossible to be equally close to the numbers of individuals that teachers encounter – so the immediate accusation is of favouritism. Being human, all teachers probably do have favourites but in the interests of a wider fairness, this is something that should be utterly concealed from pupils. Being able to over-ride one’s personal biases is what it means to be a professional.
Becoming personally involved also risks letting children down more seriously than would adopting a more detached position. There are times when teachers have to take difficult decisions – and becoming too close to the individuals concerned risks clouding professional judgement – and there is the risk that the pupil may feel “betrayed” by a teacher who suddenly needs to step back.
A deeper message that such conspiracy sends is that pupils actually need such utterly partisan support. I suspect more really want to be helped – from a distance – to stand on their own feet. To lead children to think that they will always be surrounded by people who think the sun shines from certain parts of their anatomies is doing them a disservice. That is the job of – if anyone – their relatives (and I would argue not, inevitably, them either). The teacher’s role is to form an intermediary between home life and the indifference of the wider world: a person who will support and nurture, but also be the critical presence that is not afraid of pointing out deficiencies and encouraging the strength of character to take knocks on the chin. Not to be a surrogate wet nurse.
Of course teachers can and should feel satisfaction in their pupils’ (deserved) successes – but that is rather different from the level of partiality that now seems to be seen as necessary. We should also be able to look dispassionately at those who are less successful, feeling a philosophical regret when it was not deserved and vindication when it was. But above all, we should be able to look at such things as part and parcel of life, where our greater wisdom reminds us that things are not always “fair”, but that in many cases good can come from adversity, and that what does not kill us can make us stronger. Then we can teach our pupils the same thing.
(Behind this argument, I am of course aware that the extent to which the raising of short-term exam stakes has led to much greater ‘investment’ by teachers in their pupils’ results – but that is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It has decimated teacher’s ability to remain at a certain distance from the minutiae of their pupils’ lives and focus on the bigger developmental picture.)
The same edition of The Guardian included an article about whether gay teachers should come out in their schools. The mere existence of such an article to me speaks of yet more self-indulgent floppy-lippedness. I simply fail to see why, in almost any circumstance, this need even be an issue.
I had gay colleagues. I have gay friends. As far as I am aware, for the majority of my colleagues it was simply not an issue. The individuals concerned were liked and respected not for their sexuality, but for their wisdom, integrity and professionalism. One’s personal life is not, or should not be, any concern of one’s employer, at least as long as it is not compromising one’s professional standing. I cannot see that sexual orientation does that, so long as it does not influence one’s professional conduct. Part of being a professional involves ensuring that it doesn’t.
Of course there are going to be occasions when one’s personal circumstances become evident to one’s colleagues – but once again, this is where a degree of professional detachment from both parties can be helpful. The need to import intimate aspects of one’s personal life into one’s professional life is really not helpful or necessary; to do so seems to me to invite controversy. This is not the same, by the way, as not challenging real discrimination where it happens.
The Guardian’s interviewee expressed concern that her sexuality was going to prejudice her career – which it actually seemed not to have done. But I question her apparent need to introduce the issue in the first place – let alone with her pupils. A teacher’s private life (or at least potentially-sensitive aspects of it) should remain utterly out of bounds to one’s pupils, and by not enforcing this, she was in fact increasing her risks of discrimination.
I also question her desire to become a (self-appointed) role model for gay pupils. Why did she feel the need to engage in this attention-grabbing behaviour? She might better have been willing to participate in formal educational discussion of sexuality – but that is a rather different matter. Quite apart from the above-mentioned risks, it seems to me that homosexual people might object if overtly heterosexual role models were presented in schools. Taking it upon oneself to become an icon is hardly compatible with genuinely equal treatment, which should be blind to such matters. The best role model this teacher could have presented would have been to make her sexuality an utter non-issue. Deliberate flag-flying does not allow that to happen.
It also forces people to adopt dishonest positions. Inwardly, I am somewhat uncomfortable with homosexuality – as, I suspect are many heterosexuals if the truth were known. But that discomfort evidently exists in the other direction too. I suspect that it is an instinct to shrink from whichever polarity is not one’s personal norm. I have gay friends – but once again, it is simply not an issue. They just are who they are, no different from other friends. My discomfort is purely internal, and it does not adversely affect those friendships whatsoever, indeed others have resulted from them.
This is about a form of personal detachment, which acknowledges rather than denies one’s weaknesses and imperfections – and then overrides them in the interests of a greater good. That is also the essence of professionalism.
I am by no means an advocate of the Stiff Upper Lip approach – but I really don’t see that the modern hyper-floppy one that causes people to become hopelessly, self-indulgently, squeamishly partisan about every issue, is really better. Having the fortitude not to weep over one’s pupils, or to display one’s sexuality publicly need not imply emotional coldness or callousness; it is simply the mark of a mature, wise mind that is able to calibrate its responses and take an at least partly-detached and bigger view.
It is that which teachers, above all, should be nurturing in their pupils: an ability to rise above one’s petty, transient emotions, to see the world from a wider, wiser perspective and even to accept that it requires a degree of stoicism. We need to encourage young people to see their egos in a wider context, rather than encouraging them to centre the world even more firmly on themselves, than both immaturity and modern social attitudes promote. Perpetually wearing our hearts on our sleeves is not really very helpful.
And as professionals, the place to start is with ourselves.