What’s the job of a teacher?

One of the sessions I attended at researchED last Saturday was a debate on whether there really is a mental health crisis amongst young people. There were lots of interesting points made and the debate was slightly less polarised than you might expect, but it still turned out fairly predictably with one side saying the crisis is one we’ve created by pathologising normal feelings and behaviour and the other saying that young people are increasingly vulnerable and that the modern world is an increasingly scary place to live in.

The bit I found particularly interesting was when one speaker made the point that teachers should not be expected to act as social workers and should instead ‘just teach’. This provoked the response that if all teachers were going to do was teach, children might as well be sent home to read a book. Instead, the role of a teacher was described as being – and I’m paraphrasing – ‘producing healthy, well-rounded young people’.

Needless to say, this got my goat. Let’s gloss over the fact that while reading books is, of course, admirable and valuable, it’s really quite different to having a subject you didn’t know you didn’t know about brought to life by a knowledgable teacher. We’ll also not dwell on the fact that ‘just teaching’ should include not only great explanations but also effective modelling, scaffolding and lots of directed practice. What really irritated me was the idea that it’s a teachers’ responsibility to determine how to go about making my daughters healthy and well-rounded. How dare they? That’s my job!

This is part of wider narrative in which we’ve decided that parents – especially working class parents – are unable to bring up their own children. In this view of the world children are fragile rather than robust and need protecting from the media, their parents and themselves. Teachers therefore must step in to make up for parents’ deficits and address children’s vulnerability. When I made this point during the debate I was told that my children are lucky. Others are not so lucky and really need teachers to focus on making them mentally healthy rather than teaching them an academic curriculum. Further, inflicting an academic curriculum on ‘kids like these’ is itself almost abusive and likely to do them damage.

Well. If teachers are going to make ham-fisted attempts to be social workers then it really might be better to send children home to read books! Teachers are teachers because they have studied a subject to the point where they know something worth teaching and have had some degree of training in how best to impart this knowledge.

Social workers and mental health professionals have their own specialised expertise. No one wants social workers teaching mathematics or psychiatrists teaching music, PE or English literature. So, why do we want teachers to take on these highly specialised roles? The possibility that a well-intentioned amateur will do more harm than good is pretty high.

Now, of course – certainly compared to many others – my children are lucky. There are those children who the state has decided need to be taken away from their parents and others for whom contact with social services is a regular feature of their lives. These children might be considered unlucky. Outside of these extremes, some parents might need help – some might even ask for it – but who are we to decide that a parent is not up to the job and that we – in our middle class wisdom – know best?

None of this is to say that teaching should be uncaring or that schools don’t have a duty of care. It seems reasonable that schools appoint dedicated members of staff to ensure children are safe, happy and healthy. But not teachers. Teachers’ expertise is – or should be – teaching. I really don’t want well-intentioned teachers deciding they know better than me what my children need, I want them to be leading my children through a challenging, academic curriculum and opening their eyes to a world of wonder about which I’m insufficiently knowledgeable to do a thorough job.

If you don’t think teachers should be doing this for everyone else’s children as well, what’s the alternative? It’s precisely because so many teachers are confused about what their job should be that grammar schools are back on the agenda!

25 Responses to What’s the job of a teacher?

  1. bill says:

    The knowledge we transfer can be done by anyone who can read – so arguably everyone is a teacher but not everyone can raise self esteem or motivate interest

  2. Beccy says:

    One of my son’s primary teachers used to spend 3 minutes after break showing them how to put aside playground disagreements and 50 minutes on the academic study. Seems like a good balance and it worked. If this was KS1 then by KS3 it should be more than possible to devote the whole hour minus set up and clear down to academic study. Discussions about important background issues should one to one anyway and it’s not healthy to deal with it in front of a class of 28.

    • David Didau says:

      3 minutes after *every* break time? Seems a bit inefficient, but on the whole this is fine and not at all what I’m railing against.

      • It’s one thing to deal with playground disagreements because it’s an issue that’s come up, it’s another to decide that it’s the core of one’s role. I couldn’t agree more about the attitude to working class parents. This is why nurture groups bother me so much – I don’t think the parents know that it’s teachers/teaching assistants trying to get a child to bond with them to make up for the deficit at home. I maintain that it’s an awful thing to do behind closed doors and with no one safeguarding pupils or members of staff as to whether this is appropriate or healthy. In one school I worked in the parents cottoned on that it wasn’t right and warned the other parents from having their children sent to the nurture group. None of this is recorded of course, but I do wonder if this was replicated elsewhere and what independent checks there are on such interventions.

  3. Jenny says:

    Could not agree more.

  4. Rufus says:

    Agreed. It seems to me that the best thing a teacher can do for a student’s mental health is to teach them their subject well.

  5. David says:

    I have been making this point for some time, David. It seems to me that the failings in social care have led to a blanket mistrust of parenting.

    I found the insistence on having to see health workers when my two children were born quite patronising.

    Why can I not be trusted to bring up children myself and seek help only if I need it? I am in no doubt that children need to learn to work together etc. but when trained teachers’ time is taken up by too much pastoral work, it does a disservice to those children who are simply there to learn and enjoy school.

    You’re right in saying that this is a reason that parents want grammar schools (unfortunately).

    • Having to see a health visitor is like having to go through airport security; for the sake of a tony minority of terrible people, everybody else has to put up with the very mild inconvenience of someone gently checking you are likely to be ok. This will necessarily continue throughout their schooling. Parents don’t own their children. The rest of us have a stake in making sure they are reasonably healthy. Schools are the obvious place to to this gentle surveillance since almost all children are in schools for a large percentage of their childhoods. Should your child come to primary school with a large bruise, we will ask, ‘how did that happen?’ and yes, we are checking up – whatever your class because it could happen here. We might even have logged the bruise and purported reason somewhere. Middle class parents probably get away with more child abuse because they are scarier to challenge. Middle class parents can mistreat their children in all sorts of ways, some of them particularly bourgeois. I remember a 2 yr old removed from the family because they believed the child should have a fat free diet- the child was literally starving to death. I can imagine a school wanting to intervene if ‘Tiger mom’ pushiness became extreme. But there is a difference between schools doing things and teachers doing them. We employ a range of pastoral staff including a social worker for half a day to do that stuff as they know what they are doing and it keeps the teachers teaching. As a head though, child,protection does take up a fairly substantial portion of my time – and I’m not even the lead DSL.

      • David Didau says:

        “Middle class parents probably get away with more child abuse because they are scarier to challenge. Middle class parents can mistreat their children in all sorts of ways, some of them particularly bourgeois.”

        Who are you to judge? I too can “imagine a school wanting to intervene if ‘Tiger mom’ pushiness became extreme” but think it’s lamentable.

  6. manyanaed says:

    When I was a deputy head in the challenging school I became head of I worked with a brilliant head of year. We took the most difficult year 10 group through to year 11 up to GCSE. Some of them were an utter nightmare, One Friday, after we had completed another hour long detention she remarked to me that we were a school and not a social services department nor were we a hospital. Must be one of the most enlightening things anyone has said to me about the role of the school.

  7. Sarah Profit Ramsay says:

    A school should be about teaching and that should be its focus but with some of the cuts faced by the services for families in the community is it not the case that schools are forced to take on more of a welfare support role for some children.

  8. Jennifer says:

    I get furious at people who say an a academic curriculum is abusive to disadvantaged children. Deprived at he they are also to be deprived of the liberation of a good academic education in the name of helping them
    They also probably get fed the idea that creativity is spontaneous and not the result of knowledge and hard work. A crime against all children.

  9. Maxine Houghton says:

    Teachers are being forced into the position of pseudo-social worker by the lack of appropriate professionals or services. We are taught to not ‘pass the baton’ when alerting our safeguarding lead to a potential issue; we must continue to monitor the situation whilst suitable action is being taken. The problem comes when, as so often happens, the young person’s need fails to meet the threshold for a service. Who takes responsibility then? The teacher has reassured the young person that it’s better to share and trust yet the cavalry has failed to arrive.
    I am lucky enough to have worked in schools where pastoral provision, and care, has been outstanding and classroom teachers have been able to leave the majority of this work to their non-teaching colleagues. However, I shudder to think what is happening in schools where inexperienced teachers are left to manage complex issues without adequate support.
    There are many good reasons why a young person might choose to talk to a teacher instead of a parent and surprisingly few of these are indications of sinister happenings at home. It is important that teachers are trained to manage this expectation appropriately. They must be able to mentor and lead the way to support without either basking in the role of pseudo social worker or pushing the problem away.

  10. 1mandyb says:

    I whole-heartedly agree David! My children attend a school to which I have significant loyalty (used to work there and am now a governor there),who completely failed my daughter, by making decisions about how to avert attention from consistent bullying and emerging learning needs without consulting me. I challenged the Deputy Head, when he placed her on a ‘resilience course’ (something he had attended a course on but had no qualification in) without my permission, with an account of the professional support she was receiving outside of school to support the emotional needs exasperated by their lack of effective teaching and pastoral action, he still insisted that she should miss learning time to work through tasks with a ‘peer mentor’ who had inadequate training – red flag moment and I withdrew her from the school!
    Teachers are trained to teach. Pupils benefit most from effective learning experiences. All parents (no matter their background) love their children and want the best for them. They are forced to trust their cherished small people to schools, under the promise / expectation that the professionals therein will help them to learn and will have enough professional integrity to liaise with ‘professionals’ outside the teaching remit to support identified pupils when needs are identified.

    • It is not true that ALL parents love their children. If it were so we would not need social workers. It is also the case that some parents love their children but cannot or do not do the best for them. All the mothers of the children who I have seen removed from their families loved them. But a violent relationship or addiction or their own mental health problems meant they could not give their children an adequate level of care- despite their love.

      • David Didau says:

        As you say, hence the need for social care. Hence also the need for schools to have children’s care and wellbeing as priorities. None of this is justification for teachers to act as social workers.

  11. Tara Houle says:

    Agreed. I’d like to add a different spin on this though.

    As a mum, if I have to hear one more time that “I’m the expert of your child”, I think I’m going to spit. Teachers have an incredibly important role when it comes to our children’s education, but in now way have I EVER asked them to take on my role as a mother. Just as I have never interfered with the relationship of my child and their teacher, I would expect the same courtesy be paid to me.

    The other item I’d like to bring to the conversation, surrounds the issue about what happens when teachers DO take on the role as a parent, and starts experimenting with young children without the child’s consent…all done under the guise of “deep inquiry” learning. This is one experiment that went terribly wrong…and only ended because the parents objected and contacted the media. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/role-playing-experiment-at-vancouver-school-aims-to-nurture-critical-thinking/article31785408/ (be sure to read the letter to the parents, which is linked in the article) There has been a very subtle, yet very strong push to get parents out of the way, and let them have access to our kids.

    Both parents and teachers have a significant role to play yet they must remain distinct. Supporting each other throughout this process, and recognizing very distinct roles in this scenario is what is required. We’ve blurred the lines and our kids’ learning is taking a toll. Best to get back to what we have been called to do: teachers provide the knowledge for a solid education IN the classroom, parents determine all other roles for raising their child. And in between, if there are gaps to fill, communicating with one another needs to occur to determine the next step.

  12. […] week I have read that teachers should not try to be social workers by @LearningSpy.  Discussion followed and many teachers agreed that the key role of a teacher is […]

  13. Nency says:

    The role of a teacher is to help students apply concepts, such as math, English, and science through classroom instruction and presentations. Their role is also to prepare lessons, grade papers, manage the classroom, meet with parents, and work closely with school staff. Being a teacher is much more than just executing lesson plans, in today’s world a teacher’s role is a multifaceted profession; they carry the role of a surrogate parent, class disciplinarian, mentor, counselor, book keeper, role model, planner and many more.

  14. tolu bolanle says:

    This is where most parents got it wrong. Teachers has a huge role to play on children/pupils but not to the extend of them playing the role of mothers.

  15. khushijain1 says:

    Concurred. I can’t help thinking that the best thing an educator can accomplish for an understudy’s emotional well-being is to show them their subject well.
    http://www.cgbse.results-nic.in/10th-result.html

  16. […] not responsible for entertaining children or making them happy. And they certainly should not be responsible for children’s mental health. Ideally your passion for what you teach should be infectious, but this is not the purpose of […]

  17. 0105301g says:

    As far as I am concerned our job is to teach. I don’t see why we have to be crusading justice warriors. It creates so much needless work and stress. What’s even worse though is when crusaders start to undermine the behaviour of the school. Have seen this have terrible affects in poor and affluent areas alike.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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