By Claire Isaacs, SPS HR Consultant
I recently had dinner with a teacher friend of mine, and inevitably the subject turned to “how’s work?”; a scene repeated at many a girls-night-out I’m sure. To me, it’s always fascinating to hear of life from the classroom rather than the headteacher’s office. Having dispensed with the joys of inspections and classroom observations, conversation turned to concerns about this year’s cohort. The challenges for this class were much less about differentiating lessons for all abilities, or the wonders of the new National Curriculum. Instead, the biggest challenge seemed to be around remaining “teacher”.
When I was at school *cough* years ago, it was accepted that whilst at school, teachers were “in loco parentis”, taking the place of our parents during school hours. I’m not sure whether that negated the need for signed consent for an anaesthetic if walking to the local church at that time, or whether we had already reached the litigious age of a form for everything. No matter. When we were at school, our teacher mopped tears, made sure our shoes were on the right feet after PE and sent us to the office for a plaster when we grazed a knee. On a bad day, it included dispensing wrath at those caught fighting on the playground, or making us sit with our hands on our heads in silence for being disruptive. Most memorable of my experiences was being poorly and the teacher handing me over to my mum at the end of the day with the instruction to take me home, feed me ice-cream for my throat and not return me to her until Monday. Such was the approximate extent of the “parenting” element of the role.
Times, it seems have changed. At least a third of my friend’s class have complex needs that have nothing to do with learning their times tables, proper use of a semi-colon or life as a Victorian child. I should note here that we did not discuss anything that would identify a child or a family, but as I understand it, the needs of those children have more to do with social issues that exist far outside the school boundaries. Modern families are complex systems rarely it seems of 2.4 children, but instead a myriad of set ups of single parents, step-families with both deprivation and affluence each sometimes having their own drawbacks.
My friend’s classroom sees the impact parental bereavement has on a small child whose remaining parent is, understandably finding it hard to cope; the damage done by witnessing domestic abuse in the home, or living with an alcohol dependent parent; the child being caught in the middle of a messy custody battle. Maybe even the difficulties because their parents haven’t learned to be parents yet.
The sorts of circumstances we chatted about are social issues, not just educational ones, but it did remind me very much of the column inches dedicated to the issues in reception classes each September, aghast at the number of children not yet able to use a knife or fork, or not yet reliably toileting. Suddenly, the term “in loco parentis” takes on a very different meaning.
With the pressures of inspection standards, the emphasis on points progress and attainment levels, teachers have a tough job in just being teachers. What I hadn’t quite appreciated was the emotional pressures of being the stable adult in a child’s life; of school being a child’s “safe place”. The very human reactions to children and parents in difficult circumstances, must make it very difficult to draw the professional boundary of the teacher role, where there are parents in need of a counsellor, legal advisor, comforter or advisor. Children who also need a comforter, a play therapist, social skills training and maybe a hot meal. Those circumstances that had me declaring that I would just want to give them a huge hug. For safeguarding reasons of course, that being the one thing that “loco parentis” no longer allows.
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