Passing the Buck in Education

I normally find myself in agreement with The Guardian’s “Secret Teacher” column. With last week’s article, though, I really don’t. It’s not that I think it isn’t well-intentioned, but it concedes ground that shouldn’t be conceded.

The article is entitled “Secret Teacher: should school holidays be shorter? I’m in favour.” The central argument is that schools provide social support to vulnerable students, and that long holidays leave those students without support networks and adequate care for large amounts of the year.

I’ve got a lot of sympathy for that line of reasoning. A large part of a teacher’s role is pastoral, ensuring that your students have a safe and supportive environment in which they can learn.  If you have a student who is in trouble or needs help, you do what you can, within the parameters of the job, to assist them.

As well as offering a safe and secure place for learning, the staff here bring in food for students’ breakfasts and wash clothes that are soiled after weeks of continuous wear. We keep an ample supply of shower gel, deodorant, shampoo, combs, toothpaste and brushes to support hygiene.

Not every teacher has to deal with the scale and severity of issues that the Secret Teacher does, but every teacher does have to deal with pastoral matters to some extent. There’s a clear need for someone to provide the necessary support, and teachers step into the gap.

However, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that we should increase or formalise that responsibility. Teachers taking on a pastoral, supportive role has positive effects, but it isn’t in itself a positive thing. Teachers having to do the job of social workers and parents and counsellors is evidence that the system has broken down somewhere else.

There is a chain of people who are responsible for a child’s welfare, education, and sustenance. The issues faced by the article’s author are due to one or more of the links in that chain having broken. That’s a problem that needs fixing. But you don’t fix a broken link by hanging more weight on all of the others. That just puts the working ones under too much strain.

In the end, a teacher’s primary job is to teach. Children need an education, and they get a better education if, during school time, they are able to concentrate on the work, if they are not distracted by outside circumstances. Every minute spent dealing with issues external to the lesson is a minute that isn’t being spent on geometry or poetry or the history of the Peloponnesian Wars.

Asking schools to stay open so that students can receive food and do laundry and be treated with basic human dignity is praiseworthy, but it’s passing the buck. Teachers are already doing their job, fulfilling their part. Making them take on more responsibility doesn’t make anything better – it just papers over the cracks.

There is a problem, and it does need solving. But you solve a problem by finding the source and dealing with it there, not just ignoring it. Relying on teachers to always pick up the slack is wrong in two ways. Firstly, it’s based on the willingness of overworked people to do even more work for free, which isn’t stable or fair. Secondly, it allows a broken system with significant problems to limp on, failing young people in countless ways.

If you make teachers responsible for feeding, clothing, counselling students, then that lets somebody else off the hook. Somebody else, who due to inclination, funding, or attention is failing their charges. It probably isn’t malicious, but they are still not doing what is necessary. That’s what should be changed – don’t put funding into longer terms, put it into more social workers or better support for parents.

I should be clear here; I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t have a pastoral role, because I think that’s an unavoidable part of the job. I’m not even saying that that pastoral role is one taken on begrudgingly. What I am saying is that, ideally, that pastoral role is minimal, because all the problems it deals with have been fixed before the student enters the classroom. Ideally, teachers shouldn’t be feeding students, or doing laundry, because that should have been done by someone else. Teachers shouldn’t have to be role models and counsellors and career advisors, because there should already be an abundance of them.

Let teachers teach. Don’t dump a load more of somebody else’s responsibilities on their shoulders. There is a problem, and the Secret Teacher and every other teacher are helping to solve that. But teachers shouldn’t have to solve it, and trying to make them just shifts the problem along without really improving anything.


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