The Secret Teacher: Classrooms are like animal rescue centres

Some of our charges are wounded and vulnerable, due to homelife or other teachers

‘As teachers, we can be guilty of underestimating the impact we have on those in our charge.’ File photograph: iStock

‘As teachers, we can be guilty of underestimating the impact we have on those in our charge.’ File photograph: iStock

 

A classroom has more in common with an animal rescue centre than you might think. Every day when the little creatures come traipsing in, some among them are wounded and therefore vulnerable. Unfortunately some of those injuries originate at home and those children will return for more of the same when the school day is over.

Just as unwelcome, however, is the realisation that a fellow teacher is at the root of the pupil’s problem, even if unintentionally. The damage may have been done during a lesson earlier that same day, or perhaps as far back as a previous school year. There may have only been one isolated incident a very long time ago, but it has left an indelible mark on the pupil.

Finding out the backstory is entirely secondary at the moment of spotting such a vulnerability, and is not in fact even the teacher’s responsibility. What is essential is to administer emergency treatment so that the psychological wounds can start to heal.

So often the reason a student doesn’t like a subject is intrinsically linked to a teacher’s poor deskside manner

To state the obvious, the students in any given class on any given day are there to learn something. When setting out on any journey to learn something new, all of us feel some degree of nervousness and apprehension about what’s ahead; there will also of course be excitement and a fervent hope we grasp it quickly, maybe even shine in front of our peers.

How any individual, at any age, is treated when they are in this state of mind is decisive for how they will feel about the skill or activity – or in this case school subject.

When we don’t know how to do something we need to be taught, and the way we are taught, the how, is every bit as important as the subject matter, the what.

“Deskside” manner rarely gets enough positive airtime, and yet so often the reason a student doesn’t like a subject is intrinsically linked to a teacher’s poor deskside manner.

Any solution? Teachers could make a personal commitment to lifelong learning as a form of annual continuing professional development. Despite the use of educational jargon there, this could be, and indeed should be, entirely on the teacher’s own initiative.

If all teachers set out to do something new and ideally well out of their comfort zone on a regular basis, it would surely enable empathy with the mindset of a learner (Anyone for Arabic? Ever tried Geology?).

Teachers who never do this only become more practised, experienced and knowledgeable in their own field, and as a result steadily widen the gap between themselves and their students.

This in turn leads to lower levels of tolerance and patience, as well as all the other features of a poor deskside manner, towards the very people, namely children, who need us to be at the top of our game so that they feel nurtured and can thrive while in our care.

Comparing some of what happens in the classroom to the work carried out in an animal rescue may appear dramatic, but the process of healing that can take place is nonetheless remarkably similar.

What they have in common is an individual who, while innocent and trusting, was made feel smaller, more worthless and wary of others. The work of rebuilding trust and self-worth are key features of both workplaces.

I didn’t “save” Igor but I did everything I could to avoid increasing his already-mammoth burdens

I met Igor very early on in my teaching career, and he played an enormous part in my figuring out what kind of teacher I wanted to be. Everything about his schoolyard body language demonstrated the “I’m-already-beyond-this” attitude. He was a boy who had very prematurely exhibited the outward signs of male adolescence, and as his downy facial hair became more evident so too did his breasts.

Unfortunately the entirely normal, albeit unexpected, breasts that often accompany male adolescence led to Igor being teased mercilessly by his classmates. This caused him to withdraw from his peers while clearly still craving their approval. To re-establish some kudos in their eyes, he adopted two different roles: that of the rebel on the school scene, and in his social sphere that of the hard man, the underage drinker.

By the time I encountered Igor in my own classroom when he was 17, his mental anguish was evident, and he was undeniably an alcoholic. The majority of the school staff had given up on him. I didn’t “save” him or come anywhere close, but I did everything I could to avoid increasing his already-mammoth burdens, and I made sure that he knew that I cared.

In the end he didn’t manage to finish his secondary education, but nor did he take his own life, as his mother feared he would. I still hear from him regularly and sometimes he even reiterates his gratitude to me. I am as proud of him as I am of any of my former students; I admire him for the demons he confronted and continues to conquer.

As teachers, we may be guilty of underestimating the impact we have on those in our charge, whether positive or negative, but that is most often because we are merely human.

The teaching profession is not awash with sadists, just full of people who, in addition to being teachers, are also parents, spouses, siblings, children, friends and who, quite simply, do not always get it right.

That said, as long as we are in the adult role and our students are still in their formative years, surely our primary responsibility is for them to leave our classroom walking taller than when they came in, and not in need of rescue elsewhere.

The “secret teacher” is a practising secondary school teacher who will write an occasional series of anonymous columns. The teacher’s identity is known to the editor