The Secret Teacher: Knowing when to stop caring is an essential survival skill

Most teachers do care, but a healthy awareness of where to draw the line is vital

We can attach disproportionate importance to how our students’ results reflect on us and our teaching. Photograph: iStock

We can attach disproportionate importance to how our students’ results reflect on us and our teaching. Photograph: iStock


“I don’t care,” said John, deliberately raising his voice so that anyone in earshot was sure to hear. Mr Keane, his year head, continued to speak softly, and seemed to be performing a miracle just by keeping the conversation going. The longer the conversation continued, the more John’s tone changed.

Caring works, and thankfully it comes naturally to most in our profession. Those who don’t care represent that small but powerful minority that gives us all a bad name.

The trouble with caring is it isn’t easy to switch on and off. Any yet we must.

It takes years in the classroom to learn that being discerning about when to care and when not to is a fundamental survival skill in this career. Teacher burnout is due in large part to a lack of clarity about exactly when to care, what to care about and how much to care. There is certainly a place in teacher training for a Teflon module, but pending its introduction, here’s an opportunity to self-assess.

Do we need to care about the quality of what we prepare and deliver? This is a definite yes. Keeping on top of recent developments in our subject areas is a responsibility we have a professional duty to deliver on. Appropriate professional development has a knock-on effect on how meaningful we find our work, which in turn affects levels of engagement. To be negligent about ongoing professional development is to do our colleagues and students a disservice. For all these reasons, electing to be careless is simply not an option here.

Similarly, our wellbeing is our own responsibility. Despite recent wellbeing initiatives in education and, indeed, on a wider scale across workplaces, we have a duty towards ourselves that cannot be outsourced, and certainly not to a school or workplace. Wellbeing at work is about precisely that, and is subject to whatever the organisation’s policy is.

Sacrificing one’s wellbeing for professional gain seems an incredibly unwise trade-off, and yet wellbeing is increasingly bandied around in tones that suggest it is something someone else can do for us or to us. Ensuring our personal wellbeing is entirely on us, and exercising appropriate self-care is vital to our survival for the duration of a career.

Students’ results

What about our students’ results? This is where caring feels like the right and done thing, and it is, but only to a point. Perspective is everything here. There are no financial bonuses in teaching. We are not paid huge additional dividends in return for producing high exam results. Despite this we can attach disproportionate importance to how our students’ results reflect on us and our teaching. A touch more Teflon wouldn’t go amiss for most teachers in this area. When it comes to a student’s results, the key is for our worry to be in direct proportion to their effort.

What about what other people think of us? And do they care about us any more or less than we care about what they think? The national pastime that is teacher-bashing has by and large hardened us to critics. Those who defend or even admire teachers do so for informed and genuine reasons, but they are often limited to: I am one, I am married to one, I gave birth to one or I know one very well, and that’s evidence enough that they are not all bad. When it comes to attitudes towards teachers, is there a single open mind left in the country? People generally aren’t for turning on this topic, whatever their view, so exercising prudence is wisest when it comes to other people’s view on teaching.

Parental encounters are another area entirely, as collaboration around a young person’s future is at play. As adults we need to demonstrate real caution around being perceived as in any way uncaring. Our respective duties of care mean that we literally must care, and must be seen to care by youngsters.

Nonetheless, a healthy awareness of where to draw the line is vital for teachers, if only as a potential exit strategy. At the risk of stating the obvious, parents are not objective when it comes to their own children. Courting their views and basking in the glory of their compliments is unwise. It will all change quickly if we do not deliver.

Misdirected pressure

That sentence will have made the more discerning readers among you flinch. Parental pressure to deliver more is best aimed at the student, their own offspring. And yet many parents aim their push for more in the direction of teachers, and in doing so misfire. We do our whole profession a disservice if we enter into a parental entanglement of any sort. This can lead all too easily to inappropriate approaches, such as a request that Mr A or Mrs B be chosen for Child Y or Z. It compromises what must be taken as a given, namely that all teachers are appropriately trained and qualified for the classes they are allocated. If for some reason that is not true, it needs to be resolved in a different forum.

No arena should exist in which teachers’ professional competence is called into question, and yet many such arenas do exist. Ireland is a village, after all. Safe to say, having a healthy dose of Teflon at the ready helps in this area, but to suggest that being non-stick is the teachers’ default position would be unfair towards the many parents who support us in our work.

John’s handwritten card in the staff room last week thanking us for all of our efforts over the years testifies to the power of caring. Mr Keane refused to give up on John, even when John appeared to have given up on himself. Not only does John care now, he’s also prepared to show it.