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Caring for teachers

30 November, 1999

Paul Andrews SJ says: “Teachers need pastoral care for themselves. Their daily work exposes them to a merciless manipulation of their weaknesses by sharp-eyed and clever teenagers.”

At a time when nuns and monks were opening schools that linked with their convents or monasteries, St. Thomas Aquinas was asked if caring for children was compatible with the search for God. The monks thought of religious life as requiring quiet, the peace of the monastery garden, the opportunity to pray without being interrupted.

They contrasted teaching with farming. You knew the pedigree of vegetables, and when you planted them, they stayed in place, and could be watered, manured and in due time, harvested. When children arrived, the peace was shattered. There was noise and constant movement. Things were broken. Ink was spilled. Children, unlike cabbages or roses, had unknown pedigrees. They did not stay where you planted them, or followed instructions. If they didn’t like you, they told you so. They demanded so much energy and thought that there was little left for ‘religious’ duties.

Aquinas considered the question fairly, and his answer made an impact. Educating children was a work of mercy, a giving of oneself, instructing the ignorant, counselling the mixed-up, keeping the peace, encouraging those in despair, bearing with the troublesome and immature, forgiving the rebels, praying for them and their families. Even if prayer and peace of soul suffered, it was a work of God.

Today’s classroom poses much greater threats to one’s prayer and peace of soul. The pressure of examinations, the intrusive oversight by principals, departmental heads and management boards, the limitless paperwork, the demands of parents, and often a level of resistance and indiscipline by pupils, would wear down the most high-minded teacher.

Add to that the impact on the classroom of mobile phones and the worldwide web. While teacher is talking, students may be deep in a texting conversation with one another, carried on under the desk by blind but ingenious thumbs and fingers that can tap out a message on their mobile and send it, while its owner keeps her gaze fixed on teacher. And teacher’s voice is in competition with the thousand voices of Youtube, Facebook, and the other seductive websites that beckon outside school hours.

So my friend Fionnuala is not convinced that she is doing the work of God. Now in her forties, she is well trained and experienced, and teaches young children in what would be seen as a good national school. But the end of the week finds her exhausted and dispirited. She hates herself for raising her voice, even, she says, screaming at the children. Her spontaneity as a teacher is tamed and dampened by the official requirement to divide the day into subjects, and submit a plan for each week’s work, and then an account of how the plan was executed.

The signs of wear on teachers appear in the take-up of redundancy offers. So many teachers at the height of their career are planning to take early retirement with the best financial deal they can contrive. They become discouraged when they should be – and often are – at their peak.

If you ask them why, they speak of absence of recognition, of facing growing and basically unachievable demands from school authorities and from parents, as well as from public opinion and the media. They feel nobody approves of them, that they cannot satisfy any of those to whom they are accountable. Many of those who start teaching as a vocation, decline into a sense of routine, of putting in their week, drawing their pay, and seeking their satisfaction outside their daily work. Where this decline happens, schools are in trouble.

Schools have put energy and imagination into pastoral care of pupils, making allowance for special needs, adopting policies to combat bullying, offering career guidance and other counselling. The last forty years have also seen an outreach to parents, involving them as partners in many ways.

Teachers need pastoral care for themselves. Their daily work, especially in second-level schools, exposes them to a merciless manipulation of their weaknesses by sharp-eyed and clever teenagers. Yet they succeed. What other managers can show a record of 90% attendance by workers (i.e. the pupils) without the incentive either of pay, promotion, or corporal punishment? Where else do you find predominantly female managers controlling large groups of males who often surpass the manager in strength, energy and even brains – and who not merely control them, but motivate them to work which is difficult, often boring to the pupils, and demands sustained and sedentary concentration at an age when they want to be active?

Teachers keep them working not merely through the class-day, but also for hours in the evening when they could be playing, dancing or watching TV. Teachers could claim to be the most successful managers and motivators in the country.

But they themselves need to be stroked, to be made to feel good, not to be taken for granted. The Principal obviously has the key responsibility here. In a good family, parents examine their conscience every night to ask have they stroked and blessed their children more, or criticized them more. It is approval, not blame, that fuels their children’s motivation and self-esteem. For school principals, a similar scrutiny of their day would be a useful routine.

Teachers, like children, need recognition. In the best scenario, they receive it from their pupils in the form of cooperation; and from parents in the form of consultation and expressed gratitude; and from one another in the shape of a lively and supportive staffroom, where they can let their hair down safely and seek help when they need it; and from the Principal in the form of a perceptive eye and an encouraging attitude. Of all the ways of improving a school, possibly the cheapest and most effective for those who run it is the pastoral care of its teachers.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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