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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

Good news for teachers

Spotted by Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB.................

Thank you, teachers – you matter, now more than ever

Tes mental health columnist Tara Porter explains why she is grateful that teachers are back in school this week – and why their role is so important

It’s good to see you back. I say “back”, but I know lots of you haven’t stopped working at all. Many of you have been working tirelessly to support your pupils, your community and each other. But I’m glad you are back properly, where you can be.

I don’t think I’m alone in being glad you are back: I think the whole country is breathing a sigh of relief, especially the parents. Thank you, oh, thank you for taking them back. 

But I think the people who are going to be most pleased are the children. That’s unexpected, isn’t it? Who'd have thought they’d miss you the most?

Freed from the yoke of high-pressure exams

Looking back on the time since lockdown, I don’t think that we all missed you so much at first. Especially the children in Years 11 and 13 – most of them were really glad that school had shut, and really relieved that exams had been cancelled. I had a little burst of discharging patients around April, when those ones who had been riddled by anxiety and sadness before lockdown – now freed from the yoke of high-pressure exams – felt free and easy. 

And it turns out that we can run this system without exams. I mean, the powers that be made a bit of a mess of it this year, despite your best efforts, but actually, in the end, it’s probably better than it normally is.

Kids probably got the grades they deserved, based on a couple of years’ work, rather than just on the day of the exam. That seems fairer in a way, and involves a hell of a lot less anxiety for teachers, pupils and parents. 

No, I don’t think that it was your teaching and exams that we all missed so much. Which isn’t to say that your teaching isn’t important. Of course it is. It’s just that, while you weren’t doing that so much, we came to appreciate what else it is you do. 

You are kind and you care

For example, we didn’t like it that you weren’t there, observing our patients every day. As one of my front-line colleagues said: “I worry about my patients who are stuck at home with horrible parents.” 

We know that most parents are lovely – or, if not lovely, do their very best under challenging circumstances. But some aren’t. Some are violent or emotionally abusive. It’s not so much that you notice the bruises (although of course, you do), but you also that you do so much to mitigate the impact of abuse.

You are kind, and you care, and you teach children that there are other ways to be. Lockdown was hard for those kids. 

It would be wrong to say that all the children have “missed” the routine and the consistency, but I think we could say the absence of them has ground them down over time. Schools train them in a way we parents – on the whole – utterly fail to: to get up, to get dressed, to be on time and to do some work. 

And, actually, fight as the kids might not to do this, they generally feel better when they do. Slobbing out in PJs is nice for a day or two, even a week or two. It’s just depressing for a month or two. 

It takes a school to raise a community

Most of them did miss seeing their friends desperately though: children find their common interests, their humour, their chat and sense of connection mostly with their own peer groups, and connecting is really important for mental health.

They also need to have relationships with adults outside their own families to keep the wheels going on the bus of civilised society. Without you teachers there, making them toe the line, well – it made it all a bit Lord of the Flies. Things have got a bit out of hand. 

The quote goes “it takes a community to raise a child”, but what I learned in the pandemic is that there should be a precursor to that: “it takes a school to raise a community”. 

You are teachers, yes: but not just teachers of your subjects. You are teachers of values and kindness; you are teachers of routine and consistency. You are teachers of doing your duty and knuckling down when things get tough. 

So much more than exam results

Because, when a pandemic hits, we need adults who will get up, show up and be on time, if they possibly can. We need adults who will do their duty stacking shelves, or driving buses, or cleaning in a care home, even if it is personally risky to them.

We need adults who have the morals to do the right thing, whether that’s to self-isolate or to quarantine, even if that is inconvenient or costly to them. 

And, while we need schools to have taught the exam-focused future adults who will do clever things with antibodies and viruses, we also need schools to teach the shop workers, care workers, bus drivers and health care assistants. They may not have been your top exam candidates, but you can take pride in teaching them to be decent people: to get up and show up, to do their work, bravely, and to the best of their ability, and that their contribution is meaningful and important. 

What do I take from the last five months about schools and well-being? A school is about so much more than exam results: those, it seems, can be swept one way or another with the whim of Ofqual or government policy. 

No, a school is about more important stuff than exams. It is about connection, support, routine, consistency, respect, and hopefully a bit of kindness. But, most of all, it is about learning to be part of a community. At school, kids become socialised into their peer group and their future community, guided by the wisdom of generations before. 

Because, when push comes to shove, in a pandemic, we have to work as a community to maximise the mental and physical wellbeing of everyone. So, my friends – teachers – that is what I think you do brilliantly: you create communities. 

Welcome back. We missed you. And thank you.

Dr Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist in the NHS and private practice. She also works at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, and is Tes' mental health columnist. She tweets as @drtjap. The views expressed are her own 

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