Back to School: Who Asks Teachers how they feel?

There are some teachers I know who believe that ‘I have a thing about teachers.’ There are two responses to that, one, the teacher who says that has ‘a thing’ themselves about teaching and, two, my own position is that I actually have great regard for the teaching profession and I view it as a vocation rather than a career. I also believe that teachers, vice-principals (better title here is ‘deputy’ rather than ‘vice’ (this word has too many associations with evil) and teachers need all the training, help and support in the carrying out of their responsibilities in the face of the ever-increasing challenging responses of students, parents and, sometimes, colleagues.

It appears to me that at this time of year the focus is very much on how children, teenagers and parents feel about the return to school, but, nobody seems to ask the far more pertinent question about how teachers feel. After all, teachers are the architects of the ethos of a classroom and have a profound influence on children’s love of learning, school and career progress.

There seems to be a general lack of sympathy – even more pertinently – empathy – for teachers and the standard argument is look at the amount of holidays they get. The response to that argument is that teachers need all the holidays they can get given the very demanding and stressful nature of teaching. Incidentally, sympathy is not the kindest of responses because it means ‘to feel sorry for.’ What teachers deserve is empathy (not sympathy) – which is an emotional identification with and understanding of how they feel facing into their classrooms every day. It is not that children and teenagers are not a pleasure to be with, particularly, when one appreciates the amazing individuality each of them brings to the classroom. The challenge is not the presence of the child, but the difficult behaviours that unconsciously spring from their fears, insecurities and low self-esteem. When teachers themselves are carrying their own unresolved emotional baggage – and who of us is not – then the clash of students’ insecurities with those of teachers can give rise to a very stressful situation.

But let me get back on track and pose the question: what do teachers feel about going back to school? When I mentioned this question to a colleague she told me that she had teacher friends who had already gone into mourning about the end of their summer break (this was ten days before the first school day back)!

I can only guess what teachers may feel and, indeed, each will have their own individual response. Emotions are either welfare or emergency in nature. A welfare feeling arises from an inner solidity and a sense of fulfilment – love, joy, excitement, confidence, happiness, hope. On the other hand, emergency feelings alert to threats to one’s well-being and the urgent need for resolution of these threats – fear, sadness, grief, anger, depression, dread, guilt. What is important is for each teacher to notice his or her own emotional response and embrace it as a messenger, an ally, an invitation to reflect on what is required to alleviate or, at least, reduce the intensity of the emergency emotion.

No teacher needs to face back to school – dreading the experience, fearful, depressed at the prospect – but many do. Something radically needs to change either within the teacher herself or without in terms of effective responses to children’s challenging behaviour or both. When it is inner issues of lack of confidence, low self-esteem, fear of what others think, perfectionism, fear of failure, addiction to success, it is important for the teacher’s and students’ wellbeing that the teacher seeks help to reduce such inner turmoil. It is and has been a serious neglect in teacher’s training and ongoing professional development that they have not been given the opportunities to reflect on their own level of maturity and to find ways of resolving same. The late Frank McCourt said that children are geniuses at spotting teachers’ vulnerabilities, not because children are by nature exploitative, but because it gives them an edge on masking or distracting from their own vulnerabilities. It is a high risk situation for a teacher who is unsure of self to stand in front of a class – of children or teenagers – and I cannot imagine that facing back to school is an adventurous prospect for them. Predictable and consistent boundaries are the sine qua non of effective classroom management, but such boundaries are only possible when a teacher has an inner solidity – a stronghold – that does not shift in the face of students’ defensive responses. The school’s back-up structures and colleague and management support for such mature behaviour reinforces these boundaries. When such back up is not present there is a responsibility on the part of individual teachers to demand it and on management to establish it. Furthermore, when Principals and Deputy Principals notice that some teachers are struggling with classroom management, they need to be supportive and offer further training for these teachers; if the managers themselves are struggling, then they need to seek further training. In the words of the poet Rilke – ‘There is only one journey – go inside yourself’ and the opportunities to do that need to be available to all adults, but especially to those who have charge of others.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including A Different Kind of Teacher and a Different Kind of Discipline.