Comparing teachers to parents is nothing more than emotional blackmail

Comparing teachers to parents doesn’t just de-professionalise them; it places ridiculous, unachievable expectations on them in addition to those they’re under already.

According to Anthony Seldon becoming a teacher isn’t “like becoming a doctor or a vet”. On the contrary, the teacher’s role is “much more akin to that of a parent”. You’ve got to admit he has a point. Teaching is like parenting in many ways: it involves children, most of the grunt work is done by women, and all those who’ve never done it will say it looks hard work while secretly thinking it’s a total doss.

Naturally there are some differences. For instance, to become a teacher you need to have some training … or do you? For, as Seldon argues, “parents pick it up as they go along, and that’s exactly the way great teachers are made”:

It is a great loss that governments worldwide have made teaching much less like being a parent than an impersonal civil servant. No job is more important than parenting, yet no one is suggesting parents go off for a university course to qualify as a parent.

So why should teachers do the same? Let’s just chuck ‘em in and let ‘em teach. After all, if it worked for Jimmy Corkhill in Brookside, why shouldn’t it work for anyone else who’s got that special gift?

There are of course many reasons why not. If there are some ways in which teaching is similar to parenting, there are far more in which it’s different. Parents pick things up as they go along because they have no choice. Parents who find they aren’t suited to being parents usually have no option but to carry on. Parents are rarely expert at being parents. Parents get things wrong. Parents have tremendous, unwarranted power (whether they like it or not) and parents can and do ruin lives.

We shouldn’t want teachers to be in the same position. Teachers don’t have the luxury (or not) of an enduring a lifetime connection to each and every child in their classroom. They do, however, have the chance to learn from others before all responsibility is handed to them. They should be enabled to make the most of that.

Curiously, I don’t think Seldon, who is Master of Wellington College, a teaching school, disagrees with this. When he suggests teachers don’t “need” training, what he’s actually recommending is that they don’t undertake university courses when they could be training in the classroom. As he goes on to write in his Guardian piece, “I wouldn’t want to see university training disappear altogether, but I’m glad the bulk of training is now being done on the job":

Showing trainee teachers the ropes is equally invigorating for experienced teachers. It helps them to keep their edge, encouraging them to reflect on their own practice, an essential prerequisite for all great teachers. 

So why, then, make such fatuous, dramatic comparisons with parenting? Is it to belittle teachers? Elevate parents? Does Seldon even know?

I think the clue is there when he seeks to define “the teacher X Factor,” that special something all wannabe teachers need to have.

Those who care more about themselves, are time-watchers, and place pay and conditions above caring for the young will never make it. Teaching is a vocation as well as a profession.

Of course! What is it about parenting that’s extra-specially great? It’s not the lack of training, it’s the fact that people do it for no pay whatsoever! Parents don’t go moaning about pay and conditions because there aren’t any to begin with! Teachers, watch and learn. 

Comparing teachers to parents doesn’t just de-professionalise them; it places ridiculous, unachievable expectations on them in addition to those they’re under already. It reinforces the idea that teaching should be a labour of love and that concern for one’s own well-being necessarily makes one a worse teacher. This isn’t of course true. A school full of brilliant, uncomplaining souls willingly competing against one another for performance-related pay is a school led by the distraction of distorted priorities. This form of emotional blackmail -- hinting that a teacher’s devotion and selflessness should equal that of a mother or father -- cannot be justified, yet it’s often lurking in the background in discussions of what an “ideal” teacher should be. Seldon just makes it all the more obvious.

Teachers are not the only ones who face this pressure from those further up the hierarchy. I don’t know if there’s any line of work in which you won’t be told that your desire to be treated fairly is betraying the pupils, the patients, the customer, the product and/or the integrity of the brand. However, when children are involved, it’s possible for those at the top to be that bit more manipulative. This just isn’t fair, not least because when people such as Seldon compare teachers to parents, you have to ask yourself who the children are.

They’re not the pupils sitting in the classroom. To teachers, pupils remain pupils, as they’ve always been. The screaming, petulant children they have to deal with -- the ones who insists Mummy and Daddy can’t have their own needs and don’t deserve a life of their own -- aren’t sitting behind a desk. They’re out there writing speeches and articles decrying the teaching profession. “Pay and conditions? What about me! What about my ideas! What about me!” Like patient parents, teachers have become used to this behaviour, maintaining that uneasy balance between ignoring the whining and standing their ground. They’ll make a stand then go back to being teachers, not parents, the very next day. Meanwhile, some children never grow up.

A teacher: indistinguishable from a parent? Think again. Image: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Jamie Reed: What it's like to stop being an MP

As I approach the whips’ office through the tearoom staircase, a colleague shouts: “It’s Steve McQueen!”

Leaving parliament was never going to be easy. Having entered the Commons at a relatively young age – I was 31 – I knew that a parliamentary existence would be strange, even weird.

I knew that I would never be a “lifer”. A long Commons career followed by a sinecure in the Lords was never for me. This was informed by an aversion not to prolonged public service – the career in the nuclear industry for which I have departed parliament is just as dedicated to public service – but to the culture in which politics in Westminster is undertaken. There is a lot wrong with parliament. I arrived with a healthy contempt for its culture, behaviours and practices; I leave with the knowledge that this contempt was correct.

As a young MP, I felt like Carraway, never like Gatsby. Still, leaving the Commons has taken a huge mental and emotional effort.

21 December 2016

The news of my resignation breaks a few hours early because of a leak. The ­Guardian’s north of England editor, Helen Pidd, brings forward the publication of our interview as a result. Within minutes, my phone explodes. Twitter is unusable. My email server begins to creak. I watch with mounting ­anxiety. Ignoring calls from journalists – many of them friends – I talk instead with my fellow MP John Woodcock.

In politics, you acquire a sixth sense for who would be with you in the trenches at the worst moments. John is such a person. I don’t remember the conversation; I just remember hanging up and crying. I ­shower, dress and head for my in-laws’ farm. When I open the door, there are bottles of champagne on the step. That night, trying to avoid the news, I learn that I was young, popular, brilliant and talented. It’s like being at my own funeral. I drink the champagne.

24 December

I receive a text from Jeremy Corbyn wishing me and my family well. I thank him for his warm words on my resignation.

9 January 2017

I’m en route to the Vogtle nuclear power plant near Atlanta, Georgia, as a guest of NuGen. At Vogtle, Georgia Power is building two AP1000 reactors – the same type as will be built in Copeland. This is a project to which I have devoted 12 years of my life – from writing nuclear policy with the Blair government to making sure that Copeland was chosen as a nuclear new-build site and working to ensure that successive governments maintained the policies underpinning the nuclear renaissance that the Blair-Brown administration began.

Clement Attlee’s Labour government created the nuclear industry, the last Labour government created the nuclear renaissance and I am leaving parliament to return to the nuclear industry – yet Labour will be forced to fight the by-election in my former seat amid allegations of being anti-nuclear. There is nothing new in post-truth politics. Lies have always had the power to seduce.

23 January

It’s my last week in parliament and I’ve made arrangements to see the whips. As I approach the whips’ office through the tearoom staircase, a colleague shouts: “It’s Steve McQueen!”

1 February

I leave my home in Whitehaven for Sellafield at 6.45am. As I drive through the frost, an iridescent light appears on the horizon: a new dawn has broken, has it not?

I collect my pass and enter a whirlwind of meetings, inductions and instructions. Everyone is generous, welcoming and warm. It is at this point that, for the first time, I am faced with irrefutable proof that I am no longer an MP. I am reminded of my parliamentary induction. Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong told us, “Get in the chamber . . . Don’t hide . . . Sink or swim . . .” New Labour was no place for a snowflake. I am reminded, too, of my induction by the House payroll and expenses administrators. A year before the expenses scandal shook Westminster, they informed me: “All we ask is that you don’t buy any antiques . . .”

2 February

As when I entered parliament for the first time, I don’t have a desk. I’m hot-desking, or hot-podding, or hot-cubing. I remind myself that, for now, I remain the Crown steward and bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.

I bump into a colleague from my first time in the nuclear industry. “All right?” he asks.

“Getting there,” I reply.

“You know what they’re saying, don’t you?” he continues.

“No. What?”

“‘The bloody ego has landed.’”

I walk away wondering if it’s now my role in life to remind people of films set in the Second World War.

3 February

It’s a Friday and it strikes me that I have no constituency surgery. Everyone around me has their head down, meeting targets, solving problems. This is a £2bn-a-year operation. There’s no room for Gatsby here. This is why my new role excites me.

The self-immolating stupidity of Brexit, combined with the complex and growing needs of my family, contributed to my decision to leave parliament. Most of all, though, it was the opportunity to work in this organisation and help to drive change within it and my community that caused me to make the switch. My former constituency can and should be at the centre of one of the fastest-growing parts of the UK economy in the years to come. A changing Sellafield and a dynamic industry will be at the heart of this, and time is of the essence.

20 February

The by-election in my former seat draws near and my time as the Crown steward is running out.

I am repeatedly approached by the media for comment and I duck every request. This is for someone else now and I wish my successor well. None of us is indispensable. l

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit