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.

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.