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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.

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

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.