by Mark Edwards
Some years ago, as some readers will know, I was a head teacher. I have always had a strong interest in the pastoral aspects of education – how children feel about their lives at school – and this extended upwards to include teachers, and, dare I say it, head teachers. When I started the job, I had what was called a ‘School Support Officer’ who visited once a month and asked how things were going. We would chat for up to an hour about anything I liked; no agendas were planned and no minutes were taken. I looked forward to these visits; the LEA officer was a pleasant chap with a rounded view of what education was about and it probably helped that his political views were similar to mine.
After I had been in post for a year, he retired and someone else took his place. In the meantime the title of the role had lost a word ; the new person was now ‘schools officer.’ The visits occurred less frequently ; once every half term. I noted the change of title and mused wryly on what this meant – I even wrote an article about it for the National Union of Teachers journal. The gist of my article was that head teachers no longer felt supported in their jobs by the Local Education Authority.
Now, fourteen years later, I am working part-time in community care. In my current post I have fortnightly ‘supervision’ which means I go and chat to my line manager about how things are going. I am also about to complete training as an Integrative Counsellor, and also receive supervision for my counselling placements. There are no agendas, no minutes, no planned outcomes beyond what I bring to the supervision. Whilst these are not counselling sessions, a space is created in which I feel relatively safe to discuss issues about my work, issues that are often to do with emotional responses to what I encounter. This was equally true of the fortnightly sessions with the School Support Officer.
Supervision is an essential component of Care Work and Counselling as it allows the worker to manage his or her anxieties about the difficult job that is undertaken. Clients often ‘offload’ or project their own anxieties onto the counsellor or support worker as a way of coping with them; supervision allows these transferred anxieties to be processed. In other words a boundary is created which safely contains feelings that might otherwise become overwhelming.
In schools, teachers deal on a daily basis with large groups of children in situations which are sometimes highly charged emotionally. Even if they are not, teachers will carry a large amount of responsibility for the welfare, academic and more, of the children. When I compare the emotional demands made upon my inner resources as a teacher with those made upon me as a care worker, I find the difference way beyond the scope of my measuring stick. The former is far more emotionally demanding. Yet teachers have no recourse to supervision, unless they have an unusually forward-thinking head teacher backed with cash. Younger teachers are burning out fast; older teachers look on cynically, having found a way to manage their own anxieties by becoming just that – cynical.
I read somewhere recently of a counsellor who had talked to some older ‘cynical’ teachers about their feelings about their work. He was interested to find that they had not in fact lost any of their youthful ideals and passion ; what had happened was that they had closed off their emotional responses to their work because that was the only way of coping. In short, they had developed a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality as a defence mechanism. Often this can develop into a kind of ‘golf-club’ staff room culture that is created as a means of self – protection, but is ultimately exclusive and unhealthy, in that its boundaries will not admit anxiety.
The problem is compounded by the fact that local education authority officers, are, by the nature of their job, likely to be very much of this ilk. Thus a ‘stiff upper lip’ culture develops which becomes self perpetuating. It means that there is no place within the structure of education where emotions can be managed safely; no bounded areas where people can talk safely, and vulnerably, about their work. Instead, most education authorities offer specialist ‘stress management’ counselling services whereby this difficult stuff is hived off to an external agency. All ‘confidential’ of course ; we don’t want to be seen to be not coping, do we?
There are glimmers of hope, however – the boundaries between social care and education are already becoming blurred as growing numbers of children are being educated outside the mainstream, despite – or because of – the Government’s under-funded ‘inclusion’ policy. Some authorities are creating a multi-disciplinary service. If supervision is seen as an necessary and integral part of social care work, maybe it will come to be seen as essential for teachers too.
Mark Edwards was a head teacher, who still teaches part-time but combines this with writing articles, educational consultancy and entertaining people who like to hear badly performed rock, pop and music hall classics. He still carries a torch for child-centred education and is encouraged by the current interest in emotional literacy and thinking skills in schools. Mark has relocated to Devon with his partner Liz, where he continues training in Integrative Counselling. He is a Master Practitioner in NLP (Psychotherapy). Email: Mark4Ed@aol.com.