Teachers as social workers? Good.

There’s a bit of a hoo-ha about Every Child Matters turning every teacher into a social worker.  Good.  All teachers should be social workers.

Is the following not an absolute first principle of education?  The obvious metaphor is a journey.  The teacher knows how to get somewhere.  The pupil doesn’t.  Otherwise he wouldn’t be a pupil.  The pupil might know half of the route – he might have travelled half of the route already, he might even have travelled half of the route already in half the time the teacher took.  Or he might know the whole route, but in vague terms. Or he might not have started and have no idea what the route might be.  But the teacher knows the route.  So the teacher looks at where the pupil is, meets him there, and takes him on to the end of the journey.

The point is that you have to know where a pupil is, in order to move him on.  For some kids the principal barrier to learning about the French Revolution is the conceptual problem of absolute monarchy, for others it is poor literacy preventing them from reading the textbook, for others it is the fact that they are conditioned to use avoidance tactics, like anger, whenever they come up against a challenge.  As a teacher we have to overcome each of these barriers and many more.

I don’t understand the argument that refuses to accept that there are some emotional, or social, or physical prerequisites to education.  Yes, some people have tough lives and learn anyway.  But for most of us, if we are too cold or too hungry or too angry we don’t learn particularly well.  A teacher’s job is to teach something.  If there are barriers to teaching something, we work out how to overcome them.

The Every Child Matters agenda may be emblematic of a bureaucratised formalisation of professional relationships; but in rejecting it on the grounds that it introduces ‘social work’ into the job description of a teacher, we are in danger of ourselves denying the essential humanity, and unique importance of holistic relationships, of teaching as a profession.


2 thoughts on “Teachers as social workers? Good.”

  1. Hi Jacob
    I’ve had a couple of chats this week – one with a parent of a teenager, one with a social worker – about a new idea for helping schools to become more focused on learning and less on control. What would happen if tutors in school were there only to be tutors. No class teaching. A tutor would meet at least once each week with each tutee and ask the question ‘How’s it going?’, then ‘How did you get on with the actions you agreed to take last week (to resolve something that wasn’t going well)?’, then report back on actions taken by the tutor, e.g. ‘I spoke to your (subject) teacher who suggested you try…in that subject’ or ‘I’ve fixed up to meet with your mum to talk about you coming on the school trip and what it would involve’, etc. Not having to worry about crowd control, the tutor could focus solely on the individual and his/her relationships with teachers, peers and, most important, family. The pool of people capable of this role would be much larger than that for classroom subject teachers, it wouldn’t be as stressful as classroom teaching, and pay needn’t be as high. Would it be too expensive? Don’t know…we’d have to look at the savings in learning time and resources if each individual student was being listened to, even if only for a dedicated few minutes, weekly, and actions planned and followed up at an individual level. As a tutor, I’d be able to say to a child: ‘I’m paid to listen to you and do what you want me to do (as long as legal) to help you in your learning. Let’s talk about what I can do for you?’. Wouldn’t that develop an entirely different level of motivation in the average pupil. I think so. What do you think?

  2. I read with interest the proposal for dedicated tutors without academic duties. I’m not sure whether it’s in sync with or against the current trend in education away from teachers holding pastoral responsibilities and towards ‘teaching and learning’. Either way I think it would be a shame.

    I am not averse to schemes which encourage parents or others to come into schools. Indeed a scheme to encourage outsiders into schools to mentor pupils would have many benefits; giving kids additional choice in the adults they can turn to is a good thing. However, it takes time to build relationships with pupils. It is about winning trust and creating an appropriate environment (in which pupils feel safe, confident etc.). Teachers already spend too little time with too many pupils. To further reduce that time by employing ‘dedicated tutors’ would be a mistake. (Time with ‘tutors’ would have to be fitted into the timetable, Heads would see ‘tutors’ as freeing-up teacher time). ‘Guidance counsellors’ in US schools, for all good intentions, can too easily become pretty inefficient resources, unable to build real relationships and consequently adding to a tick-box therapy culture.

    Teachers are quite capable of ‘enforcing boundaries’ and at the same time forming relationships. Indeed the two roles are impossible to separate. Constantly leading by example through a learning activity is in many ways a far more effective way to build a relationship and mentor than 15 minutes a week with a guidance counsellor. Teachers already act as mentors, build relationships etc. This is part of the essential humanity of the teaching profession. What is needed is to enable that humanity, not to further dismantle it by continuing to remove from the remit of a teacher those elements of interaction that are essential to education.

    The two roles, of ‘enforcing boundaries’ and forming relationships, only become incompatible in situations where the school structure imposes undue burdens. For example when internal discipline procedures have broken down, or when teachers are expected to teach too many classes whom they see too few times in a week. In these situations a siege mentality and simply being too busy result in relationships suffering. So whilst the diagnosis is correct (in many cases schools are not places in which successful relationships can be built), the treatment of ‘dedicated tutors’ might not be. The correct treatment, I would suggest, is to re-think the structure of a school, particularly the basic units (class size, lesson length, timetable etc etc.). As Schumacher (‘Small is Beautiful’) says: ‘People can only be themselves in small comprehensible groups. Therefore we must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small scale units.’

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