We care a lot

I have attracted some criticism on Twitter and in the comments section following my previous post.

My suggested list of the traits exhibited by the best teachers explicitly did not include that they ‘love children’ or anything similar. A few people have drawn the implication that I think that caring for children is unimportant.

I don’t.

My claim is that it is not something that distinguishes the very best teachers from the rest. It is actually relatively easy to care about children. In fact, I would suggest that most people can manage it. And when you consider the type of people who are drawn to teaching then I reckon this proportion would go up. Clearly, we sometimes make mistakes or pursue selfish choices. It can be hard sometimes when you’re tired on a wet Thursday afternoon. But I would challenge the idea that the best teachers are an exception; that they somehow care the most.

It seems an odd metric to use. Ultimately, we wish children to learn something. If a teacher cares deeply about his students but is not very good at teaching them then that passion is wasted. To elevate caring in this way is anti-intellectual. Would you prefer the surgeon with the greatest technical competence or the one that cared the most? Perhaps the two are correlated and this is a false choice? Maybe, but I’ll continue to judge my surgeons primarily on their surgical skill. If caring and skill are correlated then I’ll happily get both. If they are not then I’d rather have the skill.

Barber Surgeon

Caring is an odd property to elevate by teachers who are keen to be seen as a profession. You don’t need to go to university, develop deep subject knowledge, study learning theories and perhaps even conduct your own research in order to care very deeply about children. If we give the impression to policy-makers that we are essentially technicians who care then we talk ourselves down. This is clearly not an accurate description of teachers but there are interests out there that would be well served by such a definition. Think of the big software companies who could claim that their technology will do the teaching whilst a literate high-school graduate can be on hand for the touchy-feely stuff.

This is not what I want for my children. I want them to interact with smart, educated professionals who will challenge and extend their thinking.

And that is why teaching is a quintessentially intellectual vocation. It is not for cuddly fools.


7 thoughts on “We care a lot

  1. Interesting that those advocating “caring about children” don’t talk about developing morals and ethics, which ought to be among the most important things a teacher can do. And the teacher posing moral and theical questions needs to be intelllectually competent and know his/her field very well to be able to impart moral/ethical concepts. Perhaps we should all sit down with Socrates to discuss the meaning of justice….

  2. Thanks for this Greg. As a parent, I am now constantly hearing how “passionate” teachers are in our schools (usually uttered by school administrators). Big deal. I don’t know what passion has to do with being a good teacher, as I would prefer to hear how knowledgeable they are, and how effective they are in the classroom. Isn’t that what being professional is all about? Nobody has used this phrase to describe an excellent doctor, or a lawyer. When it comes to teaching our children, which is a fairly important task, why can’t the same rules apply?

    1. Precisely but seeing as a virtue has been made of being anti-intellectual in the education system, it is to be expected. I actually think society in the UK has had its say in the election and teachers who are more progressive need to respect it.

  3. Another, related point is what is meant by ‘caring’ or being ‘passionate’. Usually it relates to emotions rather than knowledge or intellect. Emotions can never be a reliable guide to professional conduct because they are so fickle.

    1. Exactly. Which is why it is incredibly ingenuous of school administrators and others, who love to carry on about how passionate their teachers are! What an incredibly irrelevant thing to say. Now, give me a teacher who’s had proven success with their students in the classroom, encouraging kids to use their brains, and ensuring foundational facts are part of the daily lesson, now that might get me a bit excited about having my kid(s) in her/his class. If teaching is a profession, let’s please use the same standards that are used in other professions. But that’s a topic for another day.

  4. I had a conversation that went like this a couple of years’ back:

    I was somewhat sharp-tongued to James, a nice but stroppy boy, about 17:

    James: What happens if I fail the exam now, to get back at you?

    Me: I don’t care, go for it.

    James: But won’t you look bad if I fail?

    Me: I have more than enough others passing to not care about individuals who do that.

    James: But surely you care for all of us as people?

    Me: No. No, I don’t.

    James: But aren’t you meant to care for all of us?

    Me: No, I’m paid to teach you, not be your care worker.

    Some others, quite amused at this discussion: So you don’t care if we fail or pass?

    Me: I am a professional. I care about your learning deeply and I work hard to teach you as best I can. And then the bell goes and I no longer care.

    It took them a couple of weeks to really get their heads around the fact that I have no personal investment in how well they do, and wasn’t just stringing them along. They had swallowed the line that we all care quite literally, and it seemed to bother them. And then, suddenly it didn’t and the learning went on as usual.

    I have professional pride in my work, and I work hard. But once my students enter the exam room, they’re on their own and my interest in their progress is more or less zero.

    To actually care is exhausting. It takes a mental toll because if you care then you will think about them all the time. I learned as a new teacher that means sleepless nights when they play up, and tense waits for results to come back.

    I go in to work earlier than most, have well prepared lessons, and I don’t care for them as individuals (I really don’t). Others tell me that they care, but can’t be bothered getting in early enough to prepare properly. I find teaching quite relaxing, and am rarely sick and never stressed out. Others literally worry themselves sick, and lose their temper when students they care about don’t care back.

    So which do the kids prefer, do you think?

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