The End is Nigh… time for a little bit of tough love.

Doesn’t the phrase ‘end of term’ have a lovely ring to it..!

Someone should write a song about it. It reminds me of other such phrases ‘river deep, mountain high’ ‘the long and winding road’ and oh yes…  ‘School’s Out for Summer!”

End of term’ is also an interesting phrase because it captures the sense of an ending of relationships too – the one we end with our pupils and students when we let them go.

My second year in teaching was spectacularly successful – thank goodness – because my first had been spectacularly disastrous.  After a tortuous first year which had been liberally punctuated with endless struggles with challenging kids,weekdays that dragged on and weekends that passed in a flash, colossal gaffs and monumental errors of judgment, my second year came as a great relief for me to realise I could actually do the job and on occasion, rather well it turned out…

I had had a great Year 6 class and we did some really interesting and creative work. They had learned a lot. We’d both had great fun. I was proud of myself and of them.  As the end of term approached I sometimes overheard them discussing excitedly in ‘stage whispers’ the leaving presents they were planning to buy me. I felt flattered.  They were  telling me: “Sir, your the best teacher I’ve had!” / “I will miss you so badly!” / “I don’t want to leave your class!”

I allowed myself to feel indulged by their expressions of over-emotional gratitude.

When the last day came, I staggered in to the staff room with stacks of cards and gifts which, though greatly appreciated, I have to admit mostly ended up at the charity shop (what would you do with an ornamental ceramic shire horse the size and height of a small suitcase?). I collapsed on to the staff room sofa to enjoy a well-earned drink and toast the beginning of the summer holidays.

I began leafing through my cards. Some had written: “I’ll write to you when I’m at secondary school. You were my best teacher ever!” An experienced colleague and friend looked on admiringly and said, “They were a nice class and you did a terrific job with them. Well done.”

“Thanks” I said, “it will be really nice to see how well they get on next year at their new schools”.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well… I think I’ll keep in touch with some of these kids – they’ve been really fantastic and look… some have said they want to stay in touch.”

She gave me a sympathetic but I could tell ultimately disapproving look.

“No…” she said gently, “let them go. You have done a great job preparing them for their next school. Let them discover the excitement and the fear of that without looking back. Then, if they want to, they will come back and see you. And even if they don’t, they won’t forget you. But for now… just them let go.”

It’s tempting to think that they really mean it when they say “You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had” and “I’d like to keep in touch” – but the fact is that we indulge ourselves if we think that is true – and even if it is true – we shouldn’t allow their genuinely mixed feelings at leaving school, or even your class for another in the same school, to confuse the future professional relationships they will forge with their new teachers.

Now, in the age of Google, Facebook etc, I get kids I taught thirty years ago finding me and contacting me to say hello and sometimes to say nice and complimentary things. That colleague of mine was right: if you do a good job, they won’t forget you.

But as any good parent will tell you… letting go requires a little bit of tough love.

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11 thoughts on “The End is Nigh… time for a little bit of tough love.

  1. Its great to hear thoughts on this time of year from a teachers point of view, I have 2 teens, and the phrase ‘end of term’ doesn’t always have a lovely ring to it!!! But primary, secondary, sixth form or otherwise I think my kids will always remember their best teachers 🙂

    1. Hey thanks for that…! I wish I had 500,000 teacher followers on twitter to re-tweet that to, they would appreciate it very much, so thanks.

      Just as an illustration of how important just saying “thanks” can be: the only gifts I ever cherished were the words of kids and parents who would come up and just say “thanks for what you have done for me this year” – magic moments for a teacher.

      But I do know what you mean… I remember one September morning at the start of a new year and I could see in the distance a lovely parent literally dragging their lovely but lively little boy in to the school playground. She finally dragged him to me and plonked him in front of me and said with a deep satisfaction and relief: “I’ve had him for six long weeks… now it’s your turn..!”

  2. This one made me smile – point taken. Other students who I adored have left me, I learnt to cope. Occasionally they pop their head in & say howdy. One emails me say once a year just to see if anyone needs ‘sorting out’ (which also makes me smile). I think you might just have enlightened me.
    One question though, how many times have you thought about saying hello to an old teacher but backed out as it seemed like you were going out of your way or hadn’t spoken to them in such a long time that it almost felt awkward? I know on occasions I have wanted to & on my PGCE (over 10 years after I had left school) I saw my old RE teacher & was finally able to tell her what a fantastic impact she’d had on me at school (we had heated debates as I am veering towards an agnostic viewpoint). Had I been able to stay in touch, as an adult, no doubt we would have had far more conversations of that nature. Once again, it’s been too long now and the moment has passed.

    1. This tone of this answer might sound a bit ‘professional’ but I don’t mean it to be ‘stand-offish’ – just put it down to the vocab I choosing…

      I know what you mean about the occasional awkwardness of communication between ‘old’ teachers and their ‘old’ pupils – but in my view, the principle is the same.

      In my view, the awkwardness is ‘situated’ within the pupil as the ‘client’ (as it might be if we saw for example, our doctor in a social setting). While it is incumbent on the ‘professional’ to facilitate good communication for the purposes of the ‘service’ provided, it is not, in my view, within the prerogative or the privilege of the ‘professional’ to convert that ‘professional channel’ of communication in to an informal, familiar one with the ‘client’, even after the client – professional relationship has ended.

      However, if the client initiates a ‘friendly relationship’ once the professional relationship has come to an end, and the ‘professional’ decides to respond, I don’t see a problem with that – even if it develops in to a full blown friendship. But in my view, the initiative must come from the client and not the professional. It’s not my prerogative as a professional to help my ex-clients feel less awkward about contacting or communicating with me once the professional relationship has ended. It’s theirs‘.

      Last week, I got a message from an ex-pupil (I taught in 1989) who first contacted me about 15 years ago. She left a message to say she was in town visiting for a month (she now lives in Australia) and would love to see me again. She’s 33 now and wanted her five year old son to meet “her teacher”. I felt very honoured. More than that, it almost feels like a ‘professional duty’ to respond to an invitation like that. Don’t you think?

  3. I love this thought….When I made the transition to secondary school I did so as the lone student of my primary school and remember for at least a year afterwards I was writing letters and e-mails to some of my fondest primary school teachers, no whilst i can’t recall when they stopped i do remember thinking it was important to ‘show off’ so to speak to my teachers and illustrate how I was able to get in on life as a result of having been in their classroom….I’m now in my last semester of undergrad teaching in Melbourne Australia, and while I see the need to ‘let them go’ I can’t help think as soon as I’ve settled myself into the teaching profession I look forward to rekindling a relationship with some of my former teachers, to again demonstrate my achievements…and subsequently I’m even now intrigued to follow up on some of the students that I came across in practicums….just as a means of making the profession relative in the scheme of our past paced society…cheers

    1. That’s interesting Michelle and I’m glad the blog resonated with you. I accept all that you say and I think your ex-teachers will be very pleased to see you and share in celebrating your achievements. From the way you speak, I’m sure you have already learned the lessons of maintaining an appropriate distance – as you say, we all need to “get on in life” as well as “get on with life”. Good Luck with your new career.

  4. I loved this analogy. I completely see what you mean, and am in total agreement that as the ‘service provider’ I should never initiate the ‘social’ aspect (& this is something I have absolutely stuck to) with the ‘client’. However, I guess it boils down to feeling somewhat mean when the kids want to stay in contact yet as the ‘professional’ you simply have to adhere to an unwritten code of formality. Having worked in other jobs, I know that the social aspect to any business relationship is positively encouraged.
    It was delightful to hear that one of your ex-students wants to show her son her teacher. That just shows what an impact you had on her & this is exactly the reason why it seems like a valid reason to stay in contact, should they wish.
    People move on, times change &, like any other relationship, once you are no longer seeing people on a daily basis things naturally ‘fizzle out’. I am under no illusion that it would be healthy to see the kids on any regular basis – they have their own lives, as do I, but it’s that once in a blue moon meeting that gives a particularly pleasant feeling. I suppose the issue I’m driving at is there’s no real forum for that to take place.
    Even after students have left school and are at Uni, I still feel pressure not to add them on FB; and a part of me would not want to because as much as we had a good relationship & were friendly we were not actual friends in the sense that I socialise with them. However, as you say, as they get older & if they stayed in contact then this might be something that did indeed happen. I had many friends who socially saw their old lecturers & had formed genuine friendships. People of like-minds or interests is surely the basis of a friendship? This now links in to the fact I also read your thread on being invited to a birthday & the quandary this put you in. I found myself in the same position; I bought the student a card & left it there. In such cases, where it is almost ‘rude not to’ what do we do?
    I’ve heard an awful lot of teacher say “I have enough friends, I am not here to be your friend, I am here to educate you”. I don’t disagree with this sentiment – everyone is entitled to their opinion & have their own standards on professional decorum. What I do dislike though is that sometimes these people can’t see it from the other perspective: some teacher give more of themselves & have a more rounded approach, yet it seems to be viewed with a certain suspicion.
    This leads me onto my next point that maybe the social aspect is more to do with age-appropriacy? Is this maybe more where the problem with anything social lies, the age gap?

    1. Thanks again for that CableJunction and once again, you raise a very interesting aspect to this issue – what you refer to as “age appropriacy”. I think there are particular dangers and hazards for young teachers in secondary / high schools who may only be a few years older than their students but are of the same generation perhaps with the same interests and tastes in music etc. It’s very easy for young teachers to be drawn in to social conversations with students about matters of mutual interest. Very soon, they mind they discover and discuss other areas of interest and admiration.

      This of course is how people become attracted to each other and where a young teacher may be in their first job in a different part of he country, perhaps away from their family and university friends and needing to make new ones, they may be easily seduced in to a very hazardous situation.

      I’m not at all suggesting that this is happening to you but be aware that students have nothing to lose in these situations. They assume your maturity and experience equips you to handle whatever situation you may find yourself in, and so they will take greater gambles in social situations, with relative impunity.

      Young teachers who find themselves in these situations may find themselves justifying their judgments (and misjudgments) on the grounds that students benefit from seeing the ‘human’ side of teachers. I think that may be true, but I urge young teacher to be honest with themselves and examine whether their actions are always in the best interests of their students and whether they may be perceived otherwise.

      It’s a minefield though isn’t it..! Good Luck.

  5. I’m currently experiencing a new dilemma with the ‘end of term goodbye’. While I’ve adjusted well to sending my year 11s off into the wider world without needing to hold on and keep in touch (i agree, they will keep in touch if they want to and it should be their choice), this year I’m having to say goodbye to my year 9 tutor group who will remain in school with a new tutor next year. This decision was not my own but our senior management think I’m better working with the ‘little ones’ (year 7), so my current group are being given to another teacher while I take on a new group.

    Two weeks ago I was given the task of revealing this decision to my tutor group. Since this revelation, time spent with my group has become increasingly difficult as they go through the emotions of sadness and anger (at me – ‘did I fight for them?’, at the school – ‘how can they do this to us, it’s not what we want?’ and at their new tutor – ‘we hate him already?’). The students want reassurance that I will still be there for them in September and beyond, which I have said I will be, but I do have worries that I’m simply not going to have the time to manage my new group, who will be needy new entrants to high school, and at the same time remain supportive of my current group. Additionally, I don’t want to step on the toes of the new tutor, but feel I can’t say no to my old group if they still want my support.

    Most tutor groups at my school stay with the same tutor all the way through the 5 years and so it is a bit of a challenge dealing with this unexpected change. If anyone has any advice on how to manage this change and the issues mentioned above I would be hugely grateful!

    1. Hi Caroline, thanks for that interesting conundrum – it’s a good example of how teaching is unavoidably a profession that involves ‘intimacy’.

      I think you are right to identify the issue of how the new group tutor may feel about you continuing to offer “tutor group type support” for a tutor group you no longer have any responsibility for. I think also it will confuse the students. While they will say they want to continue to have your support as a kind of additional group tutor, I think it’s your responsibility and duty to employ some ‘tough love’ here and tell them that they will get on just as well with a new tutor (even if you think they won’t).

      It is very tempting to think we are indispenable – especially when we have had a successful, supportive and initmate relationship with a group of kids we have come to feel a strong bond for. But I think you have wisely identified the risks to undermining your colleague on the one hand as well as the risks that you indulge the students in some prolonged emtional attachment that they too need to ween themselves from.

      Best of luck – and I hope we get some more responses from other readers on this…

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