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Are Strict and Sterile Teacher-Student Boundaries Hurting Young People’s Prospects

Sometimes kids need more than today’s teachers are allowed to give them, says Rob Ward...

  • Are Strict and Sterile Teacher-Student Boundaries Hurting Young People’s Prospects

I went to the same school my father attended in the seventies. He was a rogue and was caned regularly. He also insists he once saw a teacher throw a child out of the window. Fortunately, the window was open. Tragically, it was on the fifth floor.

By the time I arrived there in 1991, corporal punishment had rightly been consigned to history as child welfare (and basic human rights) had moved to the forefront of school life.

Controversially though, I wonder if perhaps we have moved too far into a world of professional sterility, where teacher/student relations are restricted and more impersonal than they might be.

Life lessons

The biggest influence on my life was a teacher. I’ll call him Greg. Because Greg is his name.

Greg taught me GCSE drama and A-Level theatre studies. And goodness me, was he a great teacher. He instilled in me a love of Shakespeare and Pinter, channelled my unfocused energy into academic achievement and saw me saunter away from school with a clutch of fantastic grades.

But what Greg gave me personally was far more important.

He saw something of himself in me: a working class kid capable of slipping too easily into unruliness and bad behaviour, but a kid with potential. He taught me how to realise that potential, and skilfully kept me on the straight and narrow.

If I was having a bad day, we’d sometimes leave the school premises and go to the local bakery at lunchtime; I watched him ask for “a smear of mustard” on his ham sandwich and wanted this mysterious condiment on my sandwich too. He took me out for my first ever Chinese meal.

Sometimes he swore at me. Sometimes he put his arm around me. Whilst I was in the sixth form he bet me £20 I would start smoking; there was no way I was losing that bet, and I spent two years studiously avoiding cigarettes just to prove him wrong.

Finding a way

But the most telling and lasting influence was much bigger than any of these small acts of kindness.

When university fees were introduced, I panicked. Uni was the next logical step for me, but my father had bravely quit his job in the ailing fishing industry to retrain as a mechanic and wasn’t earning any money.

My parents couldn’t support me. I had no income of my own. My dream died – I was doomed to spend the rest of my life in the dead-end town in which I’d grown up.

Greg wouldn’t accept this. He drove me to my first choice university over 250 miles away and showed me around a real-life campus. We met students he knew, stayed in their digs, even went for drinks in the student union – and after this taste of university life I had to find a way. And I did.

Without Greg I might not have a taste for spicy food, I might be a smoker and I might never have gained a degree and become a teacher. He changed my life in obvious ways and intangible ones and I will be forever grateful to him.

A different world

In the current climate, how many of these acts of kindness could he have committed? None of them, probably. He would still have been a wonderful teacher, but the difference he made to me on a personal level would simply not be possible.

His entirely benevolent motives would be suspected, he’d face disciplinary actions for breaching the Teacher Standards. He might even be tarred and feathered.

I’ve taught children like the adolescent me: children who I want to free from the restrictions of their lives, who might know that there is a world beyond their limits but who would benefit from being shown that world; children who sometimes need a reassuring arm on their shoulder; children who need an expletive-laden rollicking; children who need more interesting sandwich fillings.

Within the walls of a classroom, we can do some of this. But not all of it, not any more. And in a world where so much emphasis is placed on relationships, it seems a shame that they can rarely be more than just superficial.

Rob Ward is a cyclist and occasional teacher of English in Yorkshire.

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