In loco parentis – How much parenting should teachers do?

By Elena Dundjerovic

As a Head of Year, I deal with young people outside of the classroom, helping them to manage their personal and educational lives. Through this role, I am fortunate enough to meet a number of parents and have learned an incredible amount, not only about the importance of strong parenting skills, but also about the huge range that exists in this important skill set. So when the opportunity to attend a 6 week course about parenting teenagers came up, I leapt at the opportunity.teenagers

At first, I felt a bit of fraud, as I was asked how old my children were. When I responded that they were 7 and 5 years old, I could tell that the other parents thought I was being a bit over zealous. However, once I explained that I was a teacher, this mood seemed to settle.

The content of the course was extremely practical. I learnt ‘how to increase your confidence in your skills and abilities to parent’ and ‘how to help the relationship between you and your teenager be even better than it is now’. The real nitty gritty came later with ‘how to teach skills for helping your teenagers to be more secure emotionally and to raise their self-esteem’ and to ‘identify the best way to effectively discipline your teenager’.

Approaching the end of the course, we were asked to reflect on what we were going to do with what we had learnt, and that’s where I came a bit unstuck. How much of the course should I and would I be able to use with the students that I teach?

One exercise involved choices and consequences. For illustration purposes, let’s say the child is called ‘Bob’.

‘Bob, you have a choice, you can either (insert positive action). Or you can (insert negative action). If you choose (positive action) then (positive outcome). But, if you choose (negative action) then (negative outcome). It’s up to you, it’s your choice’.

Great stuff. One for all trainee teachers to store in their toolbox. Or is it? Can you, as a teacher, afford for a student to pursue the negative action in your class to the detriment of other students? With careful planning, this would be an excellent way to manage a challenging student. I certainly wouldn’t recommend using it ‘off the cuff’ in a lesson.

And I think this is the main point of understanding what our ‘duty of care’ is as teachers towards our students. How do you occupy a parental role with a class of 30? I think that the phrase ‘in loco parentis’ is really being tested in schools today. This is in spite of a move away from it and towards a more preferable (and realistic) phrase – ‘duty of care’. Schools are having to educate pupils more and more about self-harm, e-safety, building self-esteem – is this really part of our remit? We are not social workers, but more and more emotional needs are creeping into schools at an alarming rate. Why is this? The answer does not lie in this post but is certainly a topic of much current debate in the education sector.

‘In seeking to equate the role of the reasonable and caring parent with that of the teacher there are immediately difficulties. Parents do not have 25 or 30 children to control and supervise at any one time.

……Hence teachers who ask “What would a prudent parent do in this situation?” may give themselves a misleading answer. Parental concern derives from natural love and affection for the child. The concern of a teacher derives from a different source.’

(https://www.torbay.gov.uk/sl01_loco_parentis.d)

Whichever way you look at it, there is one thing that unites parents and teachers – we all want the best for the teenagers in our care. How we manage this is another matter. One hand-out we were given on the course was called ‘Top Tips for Parenting Teenagers’. I have listed the points –

  • Be a positive role model
  • Be open
  • Get to know their friends
  • Ask them what they think about specific issues
  • EMPATHY IS YOUR ACE CARD. Look for the feelings behind their behaviour

If this was a test, teachers would score 99%. This is what we are trained to do. And I think that’s why I found it tricky to identify what I could use in school because so much of it is done already. Being a positive role model and being open are absolutely fundamental skills for a successful teacher. You have to lead by example and demonstrate the qualities that you are looking for in your students. At the beginning of each year, I always tell my students ‘whatever I expect of you, you can expect of me’. Students know where we all stand and we can all hold each other accountable. Getting to know their friends is a gift for a teacher. It’s not a skill. You don’t have a choice in the matter and boy, does it make it a difference in understanding students’ behaviour. Finally, ask them what they think about specific issues. That’s our job. It doesn’t work unless we do. Empathy is your ace card – this is the fundamental issue. Looking for feelings behind our students’ behaviour should be a high priority of all teachers in my opinion, but do we dedicate enough time to do it? I am in a fortunate position as a Head of Year to gain a more detailed insight into the lives of my year group. We cannot escape the fact that ‘students bring their lives into the classroom; they do not leave their problems and feelings at the door’ (www.empathyed.org). Do we train teachers in this skill enough? Empathy might just be the missing 1% to help teachers ace the ‘top tips’ test.