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Teachers Hating to Say Goodbye

Most teachers live with a cumulative sense of loss and abandonment.

What’s it like to be a teacher and – year after year – to find yourself saying goodbye to dozens of students as they leave school or as they move on within the school? As they move away from you? Students about whom you’ve cared and to whom you’ve become attached?

“No problem!” comes the reply. “That’s just a fact of life. You get used to it!”

I don’t think it’s ever that simple. You might put the experience in a box and try to distance yourself from it, but I think that – repeated every year – the experience has a cumulative effect on most teachers. It’s an experience of attachments broken and never knowing how the story will end. You know that some of your students will go on to wonderful things, but others won’t. Despite your best efforts, your best love and your hard work, day after day after day, you know that some of your students will have unhappy lives. School may have protected some of them from the vicissitudes of life but now that protection ends. They’re on their own.

Attachment is the most important mechanism teachers use in order to work effectively with students. Without making an attachment, without caring, nothing very worthwhile is ever achieved. But attachment is also the mechanism that leaves teachers vulnerable. Some retreat to the safety of the staffroom, protecting themselves with jokes and cynicism, insisting on simple behavioural solutions to human problems in the hope that this will keep them safe, untouched and unhurt by relationships. But the anxiety eats them up.

Teachers teach through relationships and young people learn through relationships. For conscientious teachers, emotional withdrawal isn’t an option. ‘Epistemic trust’ (Fonagy and Allison 2014) describes the way in which a young person’s ability to learn depends on his or her ability to attach to (and therefore trust) the person teaching. For teachers and for students, it’s always personal as well as professional.

And yet, year after year, teachers must say goodbye, knowing that they haven’t been able to do it for all the students all the time, that they’ve been necessarily imperfect, necessarily inadequate, constrained by systems and circumstances, by the day being only 24 hours long. Year after year, it’s hard to bear this. It’s tempting to distance oneself like the cynics in the staffroom. It’s tempting to get promoted out of the classroom or retreat into bureaucracy and protocols. It’s tempting to retaliate (“You’re abandoning me, so I’ll abandon you!”). It’s tempting to give up, or stop teaching altogether.

In the famous film, ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’ (starring Robert Donat in 1939 but since remade several times), the eponymously benevolent teacher gets older but his students never age (“I taught your grandfather!”). They and their children are always returning to say thankyou to their old teacher and to the institution that’s become a god-like container in the background of their lives, keeping them safe and satisfied. Even when various school alumni are killed in the First World War, despair is never countenanced. Life goes on and life is always kind.

In real life, most teachers – conscientious teachers - are absorbed and then forgotten. There’s nothing to show for all those hours of work, for all that dedication. Of course, sometimes teachers are relieved when certain students leave school, but it’s a guilty relief (“If only I’d done more!”), a kind of retaliation.

So who helps teachers make sense of all this so that they’re less likely to act out what is, in effect, a continual experience of bereavement? I run groups for teachers who, time and again, come up against their own sense of inadequacy, of trying to be selfless and loving while a little voice inside is always calling out, “What about me?” Acknowledging and sharing the experience makes it a little easier to bear.


Fonagy, P. and Allison, E. (2014) ‘The Role of Mentalising and Epistemic Trust in

the Therapeutic Relationship’ in Psychotherapy 10.1037/a0036505.

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