My role is care. To make care happen – as often as possible, and as well. With other adults I care for young people, giving them an experience of care that engages them in a positive way. We call this care “pastoral,” which is a literary genre featuring nymphs and shepherds. This seems too bucolic for school, although some parts of our school do feel Arcadian.
Perhaps there is some spatial propaganda at work, here. Like playing bad classical music at train stations as an anti-vandalism trick. Students move between home and school like English people take long walks in the countryside, sensing something spiritual about the change.
This metaphor of the shepherd is at the heart of my father’s work as a pastor. My mother the school principal accounts for the rest of my genetic predisposition to be a year level coordinator at an Anglican school. It came quickly, inevitably, like home. I felt something like this when descending over London for the first time.
Today I want to give form to my shepherding, a shape more defined than resting beside green fields. Unless resting beside green fields is at the heart of this myth for a reason? A clue to what pastoral care must start from – restful knowledge of the self, an inner peace subject to the beauty of the natural world. Taking what is around us as beautiful, and a source of deep satisfaction in our work.
I wish this for my students, except they’re sheep. Their role is not pastoral care but growing up before they’re eaten by wolves, so that they can be eaten by people. (I guess that years of docile service to the capitalist workforce is the wool in this story, but I will only know them as lambs, hoping to see some dark spots emerge.)
Enough. Because I’ve seen the surreal heart of it. If I’m a shepherd then I’m something that a sheep can’t be, of an opposite species. When surely teachers and students have something in common, namely humanity. So do pastors, artists, parents, principals. And a feature of our species is care.
Still, I don’t expect care from my students. There is something absurd about adults appealing to children to look after them. It happens in class sometimes. I’ll reach some limit and ask students to see things from my point of view. The silence is deafening. It’s not the worst thing I could do, but feels like it. I’m interested in this feeling. Of course we want students to learn things, but the fact that I’m tired and grumpy can go without saying, let alone being brought to the sudden attention of twenty kids.
Better to stress shared humanity by actually sharing it. What thoughts and feelings are in the room? Who is in a good frame of mind to help us learn together, and who just needs help? Without this question I risk imposing something trivial on something profound.
I once attended a conference about sex run by Lutherans. I was eighteen or nineteen years old, still closeted. A few years earlier I had scrawled the word “homosexuality” onto a piece of paper and burned it – not alone, but as a rite of confession at another Lutheran youth camp about sex. A speaker addressed us at this later event about something that everyone has forgotten. All I remember is her opening disclaimer, which felt like an embrace. “I’ll be talking about women and men,” she said, “but I acknowledge that we are not all attracted to the opposite sex. Hopefully what I say will make sense to everyone, including people who aren’t straight.” I’d pay good money for a photo of my facial expression.
So being acknowledged is an experience of care. Using someone’s name. Welcoming someone to school. Accepting that someone may be late for a reason beyond their control. Always allowing for complexity, diversity, distraction, emotion. And only then, starting to teach.
If I can give care to a whole year level of students then I am doing my job. A more feasible proposition: if the year level experiences care from the school I am satisfied; if not, I meddle. I make (sure that) care (is) happen(ning). And if I can do this while playing a flute? Pastoral care achievement unlocked!