Why ‘good enough’ matters more than ever | Education Support
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Why ‘good enough’ matters more than ever

Teachers are perfectionist and often feel they are not good enough. But, argues Emma Kell, now more than ever educators should recognise they are strong, essential, and doing their very best to support young people at this difficult time. 

‘Good enough’. It’s a mantra I come back to time and time again in the context of teaching, parenting, and just existing. It’s a mantra that trusted friends have to remind me of when, like everyone, I take on too much and tie myself in knots. It originally comes from Donald Winnicott, who developed the concept in the context of early motherhood. The good enough mother trusts herself to know what is best for her child.

I’m having a bad day at work. The results for the department I lead and the class I teach are, we are told from every possible quarter, indubitably not good enough at all. I’m with set 3 - that’s the set known as the ‘borderlines’ or the ‘key marginals’ or the ‘MAPs’ (Middle Ability Pupils) – the ones who hover treacherously between ‘pass’ and ‘fail’ (no point sugar coating it). The ‘ambers’ the ‘targeted’ the ‘in need of intervention’. Otherwise know as Miriam, Mohamed, Naomi, Marius and several dozen others. (Names changed, obviously.)

I’ve slept fitfully, dreaming of spreadsheets, been entirely emotionally absent to loved-ones for possibly weeks now, and I’ve done what I generally avoid (not through any pedagogical puritanism but because it makes me feel rubbish) and raised my voice to my class. ‘This is your future! I can’t sit these exams for you. Goodness knows, I wish I could! When are you going to take responsibility!’ Some rolled eyes, a daring ‘calm down, Miss’ (the words designed to have maximum opposite effect) and we blundered back onto some kind of track.

A day later, I ask them what on earth was wrong with them the day before. ‘What,’ asks Miriam, ‘was wrong with you, Miss?’ A pause for thought. A quick exit for Miriam for impertinence? Some tactical ignoring… Actually, I laugh. She had a fair point and I told her so. We found the humour in the moment.

Human first and teacher second 

I’d fallen short – like we all do. I’d forgotten temporarily that my ‘ambers’ were actually humans first and learners second, and that I too was and am a flawed if well-meaning human first and teacher second (thank you, Mary Myatt, for the regular reminds of this). I ended up apologising. Miriam passed, by the way, but in ten years’ time, I won’t remember that. I’ll remember the time she cried because she shouldn’t remember the last time her mum had said she was proud of her, and then her mum did, after I called home to praise her extraordinary creative writing.

This all seems far longer ago than it actually was. Why choose an example from the time before Covid 19? A number of reasons, not least because I’m feeling the same rawness as many teachers in the apparent onslaught against us and my inner chimp is threatening to cause mayhem. I have to keep reminding myself that, as in the playground, those who wish to undermine us and devalue us know exactly how to press our buttons. Tell any teacher, ‘why don’t you just think of the children’ and challenge them to stay calm. Because we know that’s why we do it. Because it’s blatant nonsense. And because we’re scared. Scared of being responsible for the death of a member of our community by inviting more children in. Bewildered by the apparent lack of transparency and any concrete reassurance at all. Scared for our own families and loved ones. Risks aside, I’d be in a normal classroom again in a heartbeat, but if you told me I had to choose between seeing my students again and seeing my parents within the next six months – a year? – who knows? – I know which I’d have to choose.

The bottom line is that, like Winnicott’s good enough mother, we know, deep down, whether we’re good enough or not, because our students will tell us. Even now, remotely, they bombard their teachers with the ‘thank you Miss’s and the ‘you must be busy!’ and even the ‘I miss you’s – because they do! They really miss us. There’s so much we can’t do – but there’s an awful lots we can do and are doing for many hours every day.

I have another fear. One which is as yet formless and nameless, but which which stems from a knowledge that our wonderful work in schools was already undermined by a deficit model – a high-stakes and hyper-accountability approach which was perfectly encapsulated by one former teachers who said, ‘I would have done anything if I hadn’t been treated as inherently not good enough’. It’s a fear that more educators will jump ship and potential life-changers will look at the screeching headlines and decline to put themselves in for such an unfair bashing.

We have no choice: we have to rise above it

We have more control that we realise – we can step away from social media if it’s bringing us down. We don’t have to engage with the headlines that enrage us and we don’t have to give them more oxygen. We have to resist, however understandable it is, responding with rage and defensiveness and perpetuating the game. We have to rise above it all and beware what Mike Dix this morning called the ‘see-saw effect’ which sees others elevate themselves by making us feel small and inadequate. We have to embrace the opportunities for re-evaluation of what education is really about – when did you last really give much thought to a spreadsheet…?

Far from it. We are strong, we are essential, we are there doing our very best to support the young people to whom we have dedicated our professional lives and we can’t wait to get back into the classroom with our students when the time is right – and safe – to do so.

Dr Emma Kell is a teacher, researcher, speaker and author of How to Survive in Teaching 

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