Sunday, 15 February 2015


We hired a pile of DVDs this weekend - with the intention of kicking back and relaxing in quasi-Valentines Day style. One of the picks was Detachment starring Adrien Brody. Have you seen this movie? Here's the preview:

I'll freely admit I'm the kind of tragic who usually enjoys 'teacher' movies. Not this one. Detachment is overwhelmingly confronting. It focuses attention on, funnily enough, detachment in our schools and society in general. It is in your face, brutal, honest and powerful. We sat in stunned silence for several minutes after the credits finished.

The problem with detachment, as a concept, for me is not that I'm detached. It's that I teach in and through relationships. I don't detach. (And I worry about that too, but I'll come to that later.) I watched this movie feeling like parts of it were in a foreign language. Then teachers would talk about community and I would understand again.  The notion of detachment in schools puzzles me. And yet, there are huge segments of our industry that advocate, even require, detachment.

We've known for a long time that learning is a social activity (think about Bandura for example); and we know that learning only happens when children feel safe (think about the neuroscience of trauma) and supported.  So why is there a growth in detached teachers and communities, and in advocacy for it?

Is it too dangerous? Detachment certainly reduces the likelihood of vicarious trauma, and of being accused of being attached. Is it too hard to manage? Detached relationships are more likely to follow straight paths and flow charts. Is it too personal? Detached relationships don't blur the line between school and community. Is it too scary? Detachment removes the risk of being hurt.  You know what?  I don't buy it.

Detachment is hurting our children. It's hurting our community, and it's hurting us as individuals. I can't do what I do and be detached from my kiddos. They're a huge part of my life: I spent HOURS with them most days of the week. I don't want to spend that sort of  time with people from whom I'm detached.

This movie disturbed me because I see detachment happening around me. Not in my school. Not at all. But around me. In other schools and in our communities. I see children slipping through the cracks because the adults with agency are so detached from the realities of these kids' lives that they don't see what's happening. I see families disintegrating because every member is detached from the others that no one notices. I see schools taking such a hands off approach that kids are going hungry. I  don't want to see it anymore.   If everyone, and I mean everyone from the youngest of children to the oldest of grannies, could just reach out and 're-attach' think of the change we'd see.

We all know that I'm an early career teacher, and an overly-principled one at that. I realise that what I've written today is highly idealistic and naive. That doesn't leave it without merit though.  Think about what you can do to reach out this week.

On a totally side note: I do sometimes worry that I haven't learnt the art of professional detachment. You know the one they tell us about while we're training?  I don't worry a lot, because I have strategies in place to deal with vicarious trauma, exhaustion etc., but I do worry.  I guess the point of my post is that I don't see huge value in detaching more than I do now, but... Self-care is important. Ideas?

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know the students and how they learn
Standard 4 Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments 
Standard 7 Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community


  1. I've never encountered teachers who are detached or schools which encourage it. However, I do understand how it might happen. People could be led to think that being detached might save one from stress, anxiety, becoming to emotionally involved, but we aren't meant not to empathise. If you empathise, you can't stay detached. I'll watch the movie and thank you for the recommendation.

  2. Detachment and 'other-ing' seem to me to be at odds with our values as professionals (be that teaching or social work), yet they are packed into almost every 'how to be a professional' text as if they were a panacea against every problem that arises in the professional / client relationship.

    Teaching relationships (the master and apprentice, the scholar and pupil) historically have been incredibly intimate. In some periods of history the acceptance of such intimacy has given rise to abuse where the 'professional's power' is used to satisfy their own needs and not those of the student.

    The history of social welfare as a service of the church is also one where historically the call to help others was inherent with the need for relationship, personal investment and compassion.

    Yet in both these two professions the 20th century has seen us value 'professional detachment' to the exclusion of relationship, empathy, compassion and engagement.

    What have we gained? The abuses and mistakes ascribed as the intolerable risks of deep relationships between professionals and 'clients / students' are still ever present. Our detachment has not prevented abuse of power and the injury it causes. Nor has it enabled practitioners to be an objective catalyst engaged in the intervention but not transformed by it. Detachment has not lead to a reduction in stress for our professions, probably because it is stressful to subjugate our compassion in order to achieve 'professional attachment'.

    If detaching has not made us more effective, facilitated a healthier working environment for ourselves or protected vulnerable people from abuse then why do we persist with it as a core principle of so-called 'professionalism'?