Sunday, 11 October 2009

Moral Maze

Should teachers always set a moral example? This was a question posed on Twitter on Friday evening by @schoolgate – Sarah Ebner, a journalist at the Times Online.

That she was asking this on a Friday evening, as I wound down at home after another hectic week with a glass of wine or more, brought out my more facetious side (first identified and labelled as such by my RE teacher over twenty years ago). But it stirred up some strong feelings, particularly amongst former headteacher and now education writer @GeraldHaigh, a time-served teacher who clearly believes that “teacher” is a life-long vocation that stays with you even beyond retirement.

I may be flippant about this on Twitter – after all, there are only so many things you can express in 140 characters at a time. But it’s been something I’ve been thinking about all weekend, and I do have strong thoughts and opinions on how much “being a teacher” affects our lives, and those hours when we’re not in the school building.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a generational thing. In fact, different lines of morality weave through different generations of teachers. Today we are expected to at least appear to be upstanding members of the community, leading future generations by example. When I’ve taken PSHE sessions about the dangers of smoking and drinking, and pupils have asked me about my own experiences, I’ve felt like such a hypocrite by glossing over my own history like those times as a student (when I never dreamed I would evolve into a teacher) when I drunk so much I lost hours of an evening, or set my own hair alight waving a cigarette around, and so on.

And yet when I was at school as a pupil, I remember well the two separate staffrooms: one which was safe to approach, and the other whose door resembled a dragon’s mouth with smoke curling round the edges as teachers chain-smoked their way through breaks. Even two years ago, before one of the most popular teachers I have ever known retired, the only complaint about him was from pupils whose books were returned to them reeking of smoke where they had sat in his study as he marked them, fag dangling from mouth. He’d even ignore the work-place smoking ban, and light up in his classroom as soon as the final bell went, and puff his way through staff meetings. How was that setting a good example?

The other thing that springs to mind are those 80s songs like Madness’s “Baggy Trousers”
– “all the teachers in the pub, passing round the ready rub”… yep, these were the teachers of my youth, and from anecdotal evidence from those educated in the 1970s and 1980s at comprehensive schools, there are also many tales of violent ex-forces teachers, for example, who would threaten and abuse their pupils; I myself have witnessed a teacher pinning a boy against the wall by the scruff of his neck for what we now call “low-level disruption”.

So in a way, I think it’s hypocritical to now expect teachers to be the bastions of civilization and morality in their own time, if it’s not affecting anyone else. It wasn’t such an imposition on teachers twenty or thirty years ago, so why now? So we can no longer smoke in the staffroom, and have a pint or two at lunchtime, and a good thing too in my opinion, but why extend restrictions on our personal lives beyond the school gate?

However, that’s not to say I don’t think there should be guidance in place. It sends a shudder through me when I hear of my colleagues, mostly younger, who have Facebook pages and allow pupils to become their “friends”. I think if you are a teacher, and you have a personal Facebook page, then this should be absolutely private, and you shouldn’t allow access to pupils, and possibly their parents. There are so many people who don’t see anything wrong with allowing pupils into their social networks, so why do I think it’s wrong? Well firstly, pupils are not our friends. There should always be some kind of professional distance between pupils and teachers, however friendly you are, or however many sports teams you take away on trips. If you erode that professional distance, then you open yourself up for all kinds of potential problems. My private life is just that. It’s why I write under a pseudonym. I would never want anything negative to reflect on my pupils, colleagues or school.

What else? Well despite the way that previous generations have dealt with it, I don’t think that today’s teachers should drink alcohol or smoke in front of pupils. I know we’re only human, and that plenty of us do drink and smoke, but in the presence of pupils we are professionals, and should act accordingly. But in our own time, however, if we want to drink until we’re sick, then why not? As long as the pictures don’t get posted to Facebook where half the school can see them.

And here’s where another argument comes in. Some believe that once you become a teacher, you are a role model and that label shouldn’t be taken off during evenings and weekends. And this is why I don’t like the label of “teacher”. If I go out for a few drinks with friends and start chatting to people, I don’t want them to know I’m a teacher, because at that moment in that pub, it doesn’t define me. I don’t want them thinking of their own children’s teacher when they hear me slurring my words after three pints of shandy. I don’t want them thinking how irresponsible I am to be doing what they too are doing in that pub at that moment.

This reminds me of that frequent moment of surprise that young (and not so young!) children have when they see their teacher out of context, in a supermarket or the High Street. Children categorise their teachers as being that adult who they see at school, and often can’t imagine them elsewhere. I’ve even had 14 year olds go on for weeks in lessons about seeing me in the High Street, as if they can’t get over the surprise of one of their teachers being released from the school building for good behaviour, and actually having to buy groceries like a human being.

And that’s fine with me. In school I am a teacher. I am a consummate professional, because not only do I get paid to be so, but I also believe that this is the best way to guide today’s youngsters to become tomorrow’s citizens. But away from the stressful classrooms and corridors, I feel I should be allowed to conduct my life as other adults do. As long as I’m not doing it in front of their pupils, or in the same pubs they’re drinking in, I don’t see the problem.

Now there are many other arguments we could follow here. Should teachers be allowed to be members of the BNP? Should they be struck off for being caught drink driving or taking drugs? These are far more contentious, and perhaps for homework you could think about these issues for next lesson.

As a post-script, if you do follow me on Twitter then you’ll know from my regular evening tweets that these arguments are mostly theoretical, and that a night out for me these days is as rare as a hen’s tooth. But it’s the principle of the thing!


Gerald said...

"Some believe that once you become a teacher, you are a role model and that label shouldn’t be taken off during evenings and weekends. And this is why I don’t like the label of “teacher”."
You see, this really puzzles me. "Once you become a teacher you are a role model" isn't something "some believe". It's simply how it is, for better or worse. Teaching isn't a "job". It's a state of being. You just are a teacher. I'm sure the young early years teacher who shared our dinner table on holiday this year understood that. Her love of what she is and does shone out of her, and coloured all of her personality in a way that was actually inspiring.

Ranting Teacher said...

I think that's an interesting point raised here: the difference between primary and secondary teachers. I'm sure that early years teacher never feared bumping into her young charges in the pub. I'm sure she doesn't have to patrol the school grounds at lunchtimes looking for the smokers. And I'm certain she isn't asked awkward questions about sexuality and drugs in PSHE sessions (and at random moments in lessons and form time) which cross boundaries I wished existed more clearly. I think the role (and therefore label?) of teacher alters depending on the age of the pupils you teach.