Is the right child sitting on your knee?: Celia Dodd on why male teachers have to be particularly sensitive

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When three male teachers were taken on at my son's primary school last September, the parents were enthusiastic. Until then, the only man on the premises had been the caretaker. The parents welcomed the introduction of caring, positive male role models, particularly important in any school with a high proportion of single-parent families.

It would be a pity, then, if the case of the headmaster who resigned after comforting a five-year-old girl on his knee makes other male primary teachers think twice about showing affection to pupils. Parents want to know that if their children are upset - as they may well be in their first months at infant school - they will be comforted by teachers, male or female. Physical affection is an important part of primary school life.

Since long before political correctness was dreamt of, male teachers have been conscious of treading a fine line between demonstrations of physical affection and conduct that could be misconstrued. Anthony Johnson, who started teaching infants 21 years ago, says: 'The problem has always been there. When I started I was really quite concerned about it - not from the kids' point of view but from the parents'. In fact, there have always been parents who like male teachers because their kids don't get much contact with men. In my class now, there are six children out of 28 who have no father in the house. One mother asked for her child to be put with me because she's a single parent.'

In recent years shifting attitudes on two fronts have blurred the boundaries of acceptable behaviour for male teachers. Awareness of sexual abuse has sharpened, and at the same time men generally are expected to be more caring and demonstrative. It is almost a double bind for parents who want their children to spend time with men but want, above all, to protect them from abuse.

If adults can't trust each other, the best defence must be to make sure children feel confident enough to speak out when they don't like adult behaviour. And adults must listen, without over-reacting, to what they say.

That's fine in theory, but how can you teach children about disturbing feelings without making them paranoid? And isn't there a danger that what children say is as open to exaggeration and misconstruction as adult behaviour?

In fact, even a five-year-old - or a three-year-old, for that matter - knows perfectly well when adult behaviour feels wrong. Sitting on one adult's knee may be reassuring; sitting on another's may feel distinctly creepy. It is largely a question of intent.

The trouble is that at school, particularly if he or she is new, a child's first priority will be pleasing the teacher, certainly not questioning adult behaviour. Abuse in schools raises uncomfortable questions about teachers whom we expect our children to respect and trust, and by implication, about ourselves. Many parents who feel comfortable warning their children about 'stranger danger' - where the baddies are not people you know - stop short when it comes to talking about 'inappropriate touching', which opens up the possibility that any adult, or even another child, could pose a threat.

The parents I have met have very different views on the wisdom of forewarning children. The majority would agree with my friend Liz, who has a daughter of nine and a son of five: 'I've warned them about not taking sweets, and strangers at the school gates, and I'll gradually extend the discussion as they get more freedom. But I'm very aware that I tend to be overprotective, and that by saying too much I could make them too anxious and unconfident, so they will never do anything on their own. I worry that if I talk about inappropriate touching, it might put them off any kind of touching.'

Another friend is more direct with her three sons: 'It's quite difficult because on one level I'm saying that the men the boys know are probably safe, but on another level I've still got to leave an element of doubt because most sexual abuse comes from a man children know. The difficulty is when they say, 'What about Daddy, or Grandpa?' I'm sure my husband isn't abusing our children, but I still say general things like, 'If Daddy does things you don't like, come and tell me.' It's a way of building up areas of discussion so that they feel they can tell you anything.'

But talking has its limits. Young children learn much more by example. If children have regular contact with men - be they teachers, uncles or au pairs - who are relaxed about physical affection, they are more likely to recognise when things feel wrong.

But ultimately it must be the adults' responsibility to be sensitive to children's reactions. Anthony Johnson, who teaches a class of five- to seven-year-olds, says: 'You can tell when you can touch a child, it's experience. There are some kids I don't touch because I know they won't like it, or they're not ready for it. There are others I always have my arms round because they're the sort of kids you do that with. It's appropriate to have a five-year-old on your knee, because they climb on to you, but when they get older they don't. I respond to their needs rather than putting myself on them.

'What matters is that the children feel relaxed in your company, and the parents are happy about you. In the end, it's a question of trust.'

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