Pupils have always said foul things to teachers. Or at least a handful of them have, but that’s enough to make any teacher feel very miserable and demoralised. My book Please Miss We’re Boys describes some of the horrors I had to put up with in 1968 when I was a raw recruit. Things don’t change much.
But that was to my face – and they were, of course exploiting the naivety and inexperience of the 21 year old me. There are usually limits to what even the rudest (most disturbed?) child or adolescent feels able to say to someone’s face. But social networking, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or whatever, has a dehumanising way of destroying any sort of inhibition, restraint or sense of appropriateness so that some people feel able to say almost anything about, or to, anyone. And, as every teacher knows, kids will egg each other on to see who can be the most outrageous. So I’m saddened, but not altogether surprised, that a National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NAS-UWT) survey of 7,500 teachers has shown that over a fifth of them report online abuse – some of it quite appalling – from pupils via social networking. Some parents are at it too, the survey shows.
So what can or should be done about it? Well of course slander, defamation, threats and so on should be reported to the police as 11 per cent of those teachers say they did – although three quarters of those report that they got a sympathetic hearing but no action. It really needs a few cases leading to some stern and very public action to demonstrate clearly to all that this behaviour is not acceptable. Come on Mr Plod. Stir yourself.
But that’s dealing only with the symptoms. We also need to get at the cause. I think much more needs to be done within education itself – probably with much younger children so that the ideas are embedded early – about the responsible use of social networking. It can be such fun, so useful and such a good learning resource if it’s used well. But somehow we have to teach children and young people that it mustn’t be misused. Just because you’ve learned to ride a bicycle that doesn’t make it OK for you to use it to menace pedestrians. In the same way you don’t use social networking to abuse or threaten people. Most of the teaching children get about social networking concentrates on educating them to protect themselves. Time to shift the balance a bit.
And what about email in all this? My last secondary teaching job was part-time and I didn’t want the students in my English lessons to feel disadvantaged by my not being in school every day in case they needed to contact me. So in the first lesson I always gave them my private email address in case there was anything they needed to ask or tell me – and sometimes to send me their homework. They were usually astonished because they weren’t used to being trusted to that extent. “No one has ever abused this yet so I can’t imagine you’re going to be the first” I would reply with what I hoped was a no-nonsense twinkle. It worked. I never had any trouble with any student misusing my email address and we all found it rather convenient.
And yet teachers’ leaders are now complaining that some teachers are harassed and bullied by emails coming from heads and senior staff in their schools. Yet another example of the gross misuse of a useful tool. Of course it makes sense for everyone to be able to contact everyone else easily out of hours when it’s really necessary. But that doesn’t mean senior staff, who clearly have inadequacy problems of their own, should be hurling peremptory missives at their staff at 2.30 am or at midnight on New Year’s Eve as has been reported. Teachers are entitled to privacy and time off. They should be able to trust both their pupils and their colleagues not to scupper that.