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Updated: September 23, 2009 19:33 IST

Changing the nature of teacher-pupil relations

GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
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The technology offered by mobile phones has changed the manner in which students and teachers interact. Photo: AP
AP
The technology offered by mobile phones has changed the manner in which students and teachers interact. Photo: AP

Stephen remembers very clearly the first time he got a text message from a pupil. “It came at about 10.30 on a Friday evening,” says the 37-year-old, a science teacher in a mixed, west London secondary school. ” ‘Sir u r fit,’ it said. I had no idea who it was, and I didn’t reply.

Then three nights later there was another one: ‘Lets have fun lol.’ And from then on, for maybe a month, they came regularly, every other night or so, from maybe half a dozen different numbers. By the end, they were quite abusive. I kept thinking, if I don’t respond, they’ll stop, and in the end they did. But yes, it was unpleasant. I lost sleep over it. So did my wife.”

Maggie, an English teacher at a private girls’s school in the east Midlands of England, found her initiation on a popular teens’ social networking site. “Someone,” she says, “must have taken a photo of me in class with a camera phone, a close-up, horrible, while I was bending over to pick something up. Then they put it online and basically had a guess-the-bum competition. All quite innocent, you know, but very, very personal. The girls were all wildly apologetic afterwards, but I’m not at all sure they thought they’d really done anything wrong. It was a lesson to me, though. I’m very, very careful what I say and do now.”

For Ben, the realisation came after he replied to a pupil’s email late one evening. “It was all perfectly routine and above board — an AS-level student’s inquiry about the date an assignment had to be handed in,” says the young general studies teacher, from Hertfordshire. “Before I knew it I’d signed off and sent a reply, the way I sign off mails to loads of people I know, with xx. I panicked: what if the pupil misinterpreted that, what if her parents saw it? In the event, nothing was ever said, but it made me think. We’re in a different situation these days.”

Occupying a prominent place in this week’s news was Helen Goddard, a 26-year-old music teacher at a private school in England sentenced to 15 months in prison following an affair with a 15-year-old student that included a weekend in Paris.

Last week, it was the turn of Christopher Reen, a classroom supervisor who became the fifth member of staff in three years at his school to face criminal charges over a sexual relationship with a pupil. In both cases, mobile phone text messages — allegedly, in the case of Reen and a 15-year-old pupil at Headlands school in Bridlington, Yorkshire, in the north of England, more than 800 of them — were submitted in court as evidence of the offence.

Altering relationships

But behind these headline-grabbing scandals lies a more mundane reality for teachers today, which, while it cannot excuse such incidents, may perhaps go part of the way to explaining them: in parallel with the steady erosion of formality in society as a whole, new ways of communicating including email, text messaging and social networking sites are radically altering the relationship between pupils and teachers.

Once upon a time, teachers simply did not exist outside school. There was a fixed distance; a clear definition of roles; lines that should not and, more often than not, could not be crossed. Now, contact outside the classroom is not only easier but, in many schools, actively encouraged — school web portals on which teachers and students can upload and download assignments, email each other questions and answers, post announcements and sometimes even chat in real time, are increasingly becoming the norm. That fixed distance is shortening; those old boundaries — between professional and private, home and school, formal and informal — are blurring.

It has been illegal in Britain since 2001 for a teacher to engage in sexual activity with any pupil at their school under the age of 18. But despite a recent YouGov survey of 2,200 adults claiming that one in six people know someone who had an “intimate relationship” with a teacher while at school, and 2005 research by the University of Sheffield, England, suggesting that around 1,500 teacher—pupil relationships may develop every year, teachers stress that the number of cases that ever go as far as court is tiny, and the number that end up in a conviction tinier still. The NASUWT says it deals with about 800 allegations of misconduct against its members each year, but only five or six involving inappropriate sexual contact (most concern alleged physical abuse).

As obviously inexcusable as they are, however, some teachers feel the intense media and public focus on a small number of high-profile cases such as those of Goddard and Reen — or, to take two more, Jenine Saville-King, a teaching assistant in Watford, north of London, cleared two years ago of sexual activity after exchanging 200 pages of MSN messages in three months (and 120 text messages in four days) with a 15—year—old pupil, and Madeleine Martin, a religious education teacher from Manchester, in the north of England, who this month admitted an eight—day affair with a 15—year—old boy from her school whom she first arranged to meet on Facebook — may be missing a much broader point.

Texts, emails, et. al.

“To be honest,” says Alastair, a teacher at a private London secondary school, “if a teacher and a pupil really want to start an inappropriate relationship, they will. That’s always happened, and I imagine it always will. Electronic media certainly gives greater access. But while it may also give the illusion of creating a private space, it’s also written evidence. There is definitely an issue here, though. Electronic communication is different. And while schools are creating web portals and actively encouraging online contact between staff and pupils, there are all sorts of guidelines warning us never ever to use Facebook with students, or to give out our personal mobile phone numbers or email addresses. The trouble is, it’s very easy for the lines to get blurred. Public and private space get muddied.” Mike, who teaches in London but — like the others interviewed for this piece — prefers not to be identified, cites the example of a teacher accompanying a school trip. “There’s a school mobile phone for occasions like this,” he says. “But it can easily happen that somebody else has got it when you want it. So what do you do? You don’t want to risk losing the kids, so you give them your own mobile number. I’ve done that. And once that’s happened, once a number is out there.”

Texting, Mike says, “is a very intimate medium. And emails, too; I’ve sent personal emails to sixth-formers wishing them luck with their exam the next day. You can’t be a jobsworth these days.” Alastair is responsible for his school’s applications to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. “I’ve given students my home email address, simply because you need a quick turnaround,” he says. “But you can see the scope for problems. An email or text is very much a one-to-one thing; a pupil might feel specially valued. Even on the school site, I could be marking online, live, maybe quite late in the evening. I could have had a glass of wine . . . I could start discussing work with a student who’s also online. It’s Facebook by another name, really. You could easily make comments you’d regret.”

It’s not just teachers, though, who risk breaking the new rules. Digital communication is a two-way street. Phil Ryan, a now-retired science teacher from Liverpool, England, briefly became an unlikely — and, as far as he was concerned, unwished-for — internet sensation last year when mobile phone footage of him doing the funky chicken for a sixth-form class on the last day of term was posted on YouTube and attracted more than 5,000 viewings (and plenty of adverse comments) within days.

Earlier this year, more than 30 pupils were suspended from Grey Coat Hospital School, a Church of England secondary in London, after dozens of girls joined a Facebook group called The Hate Society and posted hundreds of “deeply insulting comments” about one of their teachers. Last year, a group of boys at the Forest School in Horsham, West Sussex, south of London, used Facebook and Bebo to abuse staff.

Victims of cyber-bullying

According to a survey earlier this year for the UK Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Teachers Support Network, as many as one in ten teachers have experienced some form of cyberbullying. Some 63 per cent of those surveyed had received unwelcome emails, 26 per cent had offensive messages posted about them on sites such as Facebook or RateMyTeacher, and 28 per cent were sent abusive text messages.

The consequences can be serious for teachers, many of whom are less technologically sophisticated than their students: 39 per cent said their confidence fell, 25 per cent felt it made them less effective teachers, and 6 per cent said they had been forced to sign off on sick leave.

“Of course, pupils have always discussed their teachers, or used graffiti,” says Maggie. “The difference now is that they can do it really publicly, in front of thousands and thousands of people. That can be incredibly distressing. And they can do worse; there was a case in one school where pupils took a photo of a teacher’s face, edited it onto a really gross, pornographic image of another woman’s body, and stuck it online.”

The NASUWT, Britain’s second-largest teachers’ union, takes cyber-bullying very seriously. It has called for any school policy that requests or requires teachers to disclose their mobile numbers or email addresses to pupils to be banned; wants new legislation to outlaw teachers being named on websites; would like strategies to prevent all use of mobile phones when school is in session; and has even demanded that pupils’ phones be classed as potentially dangerous weapons.

“We don’t want to come across as Luddites,” says the union’s general secretary, Chris Keates. “Used appropriately, advances in technology have transformed the working lives of teachers, and the learning experiences of young people, no doubt. But they’ve thrown up new pressures and concerns. For a start, they’ve changed expectations of teachers — there’s a real expectation in some schools now that teachers will basically be available at the convenience of the pupil. There’s also, with email, an expectation of a more or less instant response. And these forms of communication are far more informal, in style and content. You respond in a way you never would in a letter, or face to face.”

Confusing maze of letters

Email and texts, Keates notes, are routinely abbreviated, “which can lead to misinterpretation, and accusations that the boundaries of a professional relationship are being crossed.” There is a big difference between a handwritten note in a register asking a pupil to come to room 218 after school to discuss his homework, and an email or text message saying, “C u 3.45 my room”.

Teachers, Keates says, feel “increasingly vulnerable”. A lot of the union’s casework involves the use of mobile phones in schools, particularly in the classroom. “There’s a lot of taking of inappropriate photos, down teachers’ cleavages, that kind of thing,” Keates says. “We’ve even had cases of attacks being staged, things being thrown at teachers, so their reaction can be filmed and then posted on Facebook or YouTube.” The internet, and particularly social networking sites, are all too often “vehicles for false allegations, and exposing teachers to ridicule and humiliation,” she says. In some cases, teachers have had to defend themselves against allegations of misconduct from schools following the anonymous posting of classroom videos that they were not even aware had been filmed. Faced with the real risk of members either falling into difficulty involuntarily, or being deliberately targeted for abuse, unions and authorities have begun running extended courses for teachers on the pitfalls of new technology.

Fiona Johnson, director of communications at the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE), says the new GTCE code for teachers, which comes into effect on 1 October, has a reference to the need for “teachers to maintain appropriate professional boundaries with children and young people”. Although this is “clearly not very specific”, she concedes, “trainee teachers get more detailed advice during their initial training, local authority co-ordinators cover the issue with each cohort of newly qualified teachers, and schools have their own policies on these issues.”

A new dimension to training

The GTC also runs a workshop programme with trainee teachers to “reflect on and discuss professional boundaries. Most trainees are clear in their view that they would be unwise to open up their Facebook profiles to pupils, for example — and also aware from teaching practice that school policies now often specifically tell staff not to do so.” The potential perils of texting, however, “hasn’t come up in any of the sessions I have run”.

The largest teaching union in the UK, the NUT, also runs courses locally: following Phil Ryan’s YouTube appearance and a number of other incidents, including a particularly vicious example of a teacher receiving “filthy and abusive” text messages, Merseyside NUT (in the north west of England) now holds an annual three-day course for the new teachers it employs. “Teachers are much, much more concerned,” says Amanda Brown, the NUT’s head of employment conditions and rights.

“As far as being recorded and posted on the internet goes, they’ve become wary of every little thing they do in the classroom — and that’s a real shame if it precludes them having a bit of normal, end-of-term type fun with a class. In terms of texting and phones, we just advise very strongly that teachers do not make themselves accessible in any way at all that might be considered not appropriate.

False allegations of misconduct can have a truly devastating impact on a career.” Some teachers regret the way things are heading. “I don’t agree with creating a separation between the real and the online world,” says Alison, who teaches at a girls’ school in London. “My school bars Facebook contact between teachers and pupils. But I think teachers should be active online; it might even help prevent some of the things children can get up to, the very sexualised pictures they post of themselves online, for example.

Banning us is almost insulting; it’s like saying: ‘You can’t be trusted.’ And texting is a far better way of getting hold of a child when you need them than a note in the register. Schools have enough absurd rules. We should be in that cyberspace arena.” Many, though, fear what Mike calls this “new chumminess”, “a culture of informality that just wasn’t there when I was at school”.

For Keates, the dangers are many: “The accessibility of teachers, with email and texting, has increased the potential for over-familiar relationships,” she says. “You start with a teacher-pupil relationship, which becomes a friendly relationship, then transforms further. Teachers have to ask themselves: if a third party sees this, is it open to misinterpretation?”

The atmosphere in schools now, she believes, “is much more difficult for teachers. Most people know exactly what kind of relationship they should develop with young people. But with this culture of ever greater accessibility, ever greater involvement and engagement, it’s far easier for those essential boundaries, that distance, to be eroded.” On, she might have added, both sides.

The relationship enigma has become central in our electronic age! It is going to affect the boundaries between parents, children, teachers, and students -- namely the young and the old! Sometimes the child can teach us more and it is just all in our minds. However, value systems must be nurtured by adults being being role models for children. In social networking sites, I have experienced adults behaving atrociously, so am not surprised that children will pick up from where we leave off! It is the adults who need to watch out! Children need to grow watching how we behave and there is much to be discussed on that!

from:  Anita Mathew
Posted on: Sep 29, 2009 at 17:37 IST

Teaching without inspiring is like beating on a cold iron. Why then complain if the iron doesn't change its shape? However bad a pupil's behaviour might appear to be, there is always a certain amount of goodness in every pupil; a teacher who is constantly willing to tap into that goodness would successfully turn a sour teacher-pupil relationship into one of great respect and love.In the process, they might learn a lesson or two themselves.

from:  Bujal
Posted on: Sep 24, 2009 at 18:54 IST

A teacher is considered as one of the visible gods in our universe. A person's life can be changed for good or for bad according to his/her teacher. In these days, teachers push their thoughts upon the students and won't allow the students to think in their own way. A teacher must be student-friendly. A good teacher knows how to handle the children emotionally. My best teacher in my life is Dr. MEENA. She always used to say we are learning more from students. She became a role-model for me to become a teacher. A "thank you" for her...

from:  Lalitha
Posted on: Sep 24, 2009 at 14:00 IST

I think this article is mixing up different points. One is that electronic mediums of communication enable more frequent interaction. Secondly, the article assumes that just because interaction is happening more frequently and outside of normal school hours, it is likely to be informal. And third, that informality leads to potential of abuse.

While the first and third premises are correct, the second is simply wrong. Millions of office workers have gotten used to frequent communication with colleagues, bosses, subordinates outside of normal business hours. But they have learnt how to maintain professional distance. School teachers may be new to this and therefore prone to errors in judgement, like the teacher who claims to be chatting with students after a few glasses of wine. But sooner or later, teachers have to find the right balance of informality and professional distance for themselves just like the rest of us who work in offices.

from:  Richard Parker
Posted on: Sep 24, 2009 at 08:58 IST

Oh God! These days student-teacher relationship is loosing value. These days an ideal teacher who can develop an ideal student is rare to find. Hence we have very few visionary leaders and outstanding performers in any field.

from:  Pramod Sai Thati
Posted on: Sep 24, 2009 at 07:18 IST

This is only for industrialised nations not for countries like ours as we have 70 per cent living in villages and only 10 per cent of the population uses computers.

Incidently whether you use texting or not, you still have respect for teachers whichever part of the world you live in.

from:  Ganesa Iyer, Guam
Posted on: Sep 24, 2009 at 02:11 IST

Very true - "Pupils have ALWAYS discussed their teachers, or used graffiti. The difference now is that they can do it really publicly, in front of thousands and thousands of people. That can be incredibly distressing."
Hope we teach our kids to respect others and teach them how others can get hurt badly with no use of force. Let the moral training start at our homes.

from:  Kansas Krishnan
Posted on: Sep 23, 2009 at 23:51 IST

Teaching is the noblest of all professions. Every person is a teacher at some point in his/her life:as a mother/father. Teaching is a calling. As as a teacher, I enjoy teaching. Even in this technologically advanced world, I try my best to be abreast. Made my mistakes and learnt from them. Social networking sites have both positive and negative aspects. Children too could learn from their experiences on such sites. What I'd like to point out about the misuse of technological advancement is the lack of respect shown by students towards their teachers and also lack of respect shown by the teachers towards their students. Yes, respect has to come from both parties. The key in establishing good student-teacher relationships is to be respectful. Right from the tone of voice to the 'glare' given by teachers to their students - needs to show respect and care. There is a way to correct and guide and the way is kindness. When students respect their teachers, they would not do all those things they do. Well, if we want to make the world a better place, we need to start from 'the man/woman in the mirror'. We won't get anywhere by telling 'DONT DO IT.' Instead, let's not give them the opportunity to bully the teachers. Lets face the fact, being intolerant towards each other has in the first place led to this condition. People look down on teachers, they think teachers become teachers because they could not get any other job! Not true. Dedicated teachers are here because they love what they do. I for one love my job. Each year is a challenge. Each class is different. But as long as people (parents) have the idea that teaching is an easy job which can be done by anybody, we will continue to have all these problems. Because the people who really really teach a child to respect oneself and others is the parent. A parent who has taught the child to respect will not let his/her child text the teacher at 10 in the night. A parent who has established respect between himself and his child will in the first place know about all/most activities of the child including his/her relationship with his/her teacher. This problem is not limited to student-teacher relationship it is the result of the decaying parent-child relationship. Its a wake up call for all of us. Let's get our priorities sorted. Let's give our children a good home and educate them with our values and instill virtues in them which when they go to school will eventually be the fertile soil in which the teacher can sow the seeds of knowledge. Let's respect each other.

from:  Aisha
Posted on: Sep 23, 2009 at 22:19 IST

What we are seeing now is the growing abuse of internet. The context of this article can't be percieved in a remote area (Assam, which I am familiar with) where we don;t have good internet facilities, let alone abuse it.

Looking at the larger picture: this is an implication of technological advancement. We have to accept both the sides of the coin.

How it can be dealt? Even though I dont have requisite expertise, I might say that forced regulatory measures can't be a solution. What might be a more effective mechanism is to understand the psyche of the students growing in a world of YouTube and Facebook.

This can never be done on a massive scale. And for that the self-regulatory norms should come from the ones who are near and dear to them and who they actually care. Individual attention is the key.

from:  Hiranya Saikia
Posted on: Sep 23, 2009 at 21:51 IST

I can only recall the good old days when teachers were role models and were treated with utmost respect. Abdul Kalam's Wings of Fire is one book from which people can know how teachers were respected in India.

from:  Balachandran S
Posted on: Sep 23, 2009 at 19:35 IST
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