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.
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.