I was in my second year of teaching - Year 3s in a tough inner-city primary school.
I was full of enthusiasm, energy and commitment. I was passionate about working kids who had the odds stacked against them and I wanted them to see me as an approachable teacher who was as concerned about their welfare as I was about their learning and achievement.
One day Tanya, a six year old in my class ran up to me in the playground and with delighted expectation she said:
“Sir! would you like to come to my birthday party on Sunday!”
“Oh, thank you Tanya. What a lovely invitation!” I replied.
I thought I was being kind and noncommittal at the same time. You get invitations like that almost everyday in a primary school. I thought no more of it.
Until the next day, in came a handwritten invitation from Tanya's mum "You're invited to Tanya's birthday party on Sunday". Oh blimey! Then I thought, I suppose it wouldn't hurt me to show my face for half an hour and to be honest, in many ways I didn't mind - I wanted the parents and the kids to see me as an enthusiastic, hard-working, approachable teacher who was prepared to go the extra-mile for them.
When Saturday came, I thought I’d better not go empty-handed. So I pop down to my local bookshop to buy Tanya a little reading book to take along as a gift. While I was browsing the books I got chatting to an elderly lady who turned out to be a retired teacher. She asked me about the book I was holding and I told her.
“And that book is for one of your pupils…?”
“And you’re going to her birthday party…?”
She frowned and gently wagged her finger. “Don’t go.” She said.
“Why not?” I said. “What’s wrong with a bit of jelly and blancmange for half an hour?”
“You’re her teacher…”she said solemnly “you’re not her friend”.
I went home and thought about it overnight.
The next afternoon I went to Tanya’s house, knocked on the door and through the glass I could see her running excitedly to the door. She opened the door all excited in her party dress with a beaming smile.
“I’m so sorry love, I can’t stop, but here’s a little book for your birthday. Thanks for inviting me and I’ll see you in school tomorrow.”
Had I entered that party there may have been other children in there, who might have thought:
“There’s my teacher… why didn’t he come to my birthday party?”
or parents who might have thought:
“I wonder what his relationship is with Tanya’s mother that he comes round here at 4 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon?”
These are now issues I can't manage anymore.
That’s how I handled it. On that occasion, I think that elderly retired teacher gave me the right advice. However, there were times in my career when I did ‘cross the boundary’ and accept invitations to attend some social gatherings – sometimes they were christenings, barbecues, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and even funerals. And as a headteacher people saw me - as they will see you - as an important member of the community that they wanted to have at a family occasion to mark it with a speech or even eulogy.
These are fine judgments and sometimes you will judge them not appropriate and make your excuses and decline - but there are occasions when accepting such invitations will be entirely appropriate and fitting.
But it was a judgement I made, with experience and in a particular context, that I was prepared to justify as appropriate and indeed professional. And come to think of it, it’s a judgement that teachers have to make all the time and some on a daily basis – especially those who live in small, rural and isolated communities where the people they teach are the sons and daughters of their neighbours and even friends.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.
His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.