Should derogatory comments about pupils and parents get you the sack?
A teacher in north Wales has been sacked and suspended from teaching for two years by the Welsh teachers' regulatory body for mocking pupils and parents - anonymously in a personal blog - who were attending a school prom .
He wrote under the pseudonym: “The Provoked Pedagogue” that the prom was "a shallow, vacuous affair, about nothing more than who has spent the most on looking nice." While he did not identify anyone by name or description, he mocked some of the girls whom he said: “often ended up looking like a cross between Eastern European prostitutes and Kardashian clones” and the boys who, he said, looked as if they had been "snorting coke."
He went on to mock parents for putting too much money and effort into the prom by spending sums on gowns and make-up they could not afford, saying it meant “more to them than their children’s GCSEs" and that their "overweight daughters with poorly applied fake tans” were being “shoehorned into gowns and paraded through the town like cattle".
The Chair of the disciplinary panel, suspending the teacher for two years (and probably ending his career), concluded: the comments were "critical, disrespectful and were likely to cause offence to any pupil or parent who came across the article."
I agree that the remarks are critical and disrespectful and likely to cause offence.
But there are two questionS for me:
The first is: “So what?” and secondly: "Should such a relatively minor lapse of judgment really end someone's career?"
While it is not nice to be critical, disrespectful and cause offence to people, it’s not illegal either. Sometimes we might find it both necessary and even desirable to do so. Our democratic right to demonstrate often requires it.
Indeed, listen to most stand-up comedy on tv, radio or live on-stage and you’ll soon see that the comedy material that makes us laugh often relies on being all three simultaneously.
I worked with a teacher who ruthlessly mocked pupils, parents, colleagues and sometimes me (I was the head teacher) by mercilessly impersonating our worst characteristics and most embarrassing mannerisms. Most lunch times you could hear gales of laughter coming from the staff room as he entertained his colleagues. He provided a much-needed safety valve for letting off the steam that had been built-up during the hard and stressful work of a teaching week.
However, had he ever mocked a child or a parent to their face or made fun of them in front of others outside the staff room, I would have immediately disciplined him – and everyone would have understood why.
But the point is, he never did.
He always had his fun in the confidentiality, anonymity and privacy of the staff room where any members of staff who found it “critical, disrespectful or offensive” could either absent themselves and withdraw or complain of the behaviour directly to him or to me.
No-one ever did.
Do we think this only goes on in schools? Do we think that doctors and nurses don’t make fun of their annoying and demanding patients? Do we think barristers and lawyers don’t mock the occasional stupidity of their self-serving clients?
Does sacking and suspending a teacher for two years and possibly – probably - ending his career in the process do anything positive? Does it make us better teachers? Does it make us “more respectful, less critical, inoffensive”? Does it enhance public trust in the teaching profession? Does it raise professional standards and practice?
Personally, I think it does none of these things.
But I do think such a judgment has a real impact.
First, I think it has a chilling effect on the free speech we should all value - to be allowed to be critical, and at times to be disrespectful and sometimes even offensive.
Secondly, I think such a judgment will make us more defensive and even wary of trusting our colleagues.
Finally, I think it will signal to people who might be thinking of becoming teachers: “There is no sense of humour in the teaching profession" and "There is little tolerance for teachers who make silly jokes - so if you do, expect to get sacked and lose your livelihood.”
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and head teacher in London for over 20 years and then for over a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures and writes on professional values in teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitterat @newteacherstalk.
His new book: ‘Becoming a teacher – the legal, ethical and moral implications of entering society’s most fundamental profession’ will be published by Crown House Publishing this summer and can be ordered here.
You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’– which deals with issues of free speech, respect and tolerance. It comprises a 3-module course that covers professional ethics and values, with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self-assessment exercises and completion certificates – ideal for showing evidence that you have completed cpd on ‘wider professional responsibilities’.