A headteacher at an exclusive private school made history last week by coming out as gay and discussing his sexuality in a virtual school assembly.
Nicholas Hewlett, headteacher at the £18,000-a-year St Dunstan's College independent school in Catford, south London told his students and staff that he is happily married to a man. It is thought that such an announcement to students by a headteacher was the first of its kind in educational history.
Mr Hewlett said when he first became a teacher in the 1990s, he was warned that his sexuality would be a barrier to a successful career. But he said, ‘society had come a long way since then’, adding: ‘I was told by a senior colleague in the school I was then working in that, as an openly gay man, it would be virtually impossible for me to become a headmaster.'
He said he hoped the announcement would be met with a positive reaction by students at the school, which is marking the start of its ‘LGBTQ Month’. He wrote on Twitter: 'If it can help just one young person feel more comfortable in their skin, it is surely an act worth doing.'
I have much admiration for teachers who reveal aspects of their personal lives in order to encourage and reassure students about identity, personality, sexuality and much else besides - particularly when it is to individual children who may be identified as struggling with certain issues in their lives.
As admirable as I think Mr Hewlett’s gesture is in one sense, I think it is fraught with many other dangers.
First of all, whose business is it what your sexuality is?
The proper answer to that is: it is no-ones (except the people you have a sexual relationship with).
None of us should feel that we have to divulge our sexuality for any reason, even voluntarily, merely to reassure others. Your sexuality is your own business. That should be a moral as well as an ethical principle.
I completely accept that Mr Hewlett is motivated by the desire to make other young gay people feel ‘comfortable in their skin’ but he has chosen to do so, not to individual children who may be struggling with sexual identity, but to the whole school and its wider community. In effect declaring: ‘What is my business is now your business.’
On the one hand that is admirable and brave (especially if we accept his motivation) because he is presumably prepared to face down any negative moral judgments from students, staff and parents as well as (hopefully) receive their praise and plaudits.
On the other hand, he is also giving licence for the school and the wider community to ask other questions about his private life. Some people may ask, at some later point in the school calendar or as issues arise in Mr Hewlett’s career, what is his position on other matters – that could be anything from his personal views on abortion, animal rights, Brexit, radical feminism, recreational drug use, viewing pornography, his mental health or his political affiliations and voting habits.
These are all legitimately private matters and my advice you keep them to yourself.
You can give up your privacy if you want to – and will gain my admiration if you do so motivated by the need to help an individual child – but there are consequences to such actions.
You are opening your private life to the judgment of others. That’s a judgment you have no control over and nor should you. People are entitled to their opinion about you. The more you give them reasons to make moral (personal) judgments about you and your personal values rather than only being able to make ethical (professional) judgments about your competence as a teacher, the more complex and difficult you are making your job.
One day a group of girls came up to me while I was doing playground duty and asked: ‘Mr Newland, are you gay?’
I could see it was a question asked seriously, so I decided to answer it in kind.
‘I might be…’ I said (at which their eyes lit up). ‘Then again… I might not… ‘ (at which, their eyes dimmed). ‘I’m not saying…’ tapping the tip of my nose to indicate that it was none of their business.
‘Oh, go on, Sir, tell us … we won’t tell anyone!’
‘I don’t care if you do tell anyone,’ I said. ‘I’m not telling you. Because it’s none of your business.’
‘I said you were gay!’ said one of them quite decidedly, as if she was declaring an important discovery. ‘You are gay, aren’t you Sir?’
‘I’ve told you… I might be… I might not… I’m not saying…’ I replied, tapping the tip of my nose again. ‘It’s a private matter.’
They ran off giggling.
My advice is: keep your private life, private.
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 GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.
You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’ – a 3-module course that deals extensively with ethics and values, with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.