It came out of the blue and took me back a little. It was the middle of break-time and I was standing in the playground. I looked down to see an eleven year old boy from my class was looking up at me.
I answered him directly.
“Yes, when I was a student. I smoked marijuana a couple of times.”
In for a penny, in for a pound…
“And on another occasion I took a drug called LSD.”
He seemed to be waiting for the next revelation.
“I was experimenting with friends. I soon found out I didn’t like the way I felt - marijuana made me feel sick and LSD made me feel dreamy and out of control. I also didn’t like the way my friends behaved, so it was all a bit strange and it frightened me. So I didn’t do it again and looking back on it, I really regret I did it in the first place.”
Actually, I was lying.
I had smoked marijuana on a number of further occasions that included times during the early years of my teaching career.
The boy was looking up at me rather quizzically. Did I detect a look on his face that said: “And you call yourself a teacher..?” I’m not sure. But he certainly didn’t look terribly impressed by my honesty… or lack of it.
These kids are not stupid and they easily see through us when we patronise them, so I’ve often reflected on that incident and how I handled it.
Did I think I would engage him more if I offered him what appeared to be an ‘honest’ answer? Did I think presenting myself as morally ambiguous might make me seem more human, authentic and ‘for real’? I may have thought I was offering him a ‘lesson in life’ but was I being a responsible 'role-model'?
Even now, years later I’m not entirely sure that I have resolved this issue to myself. But I do believe I had fulfilled the two criteria that I think are very crucial when, as a young teacher I was trying to resolve the tensions and dilemmas of how personal values begin to merge with a growing sense of professional identity.
I tried to put the interests of the child first. And though there was an obvious risk, I tried to use my example as a ‘mistake’ that I had come to regret. I hoped I was answering all three rhetorical questions
above with a ‘Yes’ - that he would listen more to a teacher who was flawed but at least appearing to be honest.
But of course I wasn’t totally honest. Why?
Because I was protecting myself, my private life, my reputation and my career.
How would you handle a question like that?
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 with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.