I met an ex-pupil recently. What a little sh*t he turned out to be…


Education, they say, is what is left when you have forgotten everything you learned at school.

In the days when school governing bodies still asked interview questions like “Tell us what your philosophy of education is” I would answer: “Whatever children learn from me, I hope they will take away a love of learning that carries them through life. That is my purpose as a teacher.”

Funnily enough, I actually really meant it when I said it.

Asked the same question, what would you say?

I reflect on my ‘philosophy of education’ more and more now that the only thing that people like Ofsted are interested in is “outcomes”. By outcomes, they mean measurable outcomes like SATs results of course. A “love of learning throughout one’s life” is a desirable outcome but isn’t a very measurable one, I grant you that.

If I were facing an Ofsted inspection like many of you are, I would play the game – as I did when I was a Head. I used all the right language and spoke to the same agenda about data for this, data for that, outcomes here, outcomes there. We don’t make the rules of Ofsted inspections, but we have to play by them.

The question is important though. What do you hope children take away from the education you have given them, once they have forgotten they achieved a Level 5 in Maths at Key Stage 2 or a C Grade GCSE English? – as forget they surely will.

In recent years, I have changed my ‘philosophy of education’. No longer do I believe that the most important thing children take from education is a lifelong love of learning. In fact, now I believe that might even be an impediment.

I came to that conclusion a few years ago when I met an ex-pupil of mine who contacted me on Facebook. He had two degrees and was studying for a PhD. He asked would I like to meet for a coffee. I was delighted. I wanted to see exactly how one of my protégé’s had turned out. Here, in living colour, was a personification of my life’s work and philosophy – someone from a modest working-class background who was a living example of a lifelong love of learning. (I probably taught him alliteration too). I couldn’t wait to see him again after twenty-odd years.

He turned out to be a little shit – arrogant, conceited, full of his own self-importance. Once he’d told me about how brilliant he was, how many degrees he had and how much his brain was bursting with rarified knowledge, I couldn’t wait to get out of his company (and it was in Starbucks, so he coffee was awful as well). Mind you, he may have thought the same about me!

It’s fair to say that this meeting wasn’t the only thing that changed my ‘philosophy of education’ but it did focus my reflections. Now I believe the most important thing that we can leave kids with, once all the other stuff is forgotten, is character.

I don’t know how to teach character. There isn’t a syllabus for it and it’s certainly not on the National Curriculum. I have not the first idea of how it can be measured, and I don’t even know how to define it – but I do believe it exists. I also believe that it is the most important element of being a good human being and that teachers themselves must have it.

I met another of my ex-pupils a few years ago (that’s Facebook for you ; -). She had left school without achieving much educationally, had got herself pregnant while still a teenager and was struggling to hold down a part-time job while single-parenting two kids. But when I met her, she was absolutely lovely – courteous to me, generous to others, especially with her praise and above all, a wonderful and loving mother to two delightful children.

“This is my teacher!” she said as she introduced me to them.

As a teacher, it was one of the proudest moments of my professional life.

 

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.

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

 

Teachers should be touching children. The younger they are, the more often they should be doing it.


I talk to trainee teachers up and down the country every week. I tell them: “You should be touching children regularly – and the younger they are, the more you should be doing it.”

They look at me as if I have just outed myself as a serial paedophile.

I must admit I know I’m going to shock them, but that’s only because as a society we have got ourselves into the crazy position of believing that such a statement sounds sinister.

Touching children is both natural, appropriate, necessary and desirable. Don’t let any fool tell you it isn’t. As a teacher, you cannot do your job effectively unless you are doing it on a regular basis.

In recent years, I have heard people who should know better (such head teachers, training tutors and union officials for example) “advising” new teachers not to touch children unless other adults are present. I have heard this “advice” given to men especially, many of whom are scared witless already about being a man in a classroom half full of girls (and they wonder why we can’t recruit male primary school teachers!)

The principle legal responsibility of a teacher is that of carrying out a “duty of care” where they are “in loco parentis” (in place of the parent). Unsurprisingly, the various legal definitions of this cohere around the blindingly obvious statement that “a person with care of a child must do all that is reasonable in the circumstances for the purposes of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of the child…” (The Children Acts of 1989 and 2004).

How can you do that if you can’t or won’t do the following:

Praise, Congratulate and Affirm:

Children need – like everyone else and more often than most – to have their backs slapped, their hands shaken or to be given a ‘high five’ every time they achieve something worthwhile. They want – and need – someone significant to acknowledge their daily achievement – not just with announcements in assembly – but the normal, personal recognition that human behaviour affirms through physical interaction.

Show, Demonstrate and Model:

As a teacher you can’t do your job effectively unless you are regularly using the most fundamental of teaching skills – that of showing ‘how something works’ or ‘how to do’ something.

If you are:

  • a PE teacher and won’t support a child attempting to position themselves doing a forward roll or other gymnastic movement;
  • or a Drama or Dance teacher who won’t hold a child moving through a scene or movement that requires it;
  • or a Science teacher who won’t guide the hand of a child learning to measure chemicals or carry out their first dissection;
  • or a D&T teacher who won’t hold the hand of a child to direct their use of sharp or hazardous tools;
  • or a Music teacher who won’t position a violin, cello or other musical instrument to show a child how best to hold it,

then you cannot do your job effectively. (Some would even say you might be a crap teacher too – but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

Comfort, Aid and Support:

Children need comfort and support if they are upset by abuse or the physical assault of a bullying incident. They need someone to support and sympathise with them – not just with words – but perhaps with physical contact such as putting an arm around their shoulder or giving them a cuddle.

And what about First Aid? – surely there are few more intimate activities than allowing someone to dress a wound or care for you in a state of trauma or semi-consciousness?

Direct, Guide and Restrain:

Children need to have their hands held – to cross the road, to be led into assembly or on visits out of school. Sometimes they need to be physically ‘guided’ out of a classroom when they are dragging their feet or dawdling. Sometimes they need restraining too – when they must be prevented from harming themselves or others or when they are causing damage to property. In any case where you would be failing in your “Duty of Care” if you did not intervene.

Common Sense

Let’s get back to using our common sense and reclaim the notion that teaching is a very intimate activity – both psychologically (what can be more intimate than trying to get inside someone’s head to motivate and inspire them?) and physically.

We all know when touching is unwelcome, intrusive or an assault on our person, privacy or dignity. If you are in any doubt that it may be unwelcome or inappropriate, ask permission – as any normal person would in any other circumstance.

But for teachers doing their job to the best of their ability, physical contact with children is both appropriate, necessary and often desirable. Don’t let anyone make it sound anything other than that. Don’t let anyone degrade or diminish the effectiveness of what we are trying to do by impugning sinister motives where there is only innocent and appropriate professional behaviour.

 

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.

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

Why should it be illegal for teachers and their students to have sex?


I’ve just been to New Orleans in the USA for a holiday – a very nice place by the way – so do visit if you get the chance. But what gripped my attention was not the fascinating colonial history of one of America’s oldest cities, nor even the progress the city was making to re-build after Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t even the captivating atmosphere generated by the jazz and blues riffs drifting up and down every street. It was a sex scandal involving two female teachers and a male student.

I was confronted with this news one morning as I stepped out to buy a local newspaper – something I like to do when I’m abroad – just to get the feel of the society I’m in. I strolled down a street in the delightful French Quarter and found one of those funny little American news-stands where you insert 75c and take a newspaper from the pile. Emblazoned across the front page of The New Orleans Times-Picayne were the faces of Rachel Respess and Shelley Dufresne who were accused of having sex with a 16 year-old student from their high school and had been arrested and charged with “carnal knowledge of a juvenile, indecent behaviour with a juvenile and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile”.

I’d hardly begun to read the story in detail over my first coffee of the day in a local breakfast diner before I heard the first comments drifting across the restaurant from local New Orleanians. To some it was the source of some rather risqué jokes about “What a way to learn your three-times table!” To others the news was a cause of outrage and anger.

I have written before how I think young teachers as well as students can be vulnerable to inappropriate and sexual relationships (see my blog: “What’s the problem with inappropriate relationships?”). Young, new teachers may be lonely, comparatively immature and when only a few years exist between themselves and their students, they can inappropriately allow friendliness to become intimacy. In this case, one of the teachers was just 24 years old. The other one however was a 32 year-old mother of three. They both denied the charges.

The young man involved was a quarter-back on the high school football team. He had bragged to his friends and team-mates that he was – allegedly – having sex with two of his teachers and that he had a video to prove it.

This case, like some others in the UK that have involved sexual relationships between teachers and students, raised a number of interesting issues for me – and not least, I admit – my own prurient interest!

But seriously, the first issue that struck me was that in the state of Louisiana the age of consent is 17 – a year older than the UK and two or three years older than some European countries (like Sweden, France and Denmark where it is 15 and Germany, Austria and Italy where it is 14).

Interestingly though, Louisiana has a number of so-called ‘close-age exemptions’. These are where a person between 13 and 15 years of age can consent to have sex with someone who is up to three years older than them. Another is that a person between 15 and 17 can consent to sex with someone two years older than them. Of course, there is no exemption of any kind for teachers, however close in age they are to their students.

The second thing that struck me was the severity of the possible sentences the two teachers were facing. In Louisiana “carnal knowledge of a juvenile, indecent behaviour with a juvenile and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile” are all, as you might imagine, serious criminal charges – what the Americans call felonies – and can carry a prison sentence of one to fifty years.

Though the young man was sixteen and was reported to have consented to the sex (he had bragged about it to his friends on the football team after all), he is nevertheless a minor in the state of Louisiana. So the teachers, if convicted, are likely to receive a prison sentence and possibly a long one if it can be proved they ‘groomed’ the student.

Though I haven’t been able to find out how long these particular laws have been in force in Louisiana, it did make me reflect on comparisons with UK law. (I did this over my by-now, mid-morning coffee… as you can see, free coffee re-fills in American diners have their advantages…)

I pondered that, in the UK, the law prohibiting sex between a teacher and a school student in the same school only came in with the Sexual Offences Act of 2003. Before then – as long as the student was over 16 – it was not illegal for a teacher and a student to have a sexual relationship. Now it is illegal even if the student is over 18 and an adult.

Bizarrely though, it is still not illegal for a teacher and a student to have a sexual relationship if they are at separate schools. As long as the student is sixteen and the teacher and student are at separate schools, it is not illegal.

I have no problem in deciding for myself that sex between a teacher and a school student at the same school is wrong. I don’t need a law to tell me that. I entirely agree it is a catastrophic breach of professional trust. In my view teachers should be sacked for it. I would probably even agree that teachers should be permanently struck off the teaching register for such a breach of their professional code.

But should it be illegal?

Why should a consensual sexual encounter or relationship with someone over the age of consent – and even an adult – be a criminal offence – with the attendant threat of a very heavy prison sentence?

Yes, it’s wrong. Yes, it’s a breach of trust. Yes it should a sack-able offence, even one that results in permanent barring from the profession. But should it be criminal?

Not in my view.

In my view, it is excessively punitive. I think we should look again at this law before it cripples the lives of more young teachers. They are making foolish and reckless mistakes but a heavy prison sentence and criminal record are not an appropriate response. The lives of the co-respondents, the (so-called) victims will also be potentially ruined as they will be racked with guilt for the rest of their lives for indulging in a relationship that would be perfectly legal with anyone else other than their teacher.

That’s my view. What’s yours?

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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.

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

What are British values? Don’t ask the British!


Whenever I meet new teachers (and most older ones too for that matter) I ask them what “fundamental British values” are. It is after all a requirement of the Teachers’ Standards in England that they are ‘not undermined’.

In most cases, teachers have not the faintest idea.

Even when I prompt them a bit with a helpful reference to the actual section of the Teachers’ Standards where it says: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” – many will even contest that these are exclusively British values, and say they are found in most countries.

I sometimes reply – respectfully of course – that they should get out a bit more and travel the world. They’ll soon find out most countries around the globe cannot take them for granted at all.

“Trial by jury… the presumption of innocence… Habeas Corpus… these are principles that the British played a fundamental role in establishing in legal systems throughout the world,” I say. But I can see my audiences are unimpressed.

I continue: “Then what about things like fair play… cricket and all that… our apparent enthusiasm for queuing… saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’… cheering for the underdog… starting conversations with the weather… apologizing when someone steps on your toe…? Doesn’t that show how nice we are?”

But then people think I’m being trivial and reply: “They may be British, but they’re hardly fundamental values are they?”

So I try again and suggest things that have been fundamental to shaping our history – “How about Magna Carta… the defeat of the Spanish Armada… the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo… the British Empire, for good and bad… slavery and its abolition… the Industrial Revolution… Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain… the establishment of the National Health Service..? Don’t they reflect various aspects of fundamental British values?”

But still people argue with me. “Every country has proud and shameful events in its history. Why should Britain think it’s any different?”

I press on (being ever the optimist) and suggest perhaps that our values are reflected in our artistic culture and heritage? “What about the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, the paintings of Turner, the plays of Shakespeare, the music of The Beatles, the BBC, the Edinburgh Festival, Glastonbury..?”

I’m fighting a losing battle, I can see. I continue to try to convince my unimpressed audiences how our global reputation for science is surely a reflection of fundamental values: “The Laws of Newton… Darwin’s Origin of Species… the discovery of penicillin and DNA..?” Now I almost sound like I’m pleading.

Then in sheer desperation, I reel off: “Fish and chips, a nice cup of tea, a pint in the pub…!” but all to no avail.

It is very striking how – almost without exception – no ‘indigenous’ British people in my audiences can offer much of an answer as to what fundamental British values are or how they are reflected in our history, law, science or even popular culture let alone our artistic heritage. Much less how we are shaped by them.

But whenever there are foreigners in the audience. It’s a different story.

The first time it happened an Italian young woman talked about British humour – how quirky and original it was. How she noticed that the British always seemed to be laughing at themselves about social class and snobbery. “What a society chooses to laugh at, is an expression of its values,” she said.

Last week I was in Liverpool and a Bulgarian student was first to pipe up when I asked the question. “I have lived in many countries in Europe” she said, “but it is only in Britain where I feel most respected as a woman.”

This week I was in Sheffield and another Italian woman said: “In Italy, I cannot escape that I am a “mechanic’s daughter”. It is like a label I cannot get rid of. But here I think whatever your father did for a living is less important to people. Britain to me feels a psychologically free place.”

Then in St Albans, a Dutch guy said “Britain is incredibly tolerant of other religions. That’s not true everywhere. Even in Holland if you’re not a Christian of a protestant denomination, you are a little bit suspect. Here nobody seems to mind what religion you believe in.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that we can’t easily identify what fundamental British values are. We live ‘within’ values after all and because we are immersed in them can’t identify them objectively the way foreigners can. Nor are we likely to agree. After all, the British values we will highlight or value most are those that reflect our own personal value systems.

But as teachers, I think we should try to identify the most fundamental of British values – and try to agree those that reflect the best things about our society. Shouldn’t we be proud of the best things we do? Isn’t it our role as teachers to pass on – not just skills and knowledge – but the fundamental values of our national identity to the next generation of our children?

 

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 and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

What can teachers be ‘struck-off’ for?


The new Education Secretary has announced that teachers who “fail to protect children from extremism” will face being struck off the teaching register without appeal. That seems right doesn’t it? We can’t have teachers “promoting extremism” can we?

Of course not! Where would be then?

A couple of decades ago, teachers were also told not to promote things. Then it was “homosexuality”. In 1986 the Thatcher government introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act and made it illegal for teachers “to promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Now that law is generally considered “extreme” and  “intolerant” though the law itself was only repealed in 2003.

For some years I worked at the now defunct General Teaching Council, which at the time had responsibility for both registering and regulating the profession. It was a thankless task with the 550,000 teachers in England – most of whom thought it was a pointless organisation and resented paying the modest fee – but we heard some interesting disciplinary cases.

Here’s one – a head teacher embezzled nearly £30,000 from school funds because she used the money to pay for the hospice care and specialist drugs for her terminally ill mother.

You can’t have head teachers fiddling the books even for reasons that might rend the heart. Strike her off!

These things always seem so straightforward until you get into the detail.

Actually she wasn’t caught taking the money out of school funds. She was caught putting it back in – and just at the point where she had re-paid almost all of it in the months after her mother had died.

What would you have done? Struck her off the register, never to teach again?

Here’s another – a teacher used the school’s computer and internet during lunchtimes to post comments on a political chat room. Not the worst crime in the world surely? Everyone uses work computers for personal use don’t they? I certainly did. Have you never read the BBC news website, booked cheap flights or even up-dated your Facebook status? And so what if it was political… we live in a democracy don’t we? Free speech and all that?

This teacher was a member of the BNP and posted offensive remarks about ethnic minorities and immigrants.

What would you have done? Struck him off? Are you sure your judgment isn’t biased because of his political views? Would you have been so damning if a friendly colleague had done something similar on the website of a mainstream political party – like those nice Liberal Democrats or those lovely Greens trying to save the planet?

In the talks I do around the country with thousands of new teachers, many ask me what are the circumstances where they might be “struck-off”.  Invariably they are surprised at the leniency displayed by the disciplinary panels at the former GTC and those that now deal with such cases at the National College for Teaching and Leadership.

So here’s a little exercise for you…

For which of these heinous crimes would you be certain to get a life-time ban? (Answers at the end… so don’t peek)

  1. A caution for being drunk and disorderly in a public place.
  2. Being an alcoholic.
  3. A caution for possession of recreational ‘dance’ drugs’.
  4. A caution for possession of a Class B drug (eg marijuana).
  5. A conviction for speeding at 100mph on a motorway.
  6. A conviction for domestic violence.
  7. A sexual relationship with a pupil over the age of 18 who is at your school.
  8. A sexual relationship with a 16 year-old pupil not at your school.
  9. Active membership of an extreme political party.

While you might not get permanently “struck-off” for some of these,  a conviction or caution might result in your employer dismissing you on the grounds you have “brought the school into disrepute” – especially these days.

My advice is: read your employment contract (particularly if you work at an Academy or Free School) and join a union.

 

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 and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

 

Answers:

Probably only Number 7 would result in a substantial or life-time ban – and even that is only as recent as the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Until then it would only have been considered ‘unprofessional’ but it was not illegal. Bizarrely, Number 8 is neither ‘unprofessional’ nor illegal. While most of the others may be illegal, they can be mitigated. Number 2 is considered a health issue, though turning up for work drunk would obviously be a disciplinary matter. As a matter of interest, the teacher disciplined for posting offensive comments on a far-right website is now the leader of the BNP.

 

“We are not a Christian school. We are a community.”


Thirty-odd years ago I was interviewed for a teaching post at the Church of England school where (over a decade later) I became the Headteacher. The Chair of Governors who was also the parish priest asked me if I had any religious faith. In my answer I explained I was not a “communicant member of the Church of England” but I was a person of religious faith and went on to refer to the school as a “Christian school” – at which point he interrupted me: “This is not a Christian school,” he said. “We are a community school. Our trust deeds of 1886 constitute it as such and we are here to serve all the community – people of all faiths and of none are welcome here. The ethos of the school is Christian, but we do not proselytise Christianity here.”

The school’s admissions policy reflected that ethos too. Its criteria was based the following priorities: first -whether existing pupils had siblings already in the school; secondly – residential proximity to the school; thirdly – if the family were practicing members of the Church of England or any other World faith; finally – if the family were sympathetic to the ethos of a Church of England voluntary aided school.

I was very comfortable with that policy. It meant the school reflected the community it served – which was Hackney – so we had Christians of all denominations, Muslims, Hindus and Jews in the school as well as (quite a lot of) non-believers. While Christian celebrations took prominence, other main faith events were celebrated and all the children and families learned something of each others’ beliefs in an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance.

Not all ‘church schools’ – as we called them in those days – had the same liberal and tolerant policy of course. Many practiced a much more selective admissions criteria which meant that some schools were an exclusive ‘club’ for a denominational section of the community – in those days this was particularly true of Catholics – though in certain areas of the country it could be just as true of others.

As a teacher, none of this bothered me very much. Even as the Headteacher of a Church of England school I thought the whole idea of ‘church schools’ was a generally benign but historical anomaly. As the parish priest explained to me: “The church provided education to the poor long before any government even considered it.”

Then along came Estelle Morris as the Labour Secretary of State for Education in 2001. She said that it made no logical sense for there to be Christian and Jewish ‘faith’ schools in a multi-faith society where there were Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who might want the same. So she liberalised the requirements to create ‘faith’ schools in the state sector.

I remember at the time thinking this was a mistake – not because I didn’t think other faith communities should have the right to set up ‘faith’ schools – but because she had missed the point. The reason we have Church of England, Catholic and even Jewish schools was, as my parish priest chair of governors pointed out, because they were providing education to the poor before the state thought it was its responsibility to do so.

Nowadays we all accept it is the responsibility of the state to provide education to all children. If we were setting up a state education system from scratch today, I do not think most of us – even those of devout religious faith – would start by setting up faith schools. I respect the right of people who want to send their children to a faith school, but I don’t think the state should be endorsing new ones with taxpayers funding. The old ones – as excellent as many of them are – are an historical anomaly. If people want new ones, let them fund them independently.

Now we have a situation where the state is endorsing the gradual increase – and in some cities, the rapid increase – in the separation, sectionalisation and segregation of society on religious grounds. Children are not being given the opportunity to mix and learn from each other in the way they once were. I don’t think that is any good for promoting community cohesion, let alone mutual respect and tolerance. Just look at the history of Northern Ireland.

As teachers, our professional values require us to promote mutual respect and tolerance of all faiths and of none. Teachers have a responsibility to promote and protect the values that underpin community cohesion. Even the clumsy Teachers’ Standards require us not to undermine fundamental British values.

We are not a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Jewish country. But we are a society – and the many communities that make up our society share fundamental values and many of them are fundamentally and in some cases uniquely British. Teachers play an enormous part in not only purveying those values from generation to generation – but also in defining them.

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 and book him for a talk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

Keep your private life just that… private.


Richard Scudamore, the Chief Executive of the Premier League nearly lost his job. He sent emails to colleagues that his PA found offensive, so she disclosed them to the media because she felt “demeaned and humiliated” by them. They weren’t referring to her or about her, but they were sexist and derogatory towards women, even though Scudamore tried to excuse himself that they were jokes.

If you send a confidential email to a colleague during school time using a school computer is it your message or the school’s? Is it private or public?

These days many people are arguing that such emails can’t be private because you have used school time and school equipment to produce them. But I think this is unreasonable.

Let’s say you were to use a piece of school paper and write a message using a school pencil to a colleague complaining about another colleague, the head teacher, a parent or even a pupil. Perhaps you make some offensive remarks about their appearance or personality. You put the message in a colleague’s staffroom pigeon-hole for them to read but your colleague co-incidentally sends someone like a teaching assistant or a school secretary to retrieve something from the pigeon-hole and they find and read the message. Though the message wasn’t intended for them or about them, they feel ‘demeaned and humiliated’ and they report you. Would you think they would be justified in calling for your dismissal?

Most employers allow a certain amount of ‘private’ email use as long as you don’t infringe company protocols. It is perhaps a reflection of how differently we think of email as a medium that most of us probably don’t now consider a personal email as ‘private’ as a personal handwritten note.

Teachers have been disciplined, sacked and even barred for mis-using school equipment – such as emailing offensive messages or posting racist and offensive blog posts. In these cases, all of these messages and posts were intended to be viewed publicly including those they might cause offense to.

Now the values of our time seem to suggest that if you are a professional person then even your private messages, actions and attitudes are subject to scrutiny.

Personally I think this is not only unreasonable but takes us down a dangerous road.

Teachers – and other people whether in a professional position or not – have a right to privacy especially when they’re personal messages, actions and attitudes are not intended to be public.

But of course – the onus is on teachers to keep their private life just that… 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 and book him for a talk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.