Are you a saint, or a sinner?

Some students and trainee teachers become sensitive to how their private life may be perceived once they start training to be teachers.

They talk of how, on teaching practices, they are careful about how much they drink in pubs and clubs and even where they socialise.

But recently one trainee stood out.

“If I’m a good teacher” he said, “what I do in my private life is no business of anyone else.”

He went on… “and if I want to go to pubs and clubs and even get drunk if I choose to, that’s my business.  As long as I can go in to school every day and be a good teacher, I don’t see why I should be answerable to what goes on 24/7 in my private life.”

I could see other students where pondering this when he continued, in a rather interesting and challenging way…

“come to think of it…” he said, “if I wanted to smoke a bit of dope in the privacy of my own home… I don’t see why that’s anyone else’s business. I’m not harming anyone… nobody even knows about it… I’m not selling drugs or taking them in to school… it’s done in private… I’m just relaxing doing something in my own home, so I don’t see what that has to do with anyone else.”

“Of course it does!” responded another.

“How?”

“Idiot… as if you didn’t know… smoking dope is illegal..!”

“Yeh, but it’s not a serious crime is it?”

“It’s still illegal.”

“Well I’m so sorry I’m not a saint… like you presumably…!  Are you saying you’ve never done anything wrong?  Have you never… let’s say… driven down a motorway at 80 or 90 mph…?  never jumped an amber light…?  never parked on a double yellow line…? never paid a car mechanic or a builder in cash to avoid the VAT…?

His ‘killer’ blow, I thought, came when he saw the blushes on the faces of his fellow students…

“Yeh… you see…!  At least if I smoke a bit of dope in the privacy of my own home I’m only harming myself… and the worst you can say about me is that I’m a hypocrit if I go into school and tell the kids it’s wrong.  Whereas you… driving down a motorway at 80 or 90 mph… or jumping a ‘stop’ light… you’re putting other people’s lives at risk.”

He raises an interesting challenge doesn’t he?  None of us are saints.

So if you are good teacher, shouldn’t your private life be your own affair?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for 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. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.

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8 thoughts on “Are you a saint, or a sinner?

  1. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether the illegal action is running an amber light or smoking dope in your living room. The fact of the matter is they’re both illegal. I don’t believe this kind of “private life” is one that emulates that of someone who should be helping to mold the minds of the children who are our future. In a previous post I stated that our beliefs should stay outside the classroom and we shouldn’t have to alter them and live in a guise in order to be good teachers. But I believe bad habits and unnecessary pass-times such as getting drunk or smoking dope are things we should all leave behind if we enter this profession. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t hurting anyone but yourself; what it shows is bad judgement. It is not a belief you hold such as a religious position or a certain attachment to a specific political party, it is, in my honest opinion, a pathetic excuse for relaxing or having fun and not a lifestyle that should be lived if we are entering the work force as role models to young people.

    Perhaps my two comments, this one and the one about political parties, seem rather contradictory, but I guess I just can’t formulate my thoughts clearly enough. I hope those who read them both understand what I meant/intended in them.

    1. I think this is an excellent comment and one which shows the ethical difficulties of trying to be a role-model and having to live a ‘normal’ private life in a free and tolerant society. I agree that both examples are illegal and do not set a good example to young people, so I’m not condoning them – but if we barred every teacher who committed relatively minor offences we would lose a lot of excellent teachers and perhaps wouldn’t be good examples of the ‘tolerant’ and ‘forgiving’ behaviour we may also want to encourage in our young people.

      In England we have a Teachers Code which you might be interested comparing:
      http://www.gtce.org.uk/documents/publicationpdfs/code_of_conduct_1009.pdf

      But don’t worry about confused thoughts Claudia… you are demonstrating an excellent example of how professional values are formed.

    2. You start by saying that teachers shouldn’t being doing illegal things (jumping amber lights, smoking pot) then move on to saying they shouldn’t be doing perfectly legal things of which you, personally, don’t approve (drinking). Where do you draw the line? And what about pastimes that you’re ok with but others regard as a sign of bad judgement?

  2. The dispute about professional boundaries has, in my opinion, gone too far. The revised teaching code from 2009 was worded in such an ambiguous way that it enables one to argue that almost any kind of behaviour, such as expressing a political opinion, is impinging on one’s own professionalism.

    For instance, I’m fed up with the government’s dogmatic desire to drive “attainment” in primary school. They want 7 year olds to know all about equivalent fractions, and yet blame teachers that children are not emotionally equipped to make society function smoothly when they grow up. If teachers are forced to spend all of their time teaching little kids about complex literary and mathematical concepts, the kids are not going to find it easy to be content and peaceful beings. Nonetheless, if I criticise the government’s poorly-researched approach to education, I can be accused of being unprofessional!

    My professional training and on-the-job experience informs me that primary education policy in the UK has its priorities in the wrong place, but should I dare to argue that publicly, it becomes possible to question my commitment (and professionalism) to the attainment of those I currently teach.

    It’s obviously more clear cut in the case of public offences which put others’ safety at risk, but the professionalism debate needs a lot more scrutiny. Teachers have a right to enjoy their lives, and not lead a life so bland that nobody could in any way make any negative judgement of any activity a teacher choose to involve themselves in.

    1. Thinking more about your post Lord Lumey, I have a couple of questions for you that I’d really be interested in your response to. You say the code was worded in an ambiguous way. Would you have preferred it more specific? Do you think that teaching should not have a code at all, and if so, what do you think the public perception of that might be? (given that most of us expect doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers etc to have codes of conduct and practice). If you have time – I’d really be interested in your views – thanks.

      1. Thanks for your reply. A code of conduct is a tricky area, but of course teachers do need to be role models and professionals. However, articles such as “Put the wellbeing, development and progress of children and young people first” are dangerously ambiguous in that almost anything can be labelled as unprofessional under this rule.

        I recall Ed Balls claiming, when teachers were threatening industrial action over KS2 sats, that teachers were not taking their professional obligations seriously by boycotting this form of assessment. However, teachers were doing it because their professional training and experience led them to believe that this was a harmful policy. It is incredibly insulting to be accused of being unprofessional when you are making a point solely because you are putting the children first.

        It would be problematic, but if the code were very specific, that would mean articles within it could discussed clearly. If people believe that appearing drunk is dangerous for a teacher (via social networking pictures), then why not explicitly state that you are being unprofessional if such pictures of you are directly available to parents or pupils? Then you could debate whether this would be a fair article or not.

        Secondly, I dislike no.8: “Demonstrate honesty and integrity and uphold public trust and confidence in the teaching profession”. The government’s approach to primary education is one I fundamentally disagree with. Yet I am a primary school teacher. Am I not allowed to openly question their bizarre dedication to pure attainment lest it undermine public trust and confidence? (I think the public should trust teachers – they do an amazing job – but not the politicians who force their narrow-minded ideologies onto the profession).

        The main thing, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is that discussion on the principles teachers should uphold is important, but I’m not sure that this code is clear of fair about exactly what is acceptable and what is not.

      2. Thanks for that Lord Lumey – very interesting. First, let me say neither I (nor the GTC for that matter) is an apologist for government education policy (as I’m sure you know, we are not a government agency but an independent professional body) so I don’t want to respond to the points you’ve made about government policy. I’m here to state the case for a code that expresses the values of the teaching profession, both to teachers as an affirmation of their values to the public but also a code that speaks to the public generally – so they know what they can expect teachers are trying to achieve.

        On the specific issues you raise with Principle 1: I’d agree that it’s ambiguous, but I can’t see how any code that anyone comes up with could be otherwise. If it was specific, I think it would be the length of a Bible. But I would say that Principle 1 at least expresses the expectation, that we would all reasonably have of any profession, that the interests of the client are paramount. I think we’d expect to see something in the codes of doctors, nurses, lawyers that would put our interests – as their clients – at the top of their list of priorities. (But do read our other blog on this Principle – it discusses exactly this conundrum).

        On Principle 8: again very ambiguous and the only one that refers to a teacher operating outside of their professional domain – so yes, even more problematic. Once again, I think doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers et al and teachers are held with a particular kind of regard and expectation by the public and are expected to be ‘role models’ to some extent. To what extent that is exactly is open to debate – which is what these blogs are about of course. In my view, no reasonable person should expect any teacher to be a saint or an angel, but i think we all expect teachers, doctors, nurses etc to be ‘role models’, to some extent…

        Thanks again – interesting stuff.

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