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