The answer to that is ‘Yes’.
In many circumstances, it will be your responsibility and your duty of care as a teacher to do exactly that.
But in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the debate about what constitutes ‘consent’, I’ve noticed how many people – and I’m talking trainee teachers here – confuse and conflate ‘inappropriate touching’ with ‘touching’.
(If I need to explain the difference between ‘inappropriate touching’ and ‘touching’ to you, then, with respect, you are not suitable to be a teacher and you might as well stop reading this article now.)
Some people view consent as always needing to be explicit. I don’t. It depends on what is being asked of me.
We all give our implicit consent a hundred times a day. Every time we go to a shop and buy something, every time we drive on the road, every time we sit next to someone on a bus or a train, every time we greet, question or speak to other people – we are assuming consent to trade, travel or engage socially.
Often this involves spontaneous physical contact which is a natural human behaviour that helps build communication, trust and relationships.
Requiring ‘explicit consent’ for every interaction makes life intolerable, unworkable and indeed unsafe.
Recently, a trainee-teacher in Sheffield said in one of my sessions, that teachers should ‘always model explicit consent before touching children’. They should always say things like: “Is it ok for me to touch you?”
Yes, I agreed, that’s fine if you want to use a child as a ‘model’ to demonstrate, for example, a PE technique. You might say something like: “I want to show everyone what a forward-roll looks like. Can I use you as a model to demonstrate? I’m going to need to hold you in a couple of balanced positions. Would that be ok?”
Of course teachers should do that – it’s just common courtesy, isn’t it?
But requiring ‘explicit consent’ as a ‘general rule’ is neither adequate nor appropriate to fulfil your responsibilities of duty of care.
Here’s a few scenarios – very common in teaching – for you to consider what I mean:
- Two kids are fighting in the playground. Do you ask them: “Is it ok for me to touch you in order to break up this fight?”
- A child in your class is scratching their forearm with a pair of scissors. Do you ask for their consent to take the scissors away?
- A child is having an epileptic fit and they are lying in a position that is dangerous. Do you wait for them to regain consciousness in order to ask their ‘explicit consent’ before moving them to safety?
If your answer is “Yes’ to any of those questions, then you are unsuitable to teach. Not because you’re not a ‘nice’ person (you might be perfectly ‘lovely’) but because you are not prepared to take the complex and weighty responsibilities required by your duty of care and by your professional status.
If you think you need to ask kids their permission to break up fights, you will not only be laughed out of the school by all the kids themselves but your colleagues will feel you are abdicating your professional responsibility. Parents (particularly of the child who comes off worst in the fight) will also feel that you have neglected your duty of care to protect their child from harm.
If you’re not prepared to take responsibility to properly exercise a duty of care to protect children from harm – by touching them without their consent – then don’t go into teaching.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for more than a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching professionalism and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.