Flirtatious and sexualised banter in school – it’s a minefield out there

There’s a lot in the news at the moment about sexual harassment – in Hollywood, in Parliament, at the BBC and in workplaces generally. Most of it relates to the sexual harassment of women by men, though much of the discussion acknowledges that of course, it can run both ways.

I think it does in schools too, especially in primary schools.

I have written about ‘flirtatious and sexualised banter’ in schools both in this blog and wider. In my view, whether ‘flirtatious and sexualised banter’ tips in to ‘sexual harassment’ is very much in the ‘eye of the beholder’ – that is, if the person on the receiving end of it thinks it’s harassment, it is.

At the heart of what makes ‘flirtatious and sexualised banter’ harmless to one person but menacing to another is the exercise of power. But where I think many commentators get it wrong is that power is not a fixed concept, but a shifting dynamic. It does not always reside with for example, authority, as such.

The idea that a hapless young woman who has recently taken up appointment as a junior researcher, let’s say in the office of a long-standing male MP, is somehow at the mercy of his authority and power is to miss the point. Yes of course, on the face of it – an MP is an employer with the power to hire and fire, in a nominally influential position with access to a network of colleagues and contacts. All of which the female might not and probably does not have.

But that ‘nominal power’ can be turned on its head, sometimes very easily and dramatically. For example, by being publicly embarrassed, challenged or accused giving power and agency to the person in the apparently vulnerable position.

I think many men in schools are in a vulnerable position – particularly young men in primary schools – where they are almost always in a minority and in many primary schools across the country, in a minority of one.

They will often be the focus of attention from female colleagues and female parents alike – complemented by banter, jokes and gossip.

To be fair, most of men teachers I have met over the years don’t think of this as being ‘vulnerable’. Most men I have spoken to think it’s rather desirable!

Many men who have experienced a lot of attention – which has included ‘flirtatious and even sexualised banter’ from colleagues and parents, have said they rather enjoyed the experience – thinking of it as ‘fun’ or ‘harmless banter’ as long as it remained ‘banter’ – though of course many people have met their long term partners at school.

Over my career, I can attest to that. But there were one or two occasions where it was less agreeable and my professionalism was seriously challenged.

One such instance was when I became a head teacher in east London in the mid-1990s. Within a few weeks of my appointment, a female parent started to take a significant interest in volunteering her time and energy to school activities. She became a school governor; volunteered to maintain the school plants, flowers, gardens; work in the school library; run school clubs and sports teams.

All good stuff one might think – and it was. But it also came with an increasing number of requests to talk to me privately and meet with me in my office, often with a suggestion that any unfinished business could be continued over a coffee or dinner sometime.

I soon became the butt of friendly but nevertheless embarrassing jokes from my sympathetic but relentlessly teasing colleagues in the staff room and with my office staff who would smile knowingly, often giving me a nod and a wink when this particular woman came into school to ask to see me about yet another contrived school matter – and often not taking ‘no’ for an answer either.

On the surface, I was the person with ‘power’ – a man with the authority of being a head teacher. But I was also a new head – finding my feet with new colleagues, parents and children and not wanting to alienate an influential parent who had considerable cache in the school community.

Her ‘flirtatious behaviour’ was obvious to anyone who observed it and though I never ‘responded’ to its intention – or my perception of its intention – my credibility and authority were very much at stake. I was vulnerable.

Flirtatious and sexualised banter in school – it’s a minefield out there – and in my view, especially for men in primary schools.

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 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.


The values of our profession are fundamental to your survival

Change is threatening and those who survive it are those who can adapt.

I’ve been in teaching long enough to know that Darwin’s dictum is true. I’ve seen over the years that it wasn’t necessarily the best, most talented teachers who survived to make a successful career – I saw some brilliant inspirational teachers leave after only a couple of years.

The rapid pace of change simply defeated them.

Those who went on to thrive and succeed were those who could adapt to the new and often exacting demands of the environment – whether that was a change in government education policy, a change of head teacher, the unexpected outcome of an Ofsted inspection or the stresses and strains of teaching a new and challenging group of kids.

But for those teachers who did survive to make a difference, where and how did they get the faith and the belief to do it?

In my view, the teaching profession provides three fundamental sources that underpin the faith to manage change: our identity, our hope and our destination.

Our identity as a profession is to know who we are and why we are different from other jobs and professions. Get to know what it is that makes teachers different and special.

Our hope is that we have a moral purpose in what we do. We’re trying to make a difference and to do a moral good. Well, aren’t we?

And our destination is that place where the lives of those we teach are better and more fulfilled through education. That place is not reached by exam passes but as an end in itself. We’re trying to take others to a different, better place – even if we can only take them as far as glimpsing it.

Where we come from, where we’re going to and why. These are the fundamentals of a profession with a moral purpose – like teaching.

When we really know these things as a profession we will have more confidence to adapt to change and survive it.

How do I know that?

Because I’ve lived through ephemeral government policies, ambitious and bullying head teachers, arbitrary and superficial Ofsted inspections and transient classes of difficult kids.

But the fundamental values of a profession don’t change. They will sustain you through good times and bad.

For those of you thinking of leaving teaching this summer, I hope you’ll think again.

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 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.



The Finsbury Park imam and the rule of law

“I’m tired. I’m tired of feeling scared. I’m tired of trying to explain to my eight year old child what is going on.”

They were the tearful words of a Muslim mother who lives near Finsbury Park mosque speaking to a BBC reporter after the attack near there on Sunday night.

Her eight year old child is back in school this week. Now I’m wondering what (tired) teachers will be trying to explain when children ask questions and express their fears.

Of course one of the ways that teachers can legitimately respond to such events is to distract children from the fear they may be feeling – my advice would be to suspend the ordinary lessons for a day or two and take them on a nature walk in the park or to an overgrown meadow or cemetery; organize some collaborative games, team-building adventures or play some competitive sport; let them paint, draw or make-up some role-play games.

Or just teach them what you normally would do, but do it so brilliantly that they are immersed and distracted by the sheer stimulation of your content.

However, such traumatic events do provide unique opportunities to teach fundamental values. You can call them ‘fundamental British values’ if you like – though let’s not argue about that – but ‘fundamental’ they certainly are, particularly in a civilized society.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by going back to the Finsbury Park attack.

When it took place, the attacker, alleged to be a man named Darren Osborne, was pulled from the van he was driving and apprehended by the angry and traumatized worshippers. Some started beating him – perhaps understandably in the circumstances.

The imam of the nearby mosque, Mohammed Mahmoud, in an amazing demonstration of leadership, stepped in and restrained the men who were attacking Osborne – ‘like a mob’ he said. He both restrained his fellow Muslim worshippers and protected the attacker from further harm until the police arrived and took over.

This amazing scene teaches us all a fundamental value – that adhering to the rule of law not only protects us but is there to deliver justice.

If, in their rage, the ‘mob’ had torn Osborne to pieces, it would have transformed the victims of the attack in to perpetrators of another one. As understandable as that might be on the level of human frailty; two wrongs don’t make a right.

If the ‘mob’ had torn Osborne to pieces, we would not have been able to establish through the due process of law, whether he had intended to do what he did as an act of terrorism or whether the victims and bystanders had misinterpreted the actions of a man who might for example, have had a heart attack at the wheel of his vehicle and lost control of it (in the way the driver of a bin lorry did in Glasgow a couple of years ago, killing six and injuring dozens).

If the ‘mob’ had torn Osborne to pieces, the victims and their families may have felt the temporary emotion of vengeance but they would not have had the benefit of finding out exactly what happened – the motivation of the perpetrator, how the attack was planned and carried out. Moreover, they would not have received the justice of a sentence reached by the due process of a court of law.

Mohammed Mahmoud has given us all a great lesson in virtue – showing calm, mature and humane leadership – but he has also demonstrated a wonderful commitment to the fundamental value that we all need to treasure – that of adhering to the rule of law, even in the most trying of circumstances.

He has done so in such a unique way that we, as teachers, cannot afford to miss the opportunity to teach our children the value of it.

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 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.

Let’s talk politics!

Let me explain where I am on Jeremy Corbyn.

Though I am a lifelong Labour voter, I was not and am not, a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. I thought he was incompetent and inept and that he did not have the qualities required to be the leader of a party let alone a government or a country.

But when he was elected Labour leader two years ago, I set him two tests. They were:

  1. Can he motivate young people to get involved in politics and actually turn out and vote?
  2. Can he bring forth left-wing social democratic ideas and policies that have not been heard for the last thirty years and persuade people to support them?

The answer to those two tests has been a spectacular ‘Yes’ and I have to take my hat off to him and give him credit.

Now what should teachers do?

I am not suggesting that they go into school next week and start talking about what an amazing result this is for Jeremy Corbyn – though obviously that might come up as a talking point.

What I am suggesting is that teachers recognize that in the right circumstances, young people are indeed interested in political issues and need opportunities to talk about them – to explore and challenge personal values, wider political and even so-called ‘universal’ values.

Teachers can be crucially instrumental in this – and they don’t have to be politics, sociology or citizenship teachers either. Without distracting too much from the pressures of covering a syllabus, teachers of subjects like history, IT, English, and all the sciences are teaching subjects with huge philosophical, moral and ethical dilemmas inherent within them.

Talk about them.

For example, start a debating society (if your school doesn’t already have one.) Let the pupils and students decide what the motions should be and let them manage it.

When I was at school – a largely working-class comprehensive school on the outskirts of Liverpool in 1970s – we had a debating society and no subject was considered off limits.

We debated abortion, euthanasia, immigration, gay liberation, apartheid, women’s equality. Scores of students attended most debates (and once, there was nearly a hundred) – so energized were we to argue for or against a particular motion; to challenge or defend accepted norms and values.

Over the last year I have felt very depressed about the political landscape in the UK and abroad. What with the disingenuous claims if not downright lies told us by both sides in the EU referendum, the so-called ‘fake news’ that seems to pervade social media and not least the terribly distressing political assassination of the MP Jo Cox – it has been easy to despair.

Now I feel proud again.

Not just of Jeremy Corbyn because he has defied my low expectation of him – but proud of the voters of all political hues across Britain and of the British political system for defying the low expectations some politicians and some newspapers had of our values and our intelligence.

Let teachers capitalize on this moment with their pupils and students and engage them in issues that affect their future.

Let’s talk politics!

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 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.

Have you got doubts about the Prevent Strategy?

In the wake of the Manchester suicide bombing, the former Daily Mirror editor and celebrity (?) Piers Morgan has called on the ‘Muslim community’ (whatever that is) to do more to alert the police and security services to extremists within their midst.

My initial reaction to this was: “Why does Piers Morgan think that the ‘Muslim community’ isn’t already doing that?”

Indeed, it has now emerged that members of the Libyan community living in Manchester – perhaps encouraged by the Prevent Strategy – but probably more out of having a simple, moral and social conscience, had reported Salman Abede to the police and security services on at least three occasions over the last two years because they were concerned about his behaviour, his associations and his bizarre protestations.

MI5 has now mounted an enquiry about what was done to respond to those concerns. Sadly, it seems – it was not enough.

But it is easy to criticize people doing an extremely complex job with very limited resources. Ask anyone who’s a teacher!

It seems to me the problem we have as teachers is not dissimilar to that of MI5.

What are we supposed to do when pupils, colleagues and even parents come to us with concerns that one of their friends, students or children is behaving strangely?

What do we do when a student suddenly starts expressing extreme religious beliefs, shows an unhealthy interest in violent or extreme ideology or expresses opinions that advocate violent extremism?

Many people have been critical of applying the Prevent Strategy of ‘Notice, Check, Share’ because it ‘targets and victimizes the Muslim community’. Some – including politicians like Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham – have even branded it as ‘toxic.’ Some teacher unions have rejected it as a cack-handed blunt instrument that puts teachers in the invidious position of snooping on their students.

Do teachers not have a role in safeguarding young people?

To me, the role of teachers in relation alerting authorities to the dangers of students being drawn into violent extremism is no different than if those students were in danger of being drawn into sexual exploitation or drug gangs.

If you saw for example, a fourteen-year old female student from your school behaving precociously with, let’s say a mini-cab driver, and seemingly accepting an invitation to get into the car of an older man whom you thought was not a relative, would you not think that was a matter of concern?

If some students told you that another student had brought a knife into school or had possession of illegal drugs, would you not think that was a matter on which to take immediate, direct action?

I hope you would. I also hope you would not think that simply to notice something untoward was ‘targeting a community’ or ‘snooping’ on the private life of a student.

If you see or hear something you’re not happy with you would obviously check that what you saw or heard had some credence. You might want to check with the student themselves, or check with a colleague who knows them better or check with their friends or check with their parents that what you have seen or heard is not untoward.

Of course you may have got the wrong end of the stick.

But you might not have.

If your concerns are not allayed or explained, you will want to share them with other colleagues, possibly and perhaps likely, share them with your colleague who is trained and designated for safeguarding, who may be able to provide more information or a more nuanced assessment of what you have heard or seen.

Surely to notice, check, share is not to target, victimise or snoop. It is the professional role of a responsible teacher.

Our role is to be in loco parentis‘in place of the parent.’

All our actions as teachers are judged – by law – as if we are a responsible parent.

If you have any doubt about applying the Prevent Strategy to any given situation – think about what ‘a responsible parent’ would do in that situation.

Then you have your answer.

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 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.

What is to be done when a terrorist atrocity takes place?

When a terrorist atrocity takes place, such as the targeting of children at a pop concert or young people enjoying a night out, one wonders what questions will be going through the minds of children going into school and how teachers can even begin to respond to their fears.

But respond we must.

The role of a teacher at such a time is absolutely fundamental to the well-being and security children have a right to expect. They will need to ask questions, express fear and even anger.

But that will only be their immediate and initial response. Like grief, this part of the process will soon pass, though teachers need to allow for this and accommodate it as part of their role as pastoral mentors.

Schools, teachers and children will quickly get back to teaching their subjects.

What is to be done then?

Teachers must also respond in the long term – and that means teach values that promote and support the understanding and acceptance of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance.

How is this to be done?

Well, not by doing it in a ‘moral panic’ or with a series of ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ reactions to a single terrorist incident or by staging tokenistic gestures to try and convince Ofsted inspectors that the school is promoting ‘fundamental British values’.

We do it by embedding – every day and every week – a wide range of good quality spiritual, moral, social and cultural education experiences throughout the school.

For example (and these are all questions posed positively by a group of teacher trainees I met this week):

  • Do the children in your school democratically elect a school council or have some responsibility for some real decisions that can affect their school lives?
  • Do the children in your school have the opportunity to inform and shape the class and school rules that protect us all?
  • Do children in your school appreciate and understand their individual freedoms – such as their right to own property, choose what to eat or wear, choose their own friends, travel freely or have the right to an education irrespective of their race or gender?
  • Do the children in your school have the opportunity to learn and practice mutual respect, like learning to debate difficult issues where they have to listen respectfully to challenging arguments – tolerate different opinions even if they fundamentally disagree with them – and then learn how to respectfully challenge them in return?

Not only is this what every school and every teacher is expected to provide as part of the National Curriculum, but it is the moral and ethical purpose of every person that can proudly call them self a teacher.

It is also the way that we will all – in school and in society – overcome fear with hope, defeat terror with peace and security and ultimately transform hatred into love.

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 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.

Schools meals are a ‘fundamental British value’

The Conservatives will do away with free school lunches for many primary school children in England (except for the poorest) and provide breakfasts instead, if (and when) they are re-elected.

I agree with Jamie Oliver about this –school lunches are often the main and sometimes the only nutritious and balanced meal of the day for some children. They also provide an opportunity for children to engage socially with their peers.

My issue about this is not a political one – it’s a professional one. In my view, teachers should be involved – they should sit and have lunch in the school dining room with the children and senior teachers should be involved in all aspects of how that service is delivered.

I know many teachers will say they haven’t got the time to do that (and they are right of course) or that they don’t want to eat school lunches (and why would they, when too many meals are so unappetizing and children can be noisy and sometimes ill-mannered).

But just let me tell you how it used to be…

First, when I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s (and don’t think that nothing worked in those days, school dinners certainly did) – I sat with five of my peers around a table – this is both at primary and secondary school) that had a space reserved for a teacher.

Every day we would beg teachers to come and sit on our table, we enjoyed their company so much. It wasn’t seen as anything other than a social pleasure.

Children laid the tables. They volunteered to do it, week by week, during playtimes. They were paid ‘pocket money’ by the kitchen staff. We all took turns and loved it, the pocket money was just a bonus.

In those days, it was always meat and two veg everyday (vegetarianism was still unknown, or at best slightly cranky) and plenty of pudding – everything made fresh on-site. There was never chips or pizza on the menu. I particularly remember the tender beef slices served up with huge roast potatoes, greens and lashings of rich, brown gravy. ‘Cheese pie” was another of my favourites – that came with fresh mashed potatoes and baked beans.

There was no choice of course – you got what you were given.

But not only were the tables laid by children, two children would go up to the serving hatches to bring trays of ceramic plates and bowls and steel knives, forks and spoons to the table – real dishes and cutlery, not plastic ones.

Then they’d go back for tureens of hot food and hot jugs of gravy or sauce. I remember the occasional dropped one – but I can’t remember any dramas – it was cleared up and replaced with no crisis about ‘health and safety’.

We passed the tureens of food from one to the other – learning not to take too much, learning not to eat too much, learning the manners of dining with others. We poured each other water into glass beakers. ‘Seconds’ were usually available to those who asked politely.

As we finished, those children who had brought the food to the table were relieved of their duties and two others took responsibility for tidying up the dishes and the table.

Of course, there are people reading this who remember school dinners as nothing but disgusting – offal, boiled spuds and lumpy custard. I can’t say that every school cook in the country was as good as the ones I had. But this was true in every primary and secondary school I went to.

But I realized when I became a teacher that this was not an issue of ‘council policy’ but about ‘school policy’ and a very much a professional one that teachers could do something about – if they wanted to.

When I first entered teaching in 1979, school meals services were still very much like I’d experienced in my school days. But by the late 1980s, things had begun to change.

The ‘free’ meal that teachers received for sitting with children during lunchtime had gone. Government cuts meant teachers now had to pay for the privilege. They usually chose not to.

Children were allowed to bring in packed lunches – which were of course ‘cold’ and usually not balanced or often even healthy – sandwiches, crisps, snack bars and sweet, fizzy drinks were the norm. Apart from the poor nutritional value, this fatally undermined the School Meals Service – fewer children buying school meals meant more cutbacks on staff and food quality.

‘Health and Safety’ meant all the things I’d described about sharing food that teach children fundamental social values had more or less gone. Food was served up on plastic trays with plastic knives and forks that looked like those you find in prisons.

I saw deteriorating behaviour and attitudes towards food generally and lunchtime in particular. I began to notice highly overweight and obese children for the first time in my life.

When I became a head teacher (twenty years ago), I did something to reverse the trend. I banned packed lunches. If you stayed in school for lunch, you ate a school dinner (now of course, with a range of vegetarian and multi-cultural choices). I banned fizzy drinks and re-introduced water at the tables and drinking fountains in the playground. The ‘dinner ladies’ wouldn’t let anyone out to play until they had eaten most of their meal. They certainly didn’t get seconds if they were discourteous, ill-mannered or wasted food. We were a faith school, so we said ‘Grace’ at every meal.

Just in that last paragraph alone, I’m describing the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education that every school and every teacher should be providing – not just as part of promoting so-called ‘British values’ – but in providing a proper education.

Good, nutritious, well-balanced schools meals eaten together – children and teachers together – is not an education or government policy issue, it’s not a political issue either (or shouldn’t be) – but it is a professional issue – and just as important as ‘what’ and ‘how’ we teach a ‘curriculum’ with ‘subjects’ in it.

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 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.