It is interesting that the recently reported NASUWT conference topical point of abuse and violence in the classroom comes as such a surprise to so many.
Teaching some students can be intimidating and difficult, and in some cases dangerous, but I don’t think the reporting told the whole story. Things aren’t clear-cut in reality, and that makes pinpointing and stomping out abuse of teachers a very difficult task.
Schools have a responsibility to their staff to keep them safe and I think (and hope) that most do. Having an open culture around behaviour and having clear systems in place helps staff to feel more empowered to deal with situations.
But we all know that, when the classroom door closes, there are some students who make teaching very difficult indeed, no matter how well you use the systems in place. Once you are in front of the class, it can feel like a very isolated place.
Student abuse of teachers: 'I was threatened with having my head stood on'
It is a common misconception that abuse is only something that certain groups of teachers endure. That isn’t the case.
In the past month, I have been threatened with being stabbed in the throat, having my head stood on and having unspeakable other things done to me. Why? Normally for asking students to follow instructions, ironically after they have been removed from class.
But where do you draw the line? What constitutes verbal abuse? Physical abuse is a lot more clear-cut, as often the parameters are more explicit. Of course, neither has a place in schools, but we can’t say that they aren’t present, nor can we naively say that there are clear, simple ways to eradicate them.
Context plays a huge part in any situation, and we all know that teenagers are complicated and emotional. Working with children means that you experience the good, the bad and the ugly parts of their development.
I have a thick skin. I have a serious amount of experience in conflict situations. I have formal training in restraint. I have years of experience in jobs that require physical intervention. And yet I still find myself in situations where I don’t feel 100 per cent confident in how to react. Never would I have thought this would be the case before coming into teaching.
In school, you know a lot of the time, the threats are nothing but hot air. Children vent in similar ways to adults, except with less control. The often hyperbolic outbursts are just a frustrated attempt to regain control, and in most cases are followed by a wind down and a grumpy apology.
There are those handful of times, however, where you think there is a real danger. Maybe not now, but in the future. Maybe not to you, but you see something that just signals a massive red flag.
In recent years, the confidence and – let's say – front of children has increased. Gang affiliation, county lines and various other elements have no doubt contributed to this, and the effect is visible in schools.
What pains me most is that we do everything we can in school to support these students, but quite often, as teachers, we don’t have the required skills and knowledge to intervene properly. Access to specialist help is limited (at best) in terms of funding and places, and that leaves schools in a difficult predicament – attempt to deal with the behaviours in-house, or exclude.
The latter part is a contentious issue and I don’t want to touch too much on it, but if we were to simply exclude all students who were abusive to teachers, where would we be? According to the NASUWT statistics, we’d have a lot more students who were out of education.
It isn’t just students who abuse teachers, and I’m surprised that this wasn’t highlighted at the conference. I find that parents are more likely to be aggressive and intimidating than their children.
Where in some instances you can put students' behaviour down to different factors, I find parents can be a lot more cutting with their words and actions. Direct threats aren't normally violent, but they certainly have more weight than those of students.
There is no excuse for aggression and intimidation in schools. But I find it hard to see how we are going to remedy the issues without the appropriate support and provision for the students most susceptible to these ways.
The author is a senior leader at a secondary school in East Anglia