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The naked truth about sweating it out with students

When the editor asked me to write about an issue that I felt was important, I knew exactly what it was going to be: should I allow my Year 11 pupils to see me naked?

Oh, and I also have a confession to make. I have shared a spa bath with a girl in Year 11.

Perhaps I should explain why.

The health club I attend had one of its regular promotions recently. The facility offers valuable employment opportunities in a vulnerable area of the country, so I am pleased that its membership is expanding. But this expansion does include some pupils from my school.

Leaving aside the fact that many of these are the exact same pupils most likely to refuse to participate in PE lessons, let us consider the bigger issue here.

One of the benefits of their membership is that the boys get the opportunity to see their 57-year-old teacher in a state of nakedness. It's not a pretty sight, and there are very few who would disagree. But if you use a swimming pool, you have to take your clothes off. Everyone knows this.

You must understand that I haven't had any problems about this. The boys are initially surprised to see me, then embarrassed. They are certainly far from happy about getting undressed in front of a teacher, preferring instead to skulk in the farthest corners of the changing room. This suits me fine.

There is a certain etiquette at work in the male changing room. We all walk about naked. It's inevitable. But we're all very careful about where we look. There are unspoken rules: it's something we don't need to be taught. But it certainly adds a particular frisson when you're sharing the space with the boys you teach.

They see me in a different light, I'm sure - especially since, as an adult, I show a confidence about my nudity that they have not yet acquired. It is an important lesson for them to learn. I'm certainly not embarrassed, but they are often shocked to see so much of me. However, as long as I'm a member of this gym, it's bound to happen. We share an experience, although an odd one.

Obviously, nudity strips everything away. People can see the person beneath the suit. That's probably why men always have such interesting conversations when they are naked and why the locker room is a good place to talk. There are no pretensions. You can't hide. Your status slips away with your clothes. Perhaps the boys see this, too.

They certainly see that teachers are real people, with exactly the same sort of bodies as everyone else. I think it's good that they see you as an ordinary person doing ordinary things. But does this nakedness make me vulnerable? Is this risky behaviour? What should I do? Give up my leisure activity - my exercise - because I'm frightening the children?

Thankfully, I have no tattoos, unlike many of the boys. Some have skin like cereal packets, which I find rather sad. But what if there was something about me that was distinctive? Would I have to explain how Year 10 knows I have a dolphin tattooed on my inner thigh? Would I suddenly be regarded as some kind of dodgy pervert?

So the question is, should I abandon what I want to do in my free time because of some unspecified and highly unlikely fear that I will be accused of stalking or grooming or abuse? Surely we just have to use some common sense. I go swimming. I take my clothes off. Deal with it.

What with school and now the gym, it seems I spend most of my time with these boys. Sometimes they go a bit over the top and I can see that they might seem threatening to the uninitiated - though really they aren't. The trick is not to take them too seriously - and certainly never to let them smell your fear. It's also best not to confront them until you're ready.

Of course, most teachers know this, but your average pool attendant might have more trouble. So what should I do when things get feisty and some of my pupils start arguing with a lifeguard, for example? Nakedness aside, this is really the age-old dilemma all teachers have faced. Do I get involved in pupil wrongdoing outside the school gates? Or do I say, 'No, this is my time' - even if I know I can go over and defuse the situation with a few words? If it's helpful to have that sort of authority on the poolside, it's even more effective if they're shouting at a cleaner in the changing room and you can amble over naked to sort out the situation.

I always report to my colleagues if I've seen one of our pupils at the gym. It seems silly not to. Indeed, I like to mention it in assembly. The possibility that I might do so keeps them all very attentive. It might seem pathetic to you, but it works for me.

So what do you think? Is such nudity a bad thing? I don't know, but it makes me laugh.

Of course, if I get social services camped outside my house, I'll let you know.

Geoff Brookes, Deputy head, Cefn Hengoed Community School, Swansea.

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