17th April 2009 at 01:00
Problem: I'm a trainee teacher at a predominantly Muslim school and I'm white. Today a group of boys interrupted my lesson to pop their heads in and say I was looking sexy. How do I deal with them without seeming prudish or racist?

Race, religion, gender - there are all sorts of complex issues that come into this. But let's start with the basics. These boys disrupted a lesson and made a comment that was inappropriate. A clumsy expression of a teenage crush? It's possible. But the fact that the boys acted as a group, and made their remarks in front of another class, suggests this was a calculated attempt to make you feel uncomfortable.

Like many behaviour incidents, this one comes down to a battle for status. By calling you sexy, they were hoping to undermine your authority and score a few points. Because you're a trainee teacher, they were probably counting on getting a strong reaction - most likely embarrassment.

According to behaviour expert Paul Dix, of, the important thing in this kind of situation is to keep your cool. "Try to disguise the fact that you've been rattled by their remark," he advises. "Don't go chasing down the corridor after them, but do make it clear to the class you're teaching that you'll be dealing with those boys later."

When considering what action to take, your main aim is to discourage repeat incidents. In this instance, Mr Dix, who has experience of working in a Muslim school, suggests getting families involved. "Respect for women and respect for education are central tenets of Islam," he says. "Most Muslim mothers would be appalled to learn that their son was guilty of this kind of double disrespect."

Mr Dix recommends making a note of the exact comment, and then telling the pupils involved that if it happens again you will send the note to their parents. "Make a bridge between home values and school values. Make it clear that you expect the same respect from them as they would give their mother or an aunt."

No one wants to come across as a prude, and it's true that in this case the comment was relatively mild. Some teachers might even have taken it as a compliment. But let it pass this time, and there's every chance that the boundaries will be pushed further.

"Don't laugh it off or get involved in any banter," warns Claire, a history teacher in the South East.

"A boy once told me I had nice legs and I smiled and said thank you. A few days later another boy suggested I should wear a shorter skirt. It was still good-natured, but before long pupils were wolf-whistling at me in the corridor and leaving rude notes on my desk. With teenage boys, it's a short step from `you look nice today,' which is probably acceptable, to `cor, great tits,' which is not."

It's important to record and report every comment that oversteps the mark, regardless of how much it upsets you. And you shouldn't feel you're the only person this kind of thing happens to. In a 2006 survey carried out for the NUT by Warwick University, 40 per cent of respondents had seen pupils use sexist language towards staff, while 10 per cent said they had been victims of sexual harassment. Problems included comments about appearance or dress, use of mobile phones to photograph cleavage, stalking and physical assault.

"The more serious incidents all involved young female teachers," says Warwick's Dr Sean Neill. "But there were also incidents involving male teachers and older female teachers. The most worrying finding was that staff sometimes didn't report what had happened because they didn't think management would react."

By reporting all incidents, even minor ones, you'll force your school to take the issue seriously. And this isn't just about pupil-teacher boundaries. If pupils are making inappropriate comments to staff, then it may well be that there's a wider problem - so ensure pupils behave respectfully to each other and make it clear that sexist comments and sexual insults are unacceptable, whoever they're aimed at

Next week: Bad behaviour on the buses

DO .

. Follow up the incident.

. Keep a record of what was said and when.

. Get families involved. Most children will be embarrassed to repeat their comments.

. Keep pupil-staff boundaries firmly in place.

. If you're a trainee teacher, consult your line manager before taking action.


. Get flustered or take comments personally.

. Make light of a remark. It could encourage further comments.

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