22nd May 2009 at 01:00

PROBLEM: I'm in my first year of teaching and a group of my pupils has found compromising pictures of me on Facebook. I've taken them down, but how do I claw back authority after this?

This problem is something that Belinda Langley-Bliss, headteacher of Wilmington Enterprise College in Kent, dealt with recently. After sending 61 pupils home on the first day of term for being scruffily dressed, photos from Mrs Langley-Bliss's younger years emerged from Facebook. In one, she commented on the size of her breasts.

Mrs Langley-Bliss wasn't available for comment this week, but she has changed her privacy settings and her name no longer comes up on the Facebook search. However, erasing such pictures from your pupils' memories or pretending it didn't happen is not as easy to do and is something that you need to address with the children involved.

"The only way you can redeem yourself is to make light of it," says Conrad Watts, a newly qualified secondary English teacher in Glasgow. "Say to them, `I know you've seen that,' let them laugh about it and move on. It's the same if you fall over in class - you have to be able to laugh at yourself."

Sue Allen from VisionWorks, an educational consultancy that specialises in social and emotional learning, agrees: "What pupils want is a real relationship with their teachers and they won't have respect for you if you try to pretend nothing happened," she says. "You need to be honest and straightforward."

This is undoubtedly an invasion of privacy, but your internet privacy settings are your responsibility and if you haven't restricted them it will be hard to discipline pupils for your own lack of foresight. Nonetheless, pupils should be made aware of responsible online behaviour, says Mrs Allen. She suggests talking to pupils out of class if they are being difficult. "While there's nothing you can do to legislate, you can teach them how their actions have an impact on other people," she says.

To ensure the incident doesn't disrupt your teaching, make a focused plan of action for your lessons, says Anna Carlile, secondary PGCE lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. "Plan and deliver two weeks of the best lessons you can design, to re-establish your confidence," she says. "This will help rebuild your esteem and will help with behaviour management, which starts with relevant and engaging lessons."

Familiarise yourself with the school's employment policy, which will have guidance on internet use and conduct outside school and check that you are protected. Ms Carlile advises telling someone senior about what has happened, but says that you should approach them with a plan of action so that you can answer positively. "Ensure that a trusted, experienced colleague understands the situation and go to them with your plan of action to demonstrate that you have prepared yourself for a recovery," she says. "The headteacher may be concerned that the NQT has brought the school into disrepute, but show that you have learnt from the mistake."

Your authority in school will have taken a knock and you need to get your pupils to respect you, regardless of the fact that they've gleaned an insight into your personal life. If pupils sense your discomfort it will take longer for them to forget about it.

This situation is difficult for any teacher to deal with, but it will be particularly hard for an NQT. New teachers should realise they are probably over-sensitive and that it will blow over, adds Mrs Allen. "We all make mistakes. We all wish the floor would swallow us up sometimes and we are more nervous in our first year of teaching," she says, "but this is a time where you can step up your own authority."

Next week: Pupils who are overly familiar.

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