Conduct unbecoming

9th October 2009 at 01:00
In the hot-house environment of the staffroom, it's all too easy to get drawn into a relationship with a colleague. But what happens when it all goes wrong?

It's not what you'd expect from even the most well-stocked art cupboard: in among the easels and paints, there on a wide shelf, were the head of art and an English teacher in what can only be described as a compromising position. "I stumbled out and went to my class minus equipment," says the unfortunate individual who discovered the couple. "I think the only lesson I learnt from that was how to be a creative art teacher without resources."

The teacher found the episode funny and embarrassing in equal measure. But after a rather awkward apology from the pair involved, she thought nothing more of it.

Dalliances like this are not always as easy to dismiss, however. Sexual relationships between adults in school can often be totally acceptable to staff, pupils and parents. But just as often they can divide opinion, destroy personal and professional reputations and throw whole schools into disarray.

When Jon Howard-Drake, a then headteacher, started a relationship with his deputy, Bea Bates, he ended up with a mutiny on his hands. Newspapers reported that as many as 17 teachers at the Misbourne School in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, compiled anonymous dossiers accusing the couple of using their relationship to create a "dictatorial" management style. A Daily Mail story went on to suggest that the collapse in morale was so bad that a series of teachers resigned because of stress.

The couple have since counter-claimed that it was common knowledge they were in a relationship in the school and that they always conducted themselves in a professional way. Both retired at the end of the summer term, and Buckinghamshire County Council refused to comment on the departures.

All relationships at work are open to misinterpretation, but stories like these only highlight the potential pitfalls. After all, expectations around teachers' moral standards both within and beyond the school gates are higher than ever, and teachers who flout vague guidelines surrounding sexual conduct could be putting their careers in jeopardy.

The recently revised General Teaching Council for England (GTC) code of conduct has already provoked fierce criticism from teachers who fear they will never be able to live up to its exacting standards.

Teachers have complained that the code, which demands that teachers act in a way that upholds "public trust and confidence in the profession", intrudes too much into their personal lives. Brian Cookson, a geography and enterprise teacher at the Friary secondary school in Lichfield, Staffordshire, said it was "practically demanding sainthood".

But staff should adhere to certain standards if they decide to date each other, says Kate Myers, author of Teachers Behaving Badly? and emeritus professor of education at Keele University - not least because they are expected to be good role models. And if their behaviour falls short of the mark, heads will have to decide when, if ever, they should intervene.

"A consensual relationship between two adults in a school won't always be clear cut," says Ms Myers. "Faith or private schools may have a different attitude from state or secular schools. They may respond differently to a relationship depending on whether it is a same-sex couple, if the people are well-liked, or if one of the parties is married to someone else. It can be difficult to know when it becomes the school's business."

Ms Myers cites a male history teacher who started a relationship with a female newly qualified teacher (NQT) at his school. They were initially secretive, but things began to deteriorate when they went public. Eventually, he ended it.

"She didn't care who knew how upset she was," he says. "There were tears and tantrums in the staffroom, notes left on my car and in my register where anyone could have seen them - even the students." Eventually, a senior member of staff intervened and spoke to the NQT, who became more discreet as a result. But even a few years on, they are still awkward in each other's company.

Although he'd be reluctant to date a colleague again, he may have little choice. There are no statistics about how many teachers intermarry, but anecdotal evidence suggests that plenty do. Although primary staffrooms are predominantly female, partners commonly meet in more mixed workplaces, especially in a hothouse environment like schools. The long hours and pressures of the job mean teachers rarely have the energy or time to find a partner elsewhere, says Ms Myers.

If the couple are single, discreet and heterosexual - and the relationship lasts the distance - there usually won't be a problem. But even then, pupil curiosity can become intrusive and uncomfortable. One teacher who had started to date a colleague found the pupil attention amusing and then upsetting.

"He had been married before and had a child at the school," she told Ms Myers during her research. "The pupils said we'd had an affair and broken the marriage. It was just pupil gossip but I hated the idea of them going home and telling their parents."

Peneli-Jane Grier, a science teacher at Myton School in Warwick, has been married to her husband Chris, the head of history, for three years and is currently on maternity leave with their first child. But when they began seeing each other, they decided to be open with colleagues and pupils from the start.

"From experience, trying to hide anything from naturally inquisitive children can only end in more questions and embarrassment," she says. "The need for professionalism was important and a simple answer, accompanied by a polite request for no silliness, worked fine. As long as we treated it as normal and unexciting, the pupils soon lost interest." But the more "exciting" or scandalous the situation, the more intriguing it will become to pupils and staff alike. Teachers at one secondary school, cited in Ms Myers' book, were unhappy about a male member of staff who left his wife for another woman. All three worked in the same school. About a third of the staff signed a letter asking the headteacher to take action against the husband.

The head refused, but promised to support the jilted wife, who was clearly unhappy. He also made sure that the status of the new lover, who was a head of year, was not undermined by fellow teachers. After a few years, the wife moved to another school for a promotion and the furore was all but forgotten about. The headteacher concerned clearly thought that the love triangle had little, if anything, to do with him, but others would disagree.

Any teacher who behaves in a way that would damage their reputation is opening themselves up for criticism and scrutiny. At another school, a now-retired head of sixth form cheated on his wife in a not-so discreet affair with a maths teacher. He left his wife for his mistress, only to ditch her for an NQT. He then went back to his wife a year later. As one anonymous teacher puts it: "I don't think it gives the right impression of our caring, family school."

In extreme circumstances, work relationships can ruin whole careers, especially in church schools that pride themselves on family values. In 2001, the head of Broughton Church of England Primary School, near Preston, resigned after admitting a string of "extra-marital relationships" in a letter to parents.

So if you do decide to take the plunge, how should you broach making the relationship public? One headteacher, also mentioned in Ms Myers' book, fell in love with his deputy head while both were unhappily married to other people. They started the affair in secret, but told the governors and director of education once they knew the relationship was serious. "We agreed not to discuss anything that might compromise our professional relationship with colleagues," he says. "We wouldn't go over SMT agendas outside of school or issues with staff we might be dealing with at the time."

The couple lived together openly, prior to getting married. But even then, colleagues became aware of possible breaches of professionalism. One teacher leaked a story to the local press claiming the relationship was a major factor in the deputy head's pay rise. Every other member of staff circulated a statement saying they had total confidence in the pair's integrity.

Sometimes it can help for a head to have a policy on relationships at work. Phil Karnavas, headteacher at Canterbury High School in Kent, draws the line if one or other parties is conducting an affair. "It's unacceptable and brings the school into disrepute," he says. He would also discourage fraternisation between adults of different levels of seniority.

"The problem here is the perception of favouritism," he says. "It'll often end in tears." Mr Karnavas himself met and worked with his partner for 16 years at the same school. But when he became head, she left. "Any head that takes advantage of their position andor is married and fraternises with another member of staff - who must by definition be junior in some way - is unacceptable," he says.

Mike Lambert, headteacher of Wordsley School near Stourbridge in the West Midlands, takes a slightly more irreverent view. He has been married to his wife, the assistant head, for 25 years. "I really enjoy working with Mrs Lambert because at school, I'm the boss," he says.

Slightly different issues can emerge if a teacher has a relationship with a governor or parent at the school. One married deputy head, who was acting head for about six months, had an affair with a governor, who was also married, with a daughter in the sixth form. "It caused the pupil considerable upset," says a teacher who was on the staff at the time. "She got even more upset when the guilty couple left their spouses to live together."

With or without complications, working together can be a blessing or a curse, says Denise Knowles, a psychotherapist for the relationship counselling service Relate. In the past five or so years, jobs and workloads have had an increasingly negative impact on people's relationships, she says.

"It's hard sometimes to leave work at the door, especially when you're struggling to hit targets or feel under pressure to perform," she adds. "People struggle to see where they are as a couple in among all the work. It's especially true in times of economic downturn because employees feel that if they don't work hard, they could be out of a job."

Those who work in the same profession can offer their partner a level of understanding. But even those with very similar roles in school can fail to empathise with their partner's individual job-related niggles and strains.

"You hope for understanding, but it's hard to know exactly what your partner is going through," says Ms Knowles. "If one teacher complains about having a problem with classroom management, and the other one says, `Oh, I find them easy,' then that's going to cause some frustration or resentment."

But having a colleague as a partner can also be a source of great support. "People often ask if we drive each other mad and only ever discuss school, but that isn't the case at all," says Mrs Grier. "I've only ever found it a comfort."

Myton is a relatively large school with over 1,600 pupils. Mrs Grier is in the science department on one side of the campus while her husband is on the other in the history department, so they rarely see each other during the school day.

"I think a couple would have to be very strong indeed to work in the same department," she says. "I can imagine difficulties in terms of making decisions and working hard to still involve the other members of the department, but I have seen it done. For us, we're lucky if we bump into each other a couple of times a week."

They inevitably talk about work at home, but never for too long. "It helps such a lot that we know exactly what the other is talking about and we can use our own experience to help each other make decisions, sort out problems and step back from situations."

Speaking about problems at home can help, says Ms Knowles, but teachers have to make sure that work doesn't dominate conversation. "Talk about it for one hour and then stop," she advises. "You need to become incredibly mindful about boundaries."

People with partners in other professions can face a different set of problems. "A partner needs to understand that teaching isn't nine to five with weekends off," says one teacher whose first marriage to a non-teacher failed. "My ex resented my holidays and overloaded me with jobs because he thought I was swanning about at home all the time."

If both partners are working hard with different timetables, they can become like ships passing in the night. "I see a lot of couples who live parallel lives," says Ms Knowles. "They may meet for the kids sometimes but ultimately they live independent lives. They are like flatmates, working different shifts and hot-bedding with each other. Suddenly they realise they don't know each other any more."

Of course, relationships can and do work with colleagues. And schools will generally survive the gossip. But staff need to consider how they will react should a colleague behave in a way that is "unbecoming of a teacher".

Headteachers in particular will have to decide where they draw the line. Will it be couples holding hands in the car park, having a cheeky kiss in the staffroom or going the Full Monty in the art cupboard? The reputation of the school could hinge on when and how they decide to act.

How to maintain a healthy relationship with a partner-colleague

  • Remember that when you're at home, you are partners not colleagues. If you bring home any superiority traits, it will naturally cause resentment.
  • Allow your partner to get things off their chest, but try not to tell them what to do unless they've asked for advice. They may just want to be heard and feel supported, not necessarily given all the answers.
  • Never devalue your partner's experience by saying: "I don't know why you get so stressed by work." It shows a fundamental lack of understanding about what your partner does. Even if you can't comprehend the stress, accept that it exists before seeing if you can help.
  • If you have to work at home, set boundaries. Give yourself two hours to do the marking. If necessary, tell your partner to come and get you at a designated time.
  • Invest time in your relationship - it needs to be worked on if it's going to survive. Do not let work get in the way of quality time together.


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