Dear Ted

11th November 2005 at 00:00
Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

A male teacher I know gave out his mobile number and email address and then received an email from a female pupil with 'hugs and kisses', saying 'see you online soon'. Is it ever appropriate for teachers to give pupils such contact details?

Ted says

Alarm bells are ringing here. In the electronic age it is impossible to ignore the immediacy and effectiveness of mobile communications. However, the usual professional caveats still apply, probably even more so, because of the intimacy of the medium.

If it is essential to communicate with pupils or parents, say about homework or a field trip, then a school email address should be used, rather than a private one. Should a pupil write in terms that are inappropriate for the usual teacher-pupil relationship, action must be taken. The teacher should first of all share the problem with a senior colleague, such as the headteacher, deputy head or a head of the pupil's year group, so they can agree what should be done. This covers the teacher professionally and should avoid accusations of complicity or improper conduct.

There are sensible and sensitive ways of dealing with the matter.

Adolescents can easily get a crush on an admired adult. If this happens, teachers must be on their guard from the very start. My inclination would be to ask a trusted female colleague to talk privately with the girl.

Children can behave stupidly and taking the right action for them is important.

I would also suggest sending a confidential note to the teacher concerned, thanking her for taking action, again just in case something crops up later. It is sad that teachers have to cover themselves in this way, but there have been some unfortunate examples of innocent teachers being wrongly accused, and careers can be blighted in no time.

You say

Be sure to use a school email address

This is something that schools need to have a clear policy on. It would be easy for a teacher to get her or himself into all kinds of hot water through giving out email addresses or mobile phone numbers. Having said that, email is a powerful tool for communicating and exchanging work with students. For several years, I have given out my school email address to students, and, not surprisingly, the exchanges have moved beyond the simple "Here's the coursework, Sir". I would advise against giving out a private email address, as there is no need to, and questions would be legitimately raised as to why a school email address wasn't used.

As for private phone numbers, that seems to be a minefield. Could you ever prove that you didn't say anything inappropriate over the phone?

Leo Gilbert, Tooting

A safe email contact can be invaluable

I teach in a primary school and have a "teacher" email address. I set this up after taking a very ICT-literate Year 2 class and have used it ever since. We had spent the year emailing their previous teacher who had returned to South Africa and we had discussed email and internet etiquette in great detail. I think it is a good idea for children to have someone safe to email who can demonstrate good email skills.

However, I ensure that certain rules are adhered to. These include: only writing things I would say to the children face to face, only including topics in the emails that I would be happy for any parent to read, and limiting emails to approximately three a term, as I do not want to encourage over-familiarity.

This has been a positive experience for both the children and myself and the feedback from parents is that they appreciate having someone safe to whom their children can write.

Alison Reese, Barnet

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