Teachers are expected to be role models, both in and out of the classroom. When a Birmingham teacher intervened in an out-of-school argument and called one of the children involved "white trash", it was racial abuse - a court case and a reprimand from the General Teaching Council for England (GTC) followed. But what about teachers who are overheard hurling more routine insults? Or seen making rude gestures?
"You can't be on duty 24 hours a day," says Amanda Brown, head of employment at the NUT. "The question is whether or not an incident impacts on a teacher's ability to do their job. If you shout a rude word at someone driving too close to you, that doesn't really affect your professional integrity."
As far as out-of-school behaviour is concerned, the GTC usually only concerns itself when it breaks the law. "We rarely take action otherwise," says Fiona Johnson, GTC director of communications. So a run-of-the mill insult thrown in the heat of argument might not matter, but racial or homophobic abuse, or threatening behaviour, is more serious.
In many ways, however, the GTC is the least of teachers' worries. Increasingly sensitive about a school's reputation, heads may not distinguish between school and private life. "A member of staff was seen by pupils ranting and swearing in a bar," recalls one head. "It was clearly going to affect his ability to command respect, so it became the school's business."
In this type of case, your position depends on your contract. If there is a clause requiring you to uphold the school's reputation, you can probably be held to account. Last year, Katharine Birbalsingh, deputy head at St Michael and All Angels Academy in south London, made a speech at the Conservative party conference in which she claimed life in many schools was "totally and utterly chaotic". Although she was not talking specifically about her own situation, the academy sponsors felt it reflected poorly on the school. She was asked to work from home and has since left her post.
If political conferences are in the public domain, so too are TV appearances. In one rare non-criminal case in which the GTC took action, geography teacher Clive Wheeler was reprimanded over comments that were perceived to promote unsafe sex. The fact that his remarks were broadcast in a documentary was key. "It's a cause for concern if a teacher's behaviour becomes public in a way that is damaging to the profession," says Ms Johnson.
The NUT's Ms Brown adds: "Teachers should be careful not to discredit themselves, their school or their profession. But there has to be flexibility. Teachers are only human, and everyone has a breaking point."
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- The GTC's code of conduct requires teachers to "maintain reasonable standards in their own behaviour" See www.gtce.org.ukteachersthecodefulltext
- Homophobic or racial abuse is a criminal offence.
- Verbal abuse that causes another person to fear for their safety constitutes "threatening behaviour".
- If you wish to appear in a TV show, launch a website, or make a political speech, seek permission from your head.
- If you feel you are being unfairly disciplined for an out-of-school incident, contact your union.