The Issue - When outside school, should you intervene?

31st January 2014 at 00:00
You're doing your weekly shop when you spot one of your students - shoplifting. What do you do? Our guide explores the etiquette

Many years ago, in a terrible nightclub, I spotted one of my teachers at the bar. I was 17. He was, I would guess, only about 25, so it wasn't particularly strange for either of us to be there (just technically illegal on my part). It did, however, put a dampener on my night.

I spent the rest of the evening desperately scanning the room to make sure I avoided him and worrying that he would report me to the school, thus ensuring that my mum would find out I wasn't really staying at Kate's house.

A decade later, I'm on the other side of the student-teacher divide and regularly find myself face-to-face with students in the outside world. The majority are polite, respectful and can be left well alone. But in other situations, you might have to step in. This guide will help you to navigate the etiquette of intervention beyond the school gates.

Fashion faux pas

Striking a blow for equality, teenagers of both genders put their backsides on display these days thanks to ludicrously voluminous jeans and barely-there skirts. When you realise it's one of your students letting it all hang out on the high street, the urge to march them to the nearest charity shop for a nice polo neck and high-waisted trousers can be compelling. But it's not your battle. Avert your eyes and leave this one to the parents.

Young love

Teenage romance can turn any pair of well-mannered young people into a two-headed monster made entirely of hands, tongues and spit. It's a metamorphosis that frequently takes place on buses, for some reason, and can turn the stomachs of unsuspecting witnesses from several metres away. It takes a brave teacher to break up love's young, disgusting dream. If you feel it's necessary, proceed with caution and be prepared for awkward blushes all round.

On the buses

Not content with using public transport as a scratching post for their sexuality, some young people also repurpose it as a mobile youth club, complete with music (from a phone), catering (from a takeaway) and the kind of top-notch comedy that elicits deafening whoops and yells. An intervention from you in this situation needn't be combative; they genuinely might not understand how irritating they are being. But they should. And - particularly if they're in school uniform - they need to think about the image they are projecting.

Pub night

Nothing takes the satisfaction out of a well-earned pint quite like realising that a posse of students is lurking at a table in the corner. If they're unaccompanied and drinking alcohol they are breaking the law, not to mention killing the atmosphere of your long-awaited pub quiz night. Then again, few of us can say that we didn't partake of a few tipples before legal age. Is kicking them out hypocritical? Or just responsible? It's your call.

Online dangers

With the awe-inspiring scope of the internet comes an unimaginable number of ways for students to get themselves in trouble. Internet use is notoriously difficult to police, even for experts, which means that bullying is evolving fast.

This may take the form of a spiteful Twitter exchange or a bitchy Facebook status update (both of which are public and painful enough). Or it can be even more intrusive, as private messages are forwarded or copied and posted publicly.

The law is still trying to catch up, but teachers must be faster and challenge anything we see that could cause damage. Even at the tamer end of the digital spectrum - selfies, video blogs and emotional oversharing - students should be reminded that their digital footprint is visible and lasting.

Sticky fingers

Shoplifting is sometimes misjudged as a trifling bit of misbehaviour - the cheeky rascal slipping a pack of sweets into his pocket - but it really shouldn't be. It's an offence that frequently results in a criminal record and may even end in a court appearance. If you suspect that a student is a thief, or catch them in the act, the only option is to follow up immediately with parents or carers and put a stop to it for everyone's sake.

Fighting talk

Fights are scary, even when you're not the one getting hit. Doing all you can to break up a fight in school is a no-brainer, but it's your duty to do the same outside the school gates. The imperative becomes even more pressing when you know the young person who is at risk of serious injury or death. Do whatever it takes.

Very few teachers feel that their responsibilities end at the gates, but we are not social workers. However much we love our students, round-the-clock care is not our job. Keep your off-site interactions brief and make sure they are guided by professional discretion.

As it turned out, my own teacher never reported me and I was always grateful for that. Perhaps he could tell that I wasn't going off the rails. Perhaps he didn't care. But my mum never found out I wasn't at Kate's house. Until now, that is ...

Zofia Niemtus is a teacher working in London


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