It's a harebrainer to fear pupils who laugh at you

25th April 2008 at 01:00
I feel sorry for James Campbell of Falkirk
I feel sorry for James Campbell of Falkirk. Who wouldn't? He is the teacher who took his school to an employment tribunal for disability discrimination because - before he lost his job - he was called "Baldy" by pupils. The tribunal judge ruled that baldness "of itself" is not an impairment, and if we regard it as such, then "perhaps a physical feature such as a big nose, big ears or being smaller than average height" might also be admitted as disabilities. And then where would we be?

Mr Campbell, however, reckoned that the children regarded his baldness as a "sign of weakness" and abused him. "How can I stand in front of a class with confidence when I think they are laughing at me all the time?" he asked, adding that because they called him names to his face, he feared they might assault him.

The case went on to consider other grounds, but the real and heartbreaking disability is revealed in that last sentence, asking how you can stand in front of a class when you think they are laughing at you? The answer is: not easily. Teachers need to suppress any such thought.

I wrote last month (TES, March 28) about the terror that grips outsiders when we come in to talk to schoolchildren, and our admiration for the fearlessness of teachers. Thinking back, I am amazed at the chutzpah with which some of my own pedagogues stood before us, complete with mad grey mops, weird noses, out-of-control busts, dodgy beards (both sexes) and clothes that would drive Trinny and Susannah into therapy.

Even as a six-year-old I remember being merrily aware of the way Mrs H's black roots reappeared beyond the brassy peroxide every couple of weeks. By 14, I had been distracted from many a biology lesson by hairy warts and hairless scalps. Children have cold, clear eyes. Even if Kate Moss took a class, half of them would be going, "Yeugh, scrawny." Even if Madonna taught physics, some of the little bleeders would be thinking: "Muscles, gross - d'you think she's a tranny?"

But teachers must learn not to care, and by force of personality and talent and interest, triumphantly carry the day. In my day, they all did. And do you know why? Because not one of us would have dared to give voice to these secret and inevitable thoughts. The thing that really does make your hair (if you have any) stand on end in the Falkirk case is the statement that children in the corridors regularly shouted "Baldy" at him, so he left school late to avoid them.

If this is true, sympathy for the school managers evaporates. Plenty of harrumphing is done about discipline standards in British schools; plenty of it is exaggerated. But if children get away with shouting "Baldy" or "Fatty" or "Lezzer" at the teaching staff, then you've completely lost it. It is no longer a school: because a school is a place where civilisation is passed on from one generation to the next. Civility is part of that civilisation.

If I was a head, and prevented by any form of mimsy regulation from stamping on such abuse, I would rather close the doors in protest than let my school turn into a mere holding pen for people who hurl insults at those who faithfully serve their interests. Staff who failed to report incidents out of a feeble desire to be popular would be in trouble. Children who insulted staff would be hoiked out and abruptly startled into understanding the error of their ways. Lines, litter-picking, shaming public apologies, suspension, whatever it took.

The thing is, it wouldn't take much. A few examples work wonders, as well-conducted schools know. Children could think, and privately say, whatever they wanted about my staff's imperfect appearance. To hell with childish honesty - there is a lot to be said for driving these perceptions underground.

Libby Purves, Author and presenter of 'The Learning Curve' on Radio 4.

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