Life in the school lane

14th January 2005 at 00:00
UNDER THE THRESHOLD: Decorum is expected from teachers out of school too.

When 22-year-old Sophie Goodchild* took up her first post as a mathematics teacher, she caused a bit of a stir. With her long blonde hair and legs up to her armpits, she tottered around school with an entourage of acne-ridden teenage boys behind her. It wasn't so much the belt-like skirts or the plunging necklines that worried her managers, but the fact she seemed oblivious to her professional status.

At lunchtime, Sophie was often to be found stretched out in the staffroom, catching up on her beauty sleep. Come Friday night, she was out drinking in the sixth-formers' most popular haunt. On one occasion, she was caught hanging out of her classroom window, smoking. Her managers were exasperated; she was exceptionally bright and had all the makings of a good teacher, but it felt as if they had a teenager on their hands.

Sophie's story may be extreme, but it illustrates the importance of developing a professional persona. Like it or not, teachers are expected to do far more than deliver the curriculum. In the eyes of the general public, they should also act as a positive role model for students and be seen to uphold values and morals.

"This is not to suggest that teachers have to be saintly, says James Williams, PGCE convenor at the University of Sussex. "But it's worth remembering certain codes and conducts do exist to protect staff and students."

At school, this might mean adhering to the dress code and choosing smart, professional clothes over the latest fad fashion. Good interpersonal skills are also vital. As Steve Thorp, director of operations at the Teacher Support Network puts it: "Telling everyone in the staffroom you were out clubbing till 3am is not the best idea, as is swearing or using inappropriate language in the school context."

It is also important to think about drawing boundaries between school and home, which isn't as easy as it might sound. It is inevitable you will bump into your students and their parents from time to time, especially if you live and teach in the same town, and that can feel like living in a goldfish bowl.

"I always seem to bump into students when I'm staggering around Tesco with a bumper pack of toilet rolls, or something more embarrassing, like condoms," says Mike Stone, a recently qualified history teacher at a secondary school in Kent. "One of my colleagues drove to the next town to buy a pregnancy test as she couldn't handle the idea that one of her students might also be in the queue - or worse still - behind the counter!"

And while it might be perfectly acceptable for those in other professions to stagger around the town centre after a heavy drinking session, a teacher behaving this way is likely to be frowned upon, as Graham Ashingdon, a science teacher from Manchester, found out. "I was out on a pub crawl with a big group of colleagues when we popped into one of the 'underage' pubs our sixth formers go in. It was my birthday so everyone was buying me drinks and I was absolutely wasted. When we got to this pub, one of my colleagues dared me to drink a yard of ale.

"Much to my embarrassment, I ended up throwing up in the middle of the pub.

I thought I'd got away with it until I got to school on Monday and the sixth-formers were all talking about it. I got a real ticking off from the head."

And rightly so, says Mr Williams. "Teachers are generally regarded as respected members of the community. Children want to be respected and to respect their teachers, but how can they if they see them binge-drinking or clubbing into the early hours? The same goes for parents - they don't want to see their children's teachers behaving like this.

"I'm not a killjoy, but it doesn't take a genius to work out where your pupils or their parents are likely to see you and where they're not. It's fine to enjoy yourself, even get a bit merry, but do it where they are unlikely to see you."

He is equally stringent on the matter of socialising with students. "The age gap between a newly qualified teacher fresh from their first degree or PGCE and their oldest students may be as little as four years. But even the smallest gap must be viewed as a gulf. That way there's no danger of crossing the line between 'friendly' and a 'friendship', which is obviously not appropriate."

Mr Williams also reminds teachers that they have a duty to report young people who try to get into pubs and clubs underage - even if, deep down, they think it is "just teenagers being teenagers". "Teachers aren't ordinary members of the public who can turn a blind eye when it comes to children," he says.

"The profession is all about the care and education of children, which means the law expects more from teachers than it would from other members of society."

* Names and details have been changed

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