Mother of all problems

10th December 2004 at 00:00
How do you tell a colleague their child is a problem pupil? Janet Murray examines the problems of teaching staff's offspring

It wasn't the proudest moment of my teaching career, the day I marched up to the head of maths in the staffroom and announced that we needed to talk about her son, an underperformer in my class. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I'd made a serious error. The thunderous look on her face confirmed it. "I don't think this is the time or the place," she hissed, as colleagues bowed their heads, pretending to look busy.

Cringing with embarrassment, I asked her to pop along to my classroom some time, before scuttling away, with my tail firmly between my legs. When we finally met, I was full of apologies for my lack of professionalism. Having had time to calm down, she assured me not to worry, saying "When you work in a school, it's easy to forget where to draw the line."

It does present numerous challenges, not least the tricky task of managing the learning and behaviour of colleagues' children. While some teachers opt to educate their children elsewhere, others may not be in the position to choose. Difficulties with transport, geography and quality of education are just some of the reasons teachers cite for educating their children at their place of work.

This can be very convenient for the families involved, but as Beverley Williams* found out, it can prove awkward for staff. "Tony was one of the most detestable creatures I've ever had the misfortune to teach," says the English teacher, who works in Suffolk. "He was rude, lazy and obnoxious, but his mum, who was the head of science, refused to acknowledge that her darling son was anything but perfect.

"I tried to talk to Sue on several occasions, but she just wasn't listening. She'd gone through a difficult divorce when Tony was young and blamed this for the fact her son 'was a bit lively'.

"I couldn't understand her attitude: as a teacher, she had the highest standards of discipline, but as a mother, she was a complete pushover."

Ms Williams' story highlights the need for teachers whose children attend the same school to make a clear distinction between personal and professional issues. They also need to be honest about children's strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, says Geoff Wybar, head teacher at Gravesend grammar school, some find this difficult, leaving the onus on their colleagues to manage the situation. "The most important thing," he says, "is to treat colleagues' children exactly the same as the other pupils. Give them positive feedback about their child - without being sycophantic - but also being prepared to be negative when appropriate."

Giving negative feedback to colleagues about their children can be awkward and embarrassing, particularly when they are also regarded as friends. For this reason, Patrick Nash, chief executive of The Teacher Support Network, advises staff to seek support.

"This kind of situation should be handled in consultation with a member of the leadership team to give protection to the teacher and to ensure the pupil's needs are met," he says. "Educating the children of colleagues requires the same level of professionalism as teaching any pupil. It's important not to make a distinction between students to avoid allegations of favouritism or discrimination. Having a senior member of staff on hand keeps things very much on a professional level."

But Mr Wybar believes prevention is better than cure. "I always advise colleagues to contact the other parent, wherever possible ," he says. "That way, you keep people's personal lives where they should be - at home. Any resulting family discussions can take place at home, which cuts out the potential for embarrassment and offers some thinking time for everyone involved."

Frustrated by her colleague's relaxed attitude to parenting, Ms Williams decided to deal with Tony's behaviour away from school. Despite being separated from Sue, Tony's father was keen to play a part in his son's education. He was also more willing accept his son was no angel.

"At first Sue was angry with me for contacting Tony's father," she recalls.

"But even though they were divorced, he was still Tony's father. Sue was always saying to me 'But there are far worse students than Tony', which really wasn't the issue. I realised that an 'off-site' parent could probably provide a more objective viewpoint."

When dealing with the non-teaching parent, there is a danger of making colleagues feel alienated. But this is easily remedied says Mr Wybar. "A quick chat with your colleague when you start teaching their child can save a great deal of hassle. Explain that you like to keep personal issues within the home context and that you'd prefer to make the other parent a first point of contact if there is a problem or even something to celebrate. Most teachers will see the sense in that and if they don't, at least you know where you both stand."

There may, of course, be situations where this is not possible or appropriate. If this is the case, discretion is vital.As Mr Nash warns:

"The behaviour or work of children of colleagues should not be informally discussed with the parent or other school staff without following procedures which apply to all parents."

* Some names have been changed

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