The not-so-secret lives of teachers

6th February 2015 at 00:00
Extracurricular antics are fuel to the fire of playground gossip, but personal indiscretions can destroy careers. How can staff protect themselves when the line between private life and public property is so blurred, asks teacher Lisa Jarmin

Picture the scene: it's a moonlit night, the end of a romantic evening, and your date is just leaning in to kiss you when you softly breathe the words, "Oh crap, I've just spotted a parent", before pushing them into a bush and trying to act casual.

For a certain breed of parent, there is nothing more enjoyable than possessing some prize gossip about a teacher at their child's school. For them, witnessing a romantic clinch is equivalent to uncovering the Watergate scandal. So you do everything you can to deny them a front-row seat, even if that means throwing your partner into thorny foliage.

If only protecting other elements of your private life were so simple. Pesky parents and their children get everywhere. They tut as they spot you loading your trolley with wine in Sainsbury's or wave cheerily when they see you spilling out of the local club. They probably know your browsing history better than their own. Have you got a Facebook or Twitter account? It's safe to assume that your timeline has been thoroughly trawled for anything juicy.

It's easy to dismiss such intrusions as mere irritations, but unfortunately they could cost you your job - or even, in the worst case, your career.

Being a teacher is a bit like being a celebrity: every move is scrutinised and then exaggerated; wild speculation quickly becomes fact as stories enter the playground news machine. The expectation is that we should be like Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way (with no drink or cigarettes).

"I remember thinking that if I was going to be a teacher, I'd better conduct myself appropriately, start dressing like a lady and not have too much sex," says Kat, a special educational needs teacher. "I actually watched The King and I as research for becoming a primary teacher."

But is this really fair? The assumption appears to be that because we work with children, our private lives must be whiter than white. I would suggest that this is not possible, and that we shouldn't be forced to forfeit a personal life for the sake of our students, or anyone else.

He said, she said

If the worst consequence of errant behaviour were mere playground chatter, you might think it worth taking the risk and having some fun. But the consequences can be bigger than gossip. For starters, such infringements can affect your relationship with students. I'm a primary teacher and I know that parents have discussed my life in front of their children, which inevitably influences how students see me. Here are some examples of things I have been asked by pupils:

"Did you pay for your breasts? My dad says you did." (On a teacher's salary? Don't make me laugh.)

"Are you single because you're too flighty to settle down?" (Debatable.)

"My mummy says there's a baby in your tummy because you're looking fat. When is it coming out?" (I was 13 weeks into a high-risk pregnancy at the time, and my husband and I were in pieces because tests had just revealed a high

chance of our baby being born with severe special needs.)

Embarrassing and sometimes upsetting questions are one thing, but it's more worrying when parents complain to the school. Your employer has a duty to take any complaint seriously - and that can cost you your job.

You may think it only happens in extreme cases, but history suggests a disturbing lack of clarity over what is your business and what is the school's. Things you believe are innocent can land you in a lot of trouble.

For example, you'd think that in an age when celebrities pierce and tattoo themselves with reckless abandon, schools would be more liberal about appearance. But as a recent case demonstrates, this is not the case. A trainee teacher had conformed to a request to cover her tattoos, but a small part of one remained visible above the high neckline of her dress. The code of conduct at the school stated that staff with tattoos must cover them "completely". Unable to do this because of the position of her tattoo, the teacher lost her job, effectively because of how she looked. An HR manager at a Hampshire independent school (who wishes to remain anonymous) says it is standard practice for schools to exercise such restrictions.

But what about your social life? Are you free to drink wine in the town centre into the early hours with a rabble of good - or not so good - friends? Possibly not. A few years ago, a small group of teachers from a primary school went out on a hen party and spent the evening drinking, smoking and pole dancing - pretty normal activities for such an occasion. They shared photographs of the night on Facebook - also fairly typical. But they had not set their accounts to private; parents discovered the pictures and complained to the school.

On this occasion, management stood by the teachers but warned them to be more careful in future. Others might not have been so lucky, the HR manager says. "What a teacher gets up to in their own time is their business, but putting it out there for the world to see is not acceptable," she explains. "Teachers should always adjust their security settings so that only their friends can see what they post."

So, that potentially means no tattoos, no piercings and no drinking or socialising for teachers. The profession is suddenly looking like quite the buzzkill.

But what about outside interests that aren't classed as socialising? And how about dubious past career choices - are we allowed those?

It's an extreme example, but the case of Benedict Garrett suggests that you had better be careful here, too. Someone linked with his school spotted Garrett in a trailer for a porn film and reported it; the school suspended him, arguing that his conduct did not comply with what was expected of teachers. In 2011, Garrett was found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct by the General Teaching Council and barred from teaching for two years.

Quite right, you may think. But the ban was only for two years, after which he could have resumed teaching if he had jacked in his alternative career. This suggests that anything you have done in the past - bar breaking the law - will not have an impact if you toe the line once you are teaching. Yet there are plenty of examples of teachers' careers suffering when dubious stories (or often pictures) from their past suddenly pop up.

It makes me consider my own situation: I have a very sweary parenting blog (bit.lyJarminBlog) that can easily be found by searching my name online. Have I unintentionally signed the death warrant for my teaching career?

It's all very confusing and the rules are far from consistent. So where do we teachers really stand, legally? I decided to ask a lawyer.

A law unto themselves

Matthew Wolton is a partner at Harrison Clark Rickerbys who specialises in education law. He should be the perfect person to offer some clarity. Unfortunately, he can't.

Wolton concedes that there is no single answer to the privacy question; your rights are determined by the attitude of the school you teach in. And unfortunately, he says, attitudes differ greatly from school to school.

"I like to ask governors what their position would be in relation to various situations teachers could find themselves in," he explains. "I start out asking whether it is acceptable for a teacher to join an online dating service, which no one ever objects to; then I ask what happens if the teacher shares risqu photographs. What if it's a gay dating service, or a fetishist service - does that make a difference? It produces a lot of discussion and uncovers many different attitudes."

The question of appearance is a pertinent one. A teacher with prominent tattoos would be turned away from many schools, according to the HR manager, but she adds that some headteachers are more understanding than others.

Chris, a school leader from North Yorkshire, is in the compassionate camp. "I would have no issue with, for example, unnatural hair colours, as long as the member of staff behaved professionally," he says. "We need to be careful that our duty of care and management does not become controlling and intolerant of difference. Children are the next generation of leaders and community members and we are responsible for challenging their prejudices."

So if you are covered in tattoos and piercings, seek out a school with a headteacher like Chris. The same goes for any other aspect of your private life: find the right match for you.

"You need to think about the type of school," Wolton says. "Some behaviour may be appropriate for a secondary teacher but not a primary teacher, and faith schools are often more strict because of their focus on religion."

Of course, there are some matters that all schools agree on.

"Anything illegal is crossing the line," Wolton continues. "If you make the choice to break the law, you need to be aware that you are putting your teaching career in serious jeopardy. And it should go without saying that any inappropriate contact with pupils is unacceptable."

He advises that, regardless of the school, you should also exercise caution with your political views. "Membership of a political party is unlikely to be a disciplinary issue in itself," he explains. "What is far more common is that a teacher's actions - whether it's what they say in the classroom or what they post online - cause the problems, and their membership of a political party is used to put this into context."

Striking a balance

Not breaking the law and not imposing political views on students are restrictions that I hope we can all agree are acceptable. For everything else, Wolton says that common sense is the key to maintaining the right balance. "Teachers don't need to be saints," he says. "But they do have to realise that they work in a specific environment and have a duty to uphold the good reputation of their school.

"Always think before you act, and if it's possible that an action could cause embarrassment for your school, either don't do it or take precautions to ensure that your actions remain private. Then, if the worst happens, you may be able to prove that you took those appropriate measures."

He uses the example of compromising photos to make the point. "There is a huge difference between posing for nude pictures that will be put on the internet by a professional photographer and having intimate photographs of you leaked by a bitter ex-partner," Wolton explains. "It would be seen as predictable that the photographs in the first example may be discovered by staff or parents, and this would probably result in disciplinary action, whereas the photographs in the second example were always meant to remain private, and you are a victim of unfortunate circumstances."

Wolton says the same advice applies when considering actions from your life before teaching. "Think about the likelihood of past indiscretions coming out and, if necessary, disclose anything that you are concerned about when you are offered a job at a school. Tell them what you can do to minimise the risk to them," he says.

"For example, could you teach under a different name? It's a gamble, as they might choose to withdraw the job offer, but at least then all of your cards are on the table and you have demonstrated your honesty."

This might seem like a ridiculous length to go to, but the sad truth is that teachers are public property. We're expected to be perfect individuals leading perfect lives, and if a parent or anyone else discovers that you are not, there can be unpleasant consequences.

Behind closed doors

Does this mean we should forfeit our right to a private life? Not at all. It just means that we would should at least present ourselves as being as clean-living as possible. Get those privacy settings right, don't break the law, think before you act and try to avoid parents at all costs.

It also means respecting the restrictions but not living your life by them. And it means defending yourself with the full weight of the law if you have taken all sensible precautions and someone still makes your private life public. If we do all this, we should be able to behave exactly as we wish in our own time.

As for owning up to any skeletons that are lurking in your closet - well, it's entirely up to you to disclose your past if you feel that such a move is necessary. Unfortunately for me, I don't really have much of a choice - my blog is already out there.

So, if I may, a small plea: if any readers in senior positions happen to interview a mortified, mild-mannered teacher who nervously asks if she can teach under her maiden name because she once called Mr Tumble a very bad word on the internet, please go easy on her. I'm a great teacher. I don't want to change my name. Please can I still have a job?

Lisa Jarmin is a supply teacher in the North West of England. She tweets at @lisajarmin

Setting the standard

A Department for Education document providing guidance on personal and professional conduct can be found here: bit.lyTeachersStandards

What is your legal position?

Matthew Wolton, a partner at Harrison Clark Rickerbys and an education law specialist, writes:

A school has a right to terminate a teacher's employment if they have a valid reason for doing so. Obvious reasons include an inability to do the job and persistent illness, but the contentious ones in this context are misconduct and gross misconduct.

Misconduct will often relate to a breach of the employment contract or related policies. If the policy states that teachers must not make online references to incidents at school but a teacher posts something on Facebook, this is a clear breach and the school can invoke its disciplinary procedure.

Gross misconduct is behaviour that is serious enough to destroy the school's trust in a teacher. Coming into school drunk, making racist comments and punching the chair of governors are clear examples of gross misconduct, but there are actions that some schools would consider to be gross misconduct and others wouldn't.

How to fight back

What should you do if you feel you are being unfairly treated because of your personal life or opinions?

Your rights will be set out in your employment contract and any related polices. If you are unable to resolve your concerns informally through discussion with management, then you can follow the written grievance procedure.

This will typically involve sending a formal written account of your grievance to the governing body.

You will then be invited to attend a meeting to discuss the issue, after which you will be notified of the decision and your right of appeal. If you appeal, you will attend a further meeting and then be notified of the outcome.

In all meetings, you have the right to be accompanied by a colleague or teaching union representative.

Lorra, lorra laughs: when my 15 minutes of fame returned to haunt me

Tom Bennett, a teacher at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex, writes:

Your past isn't gone - it's floating in the electric soup of hard drives, video tapes and data clouds. We're slowly waking up to the horror of employers and first dates analysing our virtual footprints, discovering everything that we wanted to forget.

Twenty years ago I appeared on a dating show called Blind Date, which was like a chaste Take Me Out. At the time it was a ratings monster - it had 18 million viewers at its peak - in an era where most people flicked through just four channels.

As a witless teenager with little sense of perspective, I was a natural: I turned up in a silver jacket and snakeskin boots and camped it up on cue. My 15 minutes of fame spent themselves quickly.

Fast-forward 10 years and I've traded the boots for teacher fatigues. I was setting up a classroom after the half-term holiday when a kid I didn't know shouted "Heard you were on Blind Date, Sir!" at me. Unease turned to horror when I discovered that UK Gold had rerun the show over the holiday, and the teen network of East London wasted no time spreading the good news. A colleague had recorded the show and screened it at a special staff meeting, just in case I hadn't suffered enough.

Happy ending: the kids loved it, because it was telly. Getting on telly is like winning the lottery to them. I could have been filmed robbing an orphanage, it wouldn't have mattered. And face it: I signed away any privacy the moment I took the television network's shilling.

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