Stay shy of the cameras if you feel the urge to drop your pants in public

16th January 2009 at 00:00

Playing strip poker is not against the law. Playing it miles away from where you teach is advisable. The problems start if someone takes pictures. And if everyone is drunk enough to decide that it is suddenly very important to paint blue spots on each other and make Deputy Dawg ears out of oven gloves, the photographs will be so snortingly funny that they are unlikely to stay secret for long.

Fortunately, this particular group of teachers played strip poker long before the internet. Phew. Had they done it today, they might have run into trouble with the General Teaching Council (GTC), which published its new draft code of conduct in November.

Teachers will now need to "uphold the law and maintain standards of behaviour both inside and outside school". Oh, great. It's not enough for us to obey the law. We also have to conform to what people think teachers should be like - even when we aren't working. Bankers can lose our money and celebrities can broadcast filthy telephone calls about children, But we teachers had better say "No" to that second gin and tonic - or else.

But perhaps we shouldn't panic. After all, this is not as new as it seems. Teachers have always had to be irreproachable, and our predecessors had a lot less fun than we do. In my file of "Annoying things in history", I found these "Rules of conduct for teachers" from a Wyoming Board of Education in 1915. "You are not to keep company with men. You may not loiter downtown in ice-cream stores. You may, under no circumstances, dye your hair ..."

And, of course, you could not marry. Being a teacher back then was like being a nun, except that you were married to the school instead of to Christ.

So, yes, we have more fun than they did. But we also leave a lot more evidence behind. Pressing "send" can get you sacked, as a British teacher in France found when she emailed her Year 9s some funny holiday photos by mistake. They showed things like a fully clothed man sitting astride a rather phallic-looking cactus. Hardly enough to get her put on List 99, but she didn't work again for two years.

She said it had made her realise "how precarious life is, especially with the internet". Frankly, I think the cactus should have taken some of the blame. Well, have you ever noticed how rude they look?

The GTC's draft code of conduct is not unreasonable in itself. I wasn't reading it thinking, "Blimey, now they want teachers to uphold the school's reputation! Where will it end?" It's all just about being sensible and nice. Much of it comes from the Ministry of the Bloody Obvious.

Interestingly, there wasn't that much about behaviour outside school. I couldn't find any juicy examples in the appendices. For instance, where was the teacher who'd been caught riding the Trafalgar Square lions on New Year's Eve, wearing nothing but fireworks? Instead, we just had boring, school-based stuff - like falsifying coursework and lying on job applications. Woop-de-doo.

What this means, I think, is that the GTC really does not want to pin itself down in advance as regards this tricky issue of how it wants us to behave out of school. It just wants us to be good, please. Then it'll see what it thinks at the time if one of us isn't.

The good news about this is that each case can be treated on its own merits. The teacher who has one moment of madness need not necessarily be struck off. The bad news may prove to be that it is hard to apply the code consistently.

Consistency, after all, is what pupils demand from us. They learn more from what we do than from what we say. This is why teachers must do more than merely stay within the law. Waking up at a bus stop hung over and dressed as a prawn, you may not have broken any laws and you may not have harmed anybody. Actually, you may have made a lot of people very happy. But the issue here isn't the law: it's self-control. Lose your self-control - and get photographed losing it - and it is hard to command respect afterwards. And if you have to give a lesson on alcohol abuse, the class will sniff hypocrisy on your breath as strongly as booze.

Yet this still seems so hard on us. Teaching is so stressful that sometimes we need to let off a bit of steam. Not just from the workload, but from precisely this pressure of having to be good all the time. And it's often the least serious misdemeanours that are the most photogenic. So go ahead and play strip poker. Just put the cameras away.

Leave your comments on the draft code at

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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