Suppose a quick kiss is out of the question?

21st July 2006 at 01:00
A recent case of an 'inappropriate' display of affection towards a pupil has highlighted a serious dilemma for teachers, writes Gerald Haigh

Ever since the story broke last week about the Reverend Alan Barrett, the chair of governors who was forced to resign after kissing a child on the cheek to congratulate her, I've been applying my mind on and off to what for me is the main question. And no, it's not whether he should have done it or not.

For me, the incident has made it suddenly important to remember whether I ever actually did it myself. If I knew for sure, I'd be more confident about joining in the debate.

You see, in a teaching career that included being a house head, a deputy head, and ultimately a headteacher, and then a lengthy postscript as a chair of governors, I gave out far more awards, certificates, cups, badges, medals, colours than I could ever possibly add up. When we did swimming certificates in my primary school, for example, I always made a special fuss of the children who got their first five-metre award. Never mind that there were sometimes dozens out at the front to get their handshakes. For me, the first certificate represented that crucial, foot-off-the-bottom moment, replete with messages about life. For many youngsters, too, it represented a courageous victory over fear and physical limitation. There was never any doubt in my mind that every child was deserving of a word, a brief moment in the limelight, and a personal burst of applause.

Emotional stuff, you say? Of course it is. All of that stuff is emotional.

To stand, as their mentor, among children who are puffed with pride, waiting for their paper certificates and plastic medals, one eye cocked for their parents at the back of the hall, to feel the warmth coming from their friends in the body of the room, many of whom have been there themselves, is to live in a privileged zone. It is a special place, I have to tell you, where tears come easily, and words can be difficult to get out. You call a name - "Sam Jones! (let's say) "Five metres! Come here, Sam, and shake my hand."

Sam comes over and gets momentarily confused at the double challenge of shaking and taking, so you smile and say, "Now do it right, Sam. Take with the left, shake with the right, just as you will one day in Buckingham Palace." Sam smiles and glances to his mum and gran at the back of the room as he takes his certificate. His mum, overcome, calls something, and his friends hold their hands above their heads to applaud him.

Along the row of staff at the side of the room you catch a movement - two teachers leaning towards each other, smiling. They know what this means to Sam and his mum, and they're just having a wordless moment together about it.

Now ask me whether, ever, among all of the thousands of similar moments, I bent down and hugged one of those children, or pecked one on the cheek? God's honest truth, I cannot remember. I do know that it's certainly possible. The fact that I can't remember, though, at least tells me how natural and appropriate a gesture it might have seemed.

Physical contact with children (and how inadequate and miserable a phrase that is) has undergone a massive re-appraisal over the past 30 or so years.

Corporal punishment, formal and informal, has gone for good, and good riddance. In its wake, though, has come a reluctance to acknowledge the need to touch children at all, something that seems entirely contrary to the way that most teachers - in primary at any rate - see their work.

When my daughter was a young teacher, I found her in the classroom one day with a nine-year-old boy on her lap, having a cuddle while she read a story. The boy had lost his father in an accident a few days before and was desperate for a bit of warmth in a world suddenly gone very cold. And her son, my grandson, was also in the habit of climbing on his reception teacher's lap at story time. That's how I, she, and he, were brought up, and frankly I don't think we've ever felt the need to stop doing it.

Teaching children - especially young ones - without touching them is a concept that for me just doesn't work.

"Ah," you'll say. "That's hugs and cuddles. Lots of us do that. But what about kissing?" It's a fine line, isn't it? It's not something you'd do regularly, but for many, including me, in the right context it's far from unthinkable. That seems exactly to summarise the recent case. And for my money that makes it a million miles from being a resigning matter.

Gerald Haigh is a TES columnist and former primary headteacher

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