Teachers are human beings too, you know

27th May 2011 at 01:00

Aren't staffrooms fantastic places? All human life is there. They are the reason some of us go to school. Forget vocation or policy; let's get down and dirty with the gossip. It is just too good to ignore - and there is no such thing as a "staffroom super-injunction" to stop us. Sometimes it is the kids who we talk about. And sometimes it is our colleagues.

I will never forget Chris, sitting in a corner of the staffroom with his head in his hands. It was Monday morning and he was mortified.

He was a young teacher who worked hard and everyone believed he had a good career ahead of him. He had a family and a sense of purpose. Everything was going very well. Promotion beckoned.

But there was a bit of a do one weekend. Thankfully I am too old to understand all this, but what I do remember through the fog of years is that there can sometimes be hungry and insistent women. And Chris found one.

He became involved with Lucy the science technician during a disco. A drunken grope appeared to have taken place, though no one could be quite sure what happened, certainly not Chris. He was covered in small scratches. It looked as if he had gone through a hedge backwards. Perhaps he had.

However, what started on the dancefloor ended up as the only item of staffroom gossip that Monday morning. Different people saw different parts of it and they enjoyed putting it all together. Those who were not there were happy to add elements to the story, since facts were not required to stoke this particular fire.

The general consensus was that there was a robust and uninhibited moment in the car park.

Teachers were thrilled to be in school that day, even if it was a grey Monday. It was not just a scandal, but one that embraced Chris, who carried the hopes of a generation. It was a fantastic moment as far as the matronly knitters were concerned; they dribbled into their yarn, unable to believe their luck. His fall from grace was complete, the Anointed One no more. How they enjoyed it.

Chris certainly knew nothing about it. He had no memory at all, which I suppose makes the whole thing an even greater waste of time. If there was any pleasure in it, it passed poor Chris by.

Others tried to help, but the more he found out, the worse it became.

Of course, the problem for him was that soon the whole school community knew about it. How could he keep his indiscretion from his family?

Did it help that Lucy was a predatory woman? Throughout it all she seemed completely in control. Her quiet, smirking triumph was set against his consuming guilt. She knew that now it was his future she held in her hands.

The teachers - intelligent professionals - loved it. It was real-life drama, much more exciting than completing end-of-term reports. I was young and I expected better, I suppose.

But, of course, this is not about school at all; it is about work, about the randomness of human behaviour. It probably happens everywhere. And teachers are people too, not spiritual beings from a higher plane. They are just people; fragile, vulnerable, imperfect. And they do what people do.

Workplace relationships are always complicated and always liable to misinterpretation. They are certainly not peculiar to schools. How many relationships across the country, both permanent and temporary, began at work? How many lives have been subsequently enhanced and transformed? That happens wherever people go to work. So why are teachers expected to be role models, to be paragons of abstinence and virtue?

It is a hard thing to carry with us. Our own ordinary lives are fraught with complications, but it seems that we are unable to display human frailty.

Children are often particularly aware of their parents' weaknesses and indulgences. And are parents vetted? Is their suitability to be parents checked out? But teachers are expected be role models in ways that parents are not. Is it fair that teachers are expected to be better people than parents?

The truth is that teachers must always be circumspect. Certainly, when you achieve any sort of seniority you should stay away from staff social occasions. You need that distance if things go wrong, because when they do you will be implicated and expected to have done something about it.

And what of Chris? That image of him in the staffroom has stayed with me all these years.

He was consumed by shame and guilt. He needed to avoid Lucy, but that was impossible in a small school. His career there never really recovered and he had to move on, out of the town, to start again.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed School in Swansea.

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