Teachers need to be protected - no excuses

12th June 2015 at 01:00

People in the public eye, like politicians, actors and musicians, often say they never google themselves for fear of what they may find. And if we assume that the statistics from teaching unions on online abuse are at least close to the real picture, it seems the advice may be just as applicable to people working in Scottish schools.

The figures show that two-thirds of teachers have been insulted online, and more than half have had comments about their professional competence posted on social networking sites (see pages 16-18).

Perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise - so many of our conversations now take place online, particularly among young people. Add to that the fact that many people use sites such as Facebook and Twitter to vent their emotions and you have the perfect platform for unfiltered opinions. No matter where we are or what we're doing, there's nothing easier than sharing it with the world in 140 characters or fewer.

So whereas pupils may previously have shared their views of teachers' performance anonymously, in the playground or even on the toilet wall, now they can broadcast them in the heat of the moment on Twitter, Facebook, Ask.fm or whatever the latest social media website is. The same, of course, applies to their parents.

Abuse in the virtual world is just as real - and upsetting - as unflattering graffiti. But asking teachers to deal with it in the same way is almost impossible, and ignores the most important characteristic of the online world. Gone are the days when, after a confrontation with pupils or parents, a teacher could close the door behind them and forget about it until the next morning. Social media, by its very nature, follows teachers into the staffroom, into their homes and even on holiday.

Not that the physical abuse still experienced by some staff in Scottish classrooms is any better. It takes only a few minutes of speaking to a victim to sense the impact an assault has on them - and why it can take over their life and become all-consuming. One teacher told TESS that she still teaches the pupil who injured her so badly she ended up in hospital. The emotional toll that must take is difficult to imagine.

So what can be done? Protecting teachers from all kinds of abuse is almost impossible. However, when we struggle to make it so, we must always remember that an online conversation is as "real" as any other, and that the same code of conduct should apply to teachers, pupils and society as a whole.

When teaching children and young people about the virtual world, we have to make it clear to them that it is not anonymous and it is not without consequence. Most importantly, we have to lead by example. We cannot expect young people to act appropriately if we ourselves do not behave with a considerable level of discretion and decorum online.

julia.belgutay@tesglobal.com

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