Teachers nervous on the touchiest subject

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Does the Scottish Executive think it is ever appropriate for a teacher to comfort a child by physically touching them? If so, what are the parameters and how shall we judge when the hand of comfort slides into something unsavoury?

It is a really difficult decision to call, so I understand fully the comments of EIS general secretary Ronnie Smith when he says that "in the current climate, when trivial and groundless complaints often end up in court, the only safe approach is for teachers to avoid even touching a pupil".

Readers of The TESS don't need me to tell them that our classrooms are now invaded by an ongoing spectacle of burgeoning political correctness. No longer, for instance, may we refer to a brainstorm for fear of offending sufferers of epilepsy. Everything we do or say is forced through a fine sieve to ascertain if it fits with the spirit of the age.

The Freedom of Information Act has also sharpened up what we put in print.

Everything we write must be couched in terms so bland that kids' files all over the land read like a one-size-fits-all approach.

It's hardly surprising then that if the written word and the spoken word are problematic, it's a minefield when it comes to touching children. Our blood chills when we read in the press of colleagues landing in court over allegations that they've overstepped the mark. We know that all it would take for us to be in the dock is one malicious comment from a vindictive child.

Whatever way you look at it, there's meagre support for teachers. Upset child -to put a consoling arm around them or not? Aggressive child who is threatening others - to physically restrain or not?

I turned to my daughters for their views. They recalled how, when in primary one, a prized privilege of story time was to sit on the teacher's knee. One of them also remembered being carried by the teacher when tired on a walk. What a brilliant start to school!

Anyone who can't distinguish between wholesome affection spontaneously given to five-year-olds and the unwanted attentions of a dodgy male teacher to teenagers is wielding skewed judgement. I'm the first person to sigh with relief when unsavoury teachers are removed from the profession, but there is something deeply wrong with a society which ghoulishly waits in the wings to pounce on innocent teachers who only have the best interests of their pupils at heart.

I smiled when I read the lead story in The TESS of September 2. Howard Gardner, in his exposition of his theory of the multiple intelligences, highlights the importance of interpersonal intelligence as the capacity to enter into an encounter and to recognise and respond fittingly to the feelings and concerns of others.

It is this knowledge of how others might feel that leads to a sense of rapport. Society also demands this empathetic capacity in its teachers yet, ironically, howls with judgement when teachers express it by placing a caring arm round an upset child.

Difficult although this is for teachers in juggling the intricacies of political correctness so that we avoid litigation, the real losers in all of this are the pupils. There are no easy answers. Are we are already too far down the road of suspicion to make changes?

Yet teachers, parents and pupils, too, need to debate these issues. Perhaps in common with many other areas in education, parents will have to sign consent forms saying it's fine for their offspring to be comforted if upset and that comfort may include a friendly pat on the back. Crazy, yes, but this is a world where common sense has truly bitten the dust.

There's only one thing worse than political correctness, and that's political correctness which paralyses children's lives. Blindingly obvious, don't you think?

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today