Teachers are vulnerable to abuse by pupils. Kate Townshend looks at ways to tackle it
Since when did teachers become easy targets? Adult bullying happens in all kinds of work places, but something more complicated is going on when pupils are the perpetrators, teachers the victims and the classroom the battleground. Don't believe it can happen? Think bullying is just challenging behaviour by another name? For James Murray, a secondary geography teacher in the South West of England, it took personal experience to change his views. "I would have found the idea that pupils could bully their teachers laughable at the start of my teaching career," he says. "I coped well with behaviour management during my NQT (newly qualified teacher) year, so when I moved to a new job I felt confident I could handle it."
The reality, however, was rather different. "The other teachers in the school warned me that I was 'fresh meat'," he says, "and in my first week I had balls of spit-soaked paper thrown at me and my mobile phone stolen."
Such experiences will perhaps not be unfamiliar to teachers up and down the country, but for James a particularly difficult Year 9 set continued to push the boundaries between poor behaviour and something more systematic. "They were a noisy and demotivated group and when I tried to insist on a few basic ground rules, they took it as a personal affront," he says.
Just how personally some of the pupils had taken his attempts to impose order became clear over the next few months, and he ultimately found himself unable to teach over noisy discussions about his sexual orientation and suggestions of pornography that he might want to watch.
Although James set detentions and tried to involve his head of department, he feels he was provided with little in the way of support. He says: "Ironically, I felt even more powerless after I tried to enforce the school behaviour policy. The personal vendetta against me continued and I remember a girl telling me: 'We all really hate you.' I lost count of the number of times I was told to fuck off, and pupils would refuse to work and wander in and out of lessons as they pleased."
Unsurprisingly, all of this took its toll, and James left the school after only a year. He is taking a break from the profession and is still coming to terms with his ordeal. He says: "On the one hand, I know that what happened wasn't really my fault. But at the same time, my confidence in my ability to teach is shattered and I wonder if I will ever go back."
Jennifer Drew, 45, a humanities teacher, understands how bullying from pupils can contribute to disillusionment with the job overall. She works in a large secondary school in Lancashire, but admits that she is deeply unhappy as a result of her treatment at the hands of a group of Year 10 girls. "I have taught for more than 10 years and I know the difference between bullying and poor behaviour. This is the first time in my life I have felt sick at the thought of coming to school."
For the past few months she has been subject to a whispering campaign about her appearance. She says: "I am plumpish and these girls really know how to go for the jugular. I once came into the room to find Weight Watchers literature scattered across the desk."
Jennifer has little idea what has precipitated the campaign against her: "These are girls who are socially precocious and fashion conscious and I can only imagine that I don't fit into that ideal. They are also clever about the way they remark on my appearance and undermine me in lessons. I will hear comments when my back is turned, but won't be able to identify the culprit."
Yet Jennifer remains passionate about her vocation. "In spite of everything, I still love teaching," she says. "But if I were a policewoman or a nurse I wouldn't be expected to put up with this treatment. As a teacher I have as much right to feel safe and valued at work as anyone else."
There are things you can do to protect yourself and regain control should you find yourself in a position that is affecting your ability to do your job.
It is always worth seeking help and support from senior members of staff in the first instance, and logging incidents will help you keep track of the bullying behaviour. Your union should also be able to provide external advice and support.
The Teacher Support Network (TSN) runs a free confidential helpline, providing information, support and counselling. Patrick Nash, TSN chief executive, says that ultimately, however, a combined effort is required to improve things on a wider scale. "While we can help individuals cope with their circumstances, we need schools, local authorities and national government to tackle the climate that allows such abuse to occur," he says.
*Some of the names in this article have been changed
A TEACHER'S DIARY
Lara, 41, teaches sociology in a Lancashire secondary school.
A boy who recently spat in a girl's hair arrived in my lesson today. I told him to work in another room. He didn't like this and told me: "Your car has had it."
A significant minority of pupils blatantly refuse to follow reasonable school rules. Many argue continually as they know nothing will happen.
A girl has been continually imitating me over the past few weeks (repeating things such as "turn to p222"). I have started "modelling" her behaviour back to her, which she doesn't like and yesterday she announced in class she'd had enough and was going to get her dad. I said it sounded like a threat. Her answer was: "Yeah, well."
I am feeling desperate. I strongly believe by not acting firmly, we are failing the majority of well-behaved pupils and the badly behaved ones - we are allowing them to think they can behave like this and nothing will happen. We are supposed to be the adults with the knowledge and skills, yet allow badly behaved pupils to dictate to us what should be done in schools.