When I was a younger teacher, I called a 14-year-old girl a prostitute. I didn’t know I had done until the head of year tracked me down, having just come off the phone to her aggrieved mum. “Did you call Jodie a trollop?” he asked. I had: I’d said, “Eh up, trollop, can you collect the books for me please?”
I came from a different part of the country, and “trollop” here seemed to have a very different meaning to the one I was used to; or perhaps my family just used it differently. Regardless, I’d made a mistake. I put my hand up, I called the mum to explain and the next day I caught up with Jodie.
Teachers make a lot of mistakes, sometimes without realising. As a leader, your role will include dealing with them.
If you’re lucky enough to have proper HR support, they will know what to do. Never go blindly into any situation throwing accusations around or trying to save the world like you’re Wonder Woman. At the very least, there will be a school disciplinary policy and a line manager to talk to. Spend time reflecting on what to do. With experience, you’ll get a better sense of what is appropriate in each situation.
The greatest variable is how serious the alleged incident is. Another big factor is the honesty of the member of staff. Some adults freeze when they are challenged, so it’s important to understand that the first response you get may be a panic-stricken, “It wasn’t me, guv’nor.” Also, don’t judge the severity of the issue on the volume at which the parent conveyed it.
The honesty of staff
If it is a potential child-protection matter, phone the local authority designated officer immediately and they will advise you. You may need to suspend the member of staff; you may need to call the police. Confidentiality must be maintained at all times and this will be stressful for all those involved.
At the other end of the scale are those infringements that don’t need any formal investigation (if you’re not sure, check); these may include not setting homework, not marking or saying something a bit silly. One science teacher told his Year 7s the world would end that weekend; it caused chaos.
When speaking to the person making the complaint, gather as much information as you can, writing it down. Ask how they would prefer it to be resolved (this doesn’t mean you will resolve it this way) and warn them that it may take a few days to get back to them.
Often it is a parent or carer; sometimes it is another adult in school – a receptionist who saw something or a teaching assistant who overheard a comment.
Sadly, there will be times when a staff member is at fault and they are not honest with you. If you are satisfied that you are being lied to, explain that to them. If other people you have spoken to have a different story, ask for an explanation.
Keep a written record of what you have learned and done, and summarise conversations you’ve had. Eventually, if you build up a series of small issues, a more serious picture may emerge and this must be passed up the chain.
The ideal resolution is that the member of staff will apologise in a way that retains their dignity. Sometimes you may need to offer an apology on behalf of the school and this will not always be accepted. I have had to explain to parents that the incident was not as first described by their child, and they have found this difficult to hear.
Regardless of which way it goes, try to strike a perfect balance – by acting as if you are the parent making a complaint, as well as the teacher being complained about.
Keziah Featherstone is co-founder and national leader for #WomenEd. She is a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable and an experienced school leader. She tweets at @keziah70