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Too cool for school

It's natural to want to be popular with students. But, as Meabh Ritchie reports, trying too hard to gain their admiration could land you in hot water

It's natural to want to be popular with students. But, as Meabh Ritchie reports, trying too hard to gain their admiration could land you in hot water

Mark Spendley seemed like that rare gem of a teacher - one whose genuine connection with his pupils helped to make him a good teacher. He played guitar in a rock band, kept a light sabre in his classroom and was clearly considered one of the coolest teachers at Hundred of Hoo School near Rochester, Kent. One pupil commented on the Ratemyteacher website: "Mr Spendley, you are the best!! Top teacher!! He made me love media studies and he is a good laugh too!! Great personality!" (sic)

But Mr Spendley's behaviour appears to have landed him in hot water. In March, two girls, now aged 17 and 19, claimed to have had affairs with the married man. One of them said she got to know Mr Spendley while helping out with Saturday classes. "Mr Spendley told me I was the Yoko Ono to his John Lennon," she was quoted as saying in a newspaper.

Mr Spendley was arrested on suspicion of abuse of his position by the police and has since been released on bail. Whether or not he overstepped the mark with his pupils remains to be decided in court, but wanting pupils to like you is something many teachers can empathise with, particularly at the start of their career. Schools can be notoriously unforgiving places, where popularity matters above all else. If you are "cool", you manage to get away with almost anything while everyone else has to work to get any recognition, only to be accused of trying too hard. And that is just the teachers.

All trainee teachers are told not to concern themselves with being liked by the kids - you are their teacher, not their friend, and you shouldn't smile until at least Christmas. But teachers are only human and, on some level, particularly on those difficult days, everyone wants to be liked, even by their pupils.

However, the consequence of being too friendly with pupils is that boundaries become blurred, even if the teacher has no intention of being inappropriate, says Jo Badman, a secondary English teacher in north London. "If a child contacts you on Facebook, for example, it becomes hard to step back," she says.

"Of course you can't add them as a friend, but the child might expect you to. Also, if you have to discipline someone with whom you have a jokey relationship, it becomes difficult."

These "cool" teachers aren't necessarily the young ones, says Ms Badman, 25, who considers herself decidedly "uncool". "On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the coolest, I'm probably a four," she laughs. "I might be closer in age, and be able to talk to them about iPhones, Facebook and BlackBerries, but I think they get the measure of your personality, rather than your age."

Far from causing any problems, it makes Ms Badman's job easier, in that the boundaries are clear to everyone. "Kids have said to me: `Miss, I really don't like your outfit', or they have told me that I have a spot on my face, which is always nice to hear," she says. "But you really have to not care what they think and you have to have a sense of humour about it."

Rebekah Wright's attempts to ingratiate herself with pupils landed her in front of a GTC panel. Although she successfully fulfilled her brief to improve the sixth form results, the GTC heard that "her approach was, at times, unconventional". This included joking about applying bandages to a student's pierced penis and discussing pupils' sex lives. She was sacked from her post at Hardley School in Hampshire, although the GTC later ruled that her behaviour, although unwise, did not amount to unacceptable professional conduct.

Not every school will have a teacher who oversteps the mark. But there is always that teacher at the top of the popularity pecking order, using their social status to their advantage.

Perhaps it is inevitable in a profession that is all about people, and where relationships are so crucial to teachers' and pupils' success. Websites such as and Facebook groups set up to appreciate or pour vitriol on a teacher or school mean that pupils have an easy outlet for their opinions.

A teacher's popularity and how they are viewed by the pupils can also work for, or against, their subject, says Stephen Calladine-Evans, assistant principal of St Richard's Catholic College in Bexhill, East Sussex. "When they choose their subjects at careers evenings, we would love to think that they are making a choice based on their needs and in consideration of the next 20 years of their life," he says. "But the fact of the matter is that they often choose subjects where they like the teacher. And the kids talk, of course."

But the whole culture of a school is affected by teachers who court popularity, as Hissyfit, a teacher on the TES web forum found out: "We have a fuckwit young teacher (well, not much younger than me actually) who wants to be cool and matey with the kids," she writes.

"You always hear `Mr Hughes* lets usdoes thatdoesn't mind', etc. This teacher also dishes out dinner passes so kids can get an early dinner - for no reason other than the kids ask for them. I've had kids ask me for them `because Mr Hughes gives them out'."

Not only do these teachers risk jeopardising their career if a casual relationship with a pupil gets out of hand, but they also damage the whole-school behaviour management policies that are the building blocks of most successful schools, says Anna Parker*, who is in her NQT year.

"Other teachers seem to want to be cool and don't give the consequences as stated in the school rules," she says. "Too many teachers want to be popular or just take the less confrontational approach of pretending not to see rule-breaking stuff."

Her school has a policy of dishing out after-school detentions for pupils who forget books, pens or anything they need for their lessons. But when pupils turn up without their stationary and she gives the prescribed punishment, "they rip into me with verbal abuse - `you are pathetic' and much worse," she says. "I am hated and `too strict' because I use the system as it is meant to be used."

Teachers wanting to seem cool is one of the reasons that behaviour consultant Nicola Morgan is called into schools to help. "I was at a school in Somerset last week where a kid was caught doing rude gestures on Skype," she says. "Rather than deal with it, the teacher just let the kid carry on using the equipment."

Although popularity contests and being cool might be considered more of a concern in secondary schools, much of Ms Morgan's work is in primary schools where this is still an issue. "There are teachers (in primaries) who don't stick to the rules in forming relationships with pupils. They try to dilute problems by not being strict, but it never works long term," she says.

Attitudes to mobile phones can be another problem. The phones, which need to be almost surgically removed from some children's hands, have caused some of the biggest issues for teachers in recent years. As a result, the Government wants to add mobile phones to the list of items staff can search for without consent. NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates even branded mobile phones as "offensive weapons" last year.

At Ms Parker's school, teachers are supposed to confiscate pupils' phones, "but I appear to be one of the few teachers who actually has the balls to do this," she says. "The number of teachers who seem happy to just walk past whole groups of KS4 kids on phones is beyond a joke. I have even seen staff walk up to kids and compliment them on their new phone, have a look at it and hand it back to them."

Ms Parker's views will strike a chord with many: few teachers would argue that teachers should not adhere to universal standards, believing it to be common sense. Even fewer would let their relationship with a pupil become inappropriate.

However, sometimes the popular teachers who make their colleagues' jobs a nightmare are not attempting to be cool or forge inappropriate relationships with pupils, but rather are just rebellious and reluctant to toe the line.

A music teacher may argue that it makes no difference if pupils express their creativity through hair-dye and piercings. It might mean that the French teacher seems uptight for cracking down on it, but one person's insubordination is another's individuality.

The standardisation of teaching and behaviour policies means teaching is arguably more professionalised than ever, but it also puts a shackle on personality in the classroom, says Conrad Watts, a modestly self-confessed cool teacher at a Surrey secondary school. He always has a good relationship with pupils and, although they denigrate his choice of ties and guitar playing, he says they appreciate the laid-back attitude.

Unsurprisingly, the same cannot be said of his colleagues. "Everybody toes the same line and teachers bitch like crazy if anyone steps outside that," says Mr Watts. "But trying to homogenise so many different people with different personalities, lifestyles and ways of doing things will lead to failure. As much as I can, I do things my own way and kids respect that."

Wanting to get on well with pupils is no bad thing in principle. For many of the teachers perceived to be cool, this is what drives their tactics, but the lure of popularity compromises good teaching.

"If you are faced with challenging behaviour in the classroom and you have got a few characters, then these teachers are more likely to try a befriending technique," says Ms Morgan.

But being firm and consistent comes first: "Unless you can handle behaviour management, you can't go on to the fun side of teaching and education," she says.

Teachers want to be loved as much as anybody else, and if you are working in a school the temptation to narrow the gap with your pupils can be overwhelming. But while laying down boundaries may make you unpopular in the short-term, it could prove the safer long-term option.

*Names have been changed



"I did a little survey among the kids, asking them to say who their `best' teacher was and why. Imagine my chagrin to find that the `best' teacher in the school was the PE teacher. And why? The boys because, duh, they liked PE and the girls because `she wears lovely clothes'."


"This teacher actually said to me, `I'm not going to stand there like a fascist telling children how to dress when they've given up their time to come to the concert."


"On the student survey, some particularly enlightened individuals wrote that I was childish, treated them like children, couldn't teach and that I should be sacked! My crime? Planning and delivering lessons in which they didn't just sit back, fall asleep and listen to me reading PowerPoints!"


"It's teachers who try to be cool by being friends to the pupils who let the rest of us down - there are no boundaries set. I was over-the-top strict at the start of the year, like every teacher at our school, and the kids love us by the end of the year."


"I believe that many teachers don't challenge because they think (erroneously) that this will make their lives easier. In fact, it is the other way round. Their lives become more difficult as time goes on."


"Some teachers are too weak and just want to be liked. Unfortunately, they aren't respected, and often aren't liked either."

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