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Why teachers should never use 'banter'

Being playful in the classroom is one thing, but children should never be the butt of the joke, says Keziah Featherstone

playful banter bullying

I’m an advocate for establishing strong and positive relationships with pupils. It’s important to let the children we work with know that we like them (even though we may not like the things they say or do sometimes).

We know that children respond better to adults who they like, and there is certainly nothing wrong with being likeable (within the parameters of professionalism). In fact, I’ve never found it effective to simply rely on one’s authority when it comes to behaviour.  

But doing everything that you can to be liked, rather than respected, rarely pans out well. Whether it’s bribing kids with low expectations, letting them get away with murder or trying to be their friend, it won’t work as a parent and it won’t work in the classroom.

This is why I really don’t like "banter".


Quick read: 'We must stop excusing bullying as banter'

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By banter, I do not mean the friendly, well-intentioned and non-school related playful conversations we can sometimes have with pupils. 

For example, I recently witnessed one of my heads of year talking to a child at the school gate. That child has been having a tough time at home, his GCSEs are looming and he is struggling.

Their conversation, though, was about the football this weekend. The teacher was teasing him, saying that his team had no chance of winning and would probably be relegated. Her tone was warm, she was smiling, and he was clearly delighted that she had taken the time to engage him in a friendly chat.

'Exploiting' a position of authority

This is very different from the "banter" that can sometimes happen in classrooms, where, actually, it is just a teacher exploiting their position of authority over children and saying mean things to them.

playful banter bullying

You may think it is just a "bit of banter" to call a child stupid, or to refer to them as an "idiot", and that everyone was "in on the joke". But this is never the case: such banter only builds anger and resentment, whatever the intention.

I’ve dealt with deeply upset parents, who were not placated by the teacher’s apology for calling their child “specky four-eyes".

A headteacher colleague I know was placed in an extremely difficult position when a Year 10 boy punched his maths teacher, who had "joked" that the child’s mother would have been ashamed of his behaviour, not knowing his mother had killed herself a month earlier.

Bullying, not banter

We trap children in these situations: they often have no recourse except for anger, defiance or sadness. They know that it is unfair and they learn that justice can be lopsided.

Being the butt of the joke in front of an entire class, under the direction of a teacher, is never going to establish trust. Nor is being called names, or being goaded. And, often, that is exactly what banter amounts to. 

We need to understand the context, too: by using banter, we are adopting a technique so often used to "hide" bullying between pupils. As the adult, your job is to challenge unkind or upsetting behaviour, not to join in with it. You need to model what you expect from the children.

When it comes to your students, you don’t have to be their friend, but you shouldn’t behave in a way that makes you the enemy.

Keziah Featherstone is head of school at Q3 Academy Tipton. She is a co-founder and national leader of #WomenEd, and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable. She has also co-edited the new #WomenEd book, 10% Braver, due out soon

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